Death by Molasses

Ninety-seven years ago today, 21 people were killed by molasses. Even having lived in Boston, I had never heard of the Boston Molasses Disaster. Credit for my awareness has to go to my wife, who read me the story from the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. I had no idea that molasses had been weaponized. The sweet sap, apart from making cookies, can be fermented into ethanol, used for munitions manufacture. In the North End of Boston a hastily constructed tank holding about 2 million gallons of molasses burst on this date in 1919, creating a sticky, 25-foot-high wall that raced through the North End at 35 m.p.h., killing those unfortunate enough to have been in the way. According to the Companion, 150 others were injured.


We’ve all heard about the slowness of sap in January. Apparently the temperature had risen to above freezing this particular day, after several days of seasonal chill. The tank containing the heavy fluid burst under the strain. I have to admit that visions of walls of water have always frightened me. The images of the Boxing Day Tsunami back in 2004 were horrifying. I’d read of pilgrims to Petra (if you’re not familiar with Jordan, think of the crevasse through which Indiana Jones and company ride at the end of Last Crusade—that’s Petra) being drowned by sudden meltwater from distant mountains suddenly filling the canyon without warning, and shuttered. Having walked Hezekiah’s Tunnel without a flashlight, such images can be all too real at times. Would the offending wall made of molasses have made it any better or worse?

The tragedy is that the event is so little remembered today. I’m sure long-time residents of Boston still tell the tale of death by confection, but why don’t we hear of such things in the natural course of things? I suppose there are too many disasters to follow them all. Millions had just died in the nightmare of the First World War. The strange fate of those individuals killed by molasses might easily be overlooked, despite the fact that the goo had more victims than the Boston Massacre and the Boston Strangler combined. Maybe it’s just that things seem to move a little more slowly in January, but I feel as though I’d missed a part of history about which I might have been informed if I had more of a sweet-tooth.