The Molasses Massacre in Boston, Mass.

The kids are I have been studying ancient history together and read the account in history where Titus and his Roman minions attacked the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Some legends and historians say that the siege and slaughter were so severe that streets flowed with blood. Ick.

It may be hard to believe such a fantastic account as streets filling with blood. Yet, I told the kids of another fantastic story of streets being filled in a modern-day catastrophe: the Great Boston Molasses Massacre of 1919. On the Internet, it is regaled with “urban legend” status, but it did indeed happen. The New York Times has an old archived story of the event. The story is almost impossible to believe. (I am also thinking of the event because I am making my own brown sugar with molasses today– more on that later).

Almost exactly 89 years ago, on January 15, 1919, a torrid wave of molasses swept a portion of Boston, Massachusetts. The story actually begins in 1915, with the hasty construction of a tank 58 feet high and 90 feet in diameter by United States Industrial Alcohol Company. The tank was used as a holding tank for 2.5 million gallons of molasses. Molasses was used to make rum, and also used to make industrial alcohol for ammunition. Demand was high, and there’s money to be made.

We all know what’s going to happen.

There’s an archived duplicate of the story from Yankee magazine, which tells of the tragedy in a pre-National Enquirer/ambulance-chaser style.

There were accounts of leaks showing up around the tank. Of course these early warnings were disregarded. Actually, not only were they disregarded, they were hidden. As soon as the company caught wind of complaints of leaks, they painted the tank brown to hide the leaks.

No one really knows what exactly caused the tank to burst that warm January day. Some say the sudden and severe temperature change from below zero the day before to near 40 degrees on January 15 made the molasses batch unstable. Others say the new shipment addition of a cool batch of molasses to the warm molasses already in the tank caused a fermentation process and the explosion.

The ground started to quake, and the tank’s bolts popped out. Suddenly the tank ruptured. Huge sheets of metal flew down the street into buildings. A fountain of gooey molasses spurt up 30 feet high, rolled down the streets in waves, and buried everything and everyone in its path. Imagine a wave of molasses blurping its way through houses’ windows. Ever see “The Blob”?

More than 20 people died and 150 were injured in a suffocating tragedy similar to that of Vesuvius. Hours after the explosion, the company’s lawyers were on the scene, preparing their defense by falsely accusing negligent workers. Creeps.

Firefighters (those who survived) tried to blast the molasses away with cold salt water. The molasses just frothed and foamed in angry waves. Cleanup took over a year. For decades, some said that on hot summers the pungent odor of molasses seeped up from the streets.

A massive court case ensued. The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was found guilty and paid almost a million dollars to settle the claims. The city of Boston tightened their standards to require certified inspections and approvals.

Image of the aftermath is at Wikipedia. It’s truly one of those “believe it or not” stories. But it did actually happen– death by molasses. Yuk.

About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (3)

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  1. Suz says:

    Wow. Really? I mean… REALLY?
    Imagine what people doing their genology must think when they read those death records “Killed by molasses”.
    What an awesome piece of history – this is absolutely the reason to study this stuff. Thanks for sharing- and your description and references were so vivid!

  2. Daisy says:

    Wow, what an incredible story! I never heard of that before. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Isn’t it the weirdest thing? When I first heard of it, I thought it was just a story. Ick. Very sad.