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Remembering the Great Molasses Flood

The tale of the Great Boston Molasses Flood sounds like an urban legend. In 1919, a squat steel tank of molasses sitting low on the Boston Harbor waterfront exploded. Filled with more than 2.3 million gallons of the sticky substance, the seaside container burst, unleashing a 15-foot-high tidal wave of gooey destruction, killing 21 people, and devastating substantial parts of the North End. Ever since, the catastrophe has been a mere comical footnote to local history, quirky fodder for trivia quizzes and 10-year retrospectives. But now author and historian Stephen Puleo has written Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (Beacon Press), a meticulously researched record of the glutinous deluge and the lives it indelibly affected. Remembering the 85th anniversary of the Great Boston Molasses Flood, Puleo — who is admittedly "a bit of a molasses geek" — will be speaking at the Old South Meeting House tonight. The Phoenix spoke with the former newspaper reporter over the phone from his South Weymouth home.

Q: What led you to write Dark Tide?

A: My master’s thesis was on Italian immigration in the North End. I came across the flood during that research and I filed it away. I’d heard stories about the flood’s folklore, but I realized there was no book on the subject. There were a couple of children’s books, a couple of fictional accounts of the flood, but they pretty much handled it in a whimsical way. So I said, "Let me see what’s out there in the way of sources." There were a few newspaper accounts, a few retrospectives, a few magazine articles, but really nothing in the way of primary-source material.

Q: You mentioned the folklore of the flood. What specifically had you heard?

A: The classic [myth] is that you can still smell molasses down [on the waterfront] on a hot day. Anyone you talk to about the flood mentions this.

Q: Is there truth to that?

A: I don’t think so. But I’ll tell you this: the cellars on Commercial Street were filled all the way to the first-floor level with molasses. I bet if you went down there years afterward, you could smell molasses. As far as the smell along the waterfront? There’s no evidence of that.

Q: What exactly attracted you to the story? Was it the story’s absurdity?

A: Well, the book works on two levels. One is the saga of the flood story, a 10-year story from when the tank is constructed to when the lawsuits are settled after the case. But what really gives the book its the depth is that the major events that America faced in the early part of the 20th century — WWI, munitions production, anarchist activity, the relationship of big business to society — all of those really touched the flood in some way.

Q: Would you have written the book if it wasn’t molasses? What if it was an oil spill?

A: Oh yeah, I think so. I think the story would’ve been told sooner [if it wasn’t molasses]. It would’ve been an important piece of Boston’s history: 21 people died. But I think the fact that it was molasses is one reason the story hasn’t been told. Because it wasn’t really taken seriously ... the absurdity of it does produce kind of a giggle.

Q: What were the causes of death for the 21 casualties?

A: Half of them died that first day, either from asphyxiation, smothering in the molasses, or being crushed. And the others died from infections or injuries. Most of them over the next several days, a few people over the next months in the nearby hospital.

Q: What were the nastiest details of their deaths? There were animals caught in the flood too, right?

A: About 20 horses were killed in the flood, several of them shot by Boston police because they were enmeshed in the molasses and couldn’t get out. There’s the firefighter, George Leahy, who was trapped underneath the firehouse and kept his head above molasses for three or four hours and then finally succumbed. There’s John Barry, who was a stonecutter for the city, who’s also trapped under that same firehouse and unable to move. But a couple of rescue workers were able to get to him, crawl to him though this little gully; three times they injected his spine with morphine for the pain. And when he got taken to the [hospital], his daughters visited him the next afternoon. He was unrecognizable because his hair had turned from brown to a snowy white because of his ordeal under the firehouse. Is that nasty enough for you?

Stephen Puleo reads from Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 on Thursday, January 15, at 6:30 pm, at the Old South Meeting House, 310 Washington Street, Boston. Admission is free. Call (617) 482-6439.

Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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