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Published May 8, 2020

Some things sound too strange to be true; but strange things do happen. All too often, they are remembered purely for their strangeness, reduced to a paragraph or two in a list-style article that proclaims, “You won’t believe number four!” However, when those strange things are deadly, this does a disservice to everyone involved.

The North End of Boston had once been an area of some regard. Pre-Revolutionary governor Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion was there, as was the home of midnight rider Paul Revere. It was the oldest residential neighbourhood in the city.

However, by the middle of the 19th century it had changed considerably. Commercial development and an influx of immigrants, both driven by the proximity of the docks, meant it became a crowded and noisy neighbourhood. For a business shipping goods into Boston, that meant that it was still highly desirable – and that’s why Arthur P. Jell, treasurer of the Purity Distilling Company, spent most of 1915 negotiating for use of a piece of land between Commercial Street and the docks.

When negotiations were finally complete, Jell was able to bring in his contractors – first the Hugh Nawn Construction Company, who built a three-foot thick concrete foundation, and then Hammond Iron Works, who erected a huge storage tank on top of the foundation. The tank was fifty feet tall, ninety feet in diameter, and 240 feet in circumference, with a capacity of 2.3 million gallons.

To put that in perspective, an Olympic sized swimming pool would hold about 660,000 gallons, so you’d need three and a half to fill that tank.

Just two days after construction was complete, a ship pulled into the docks and the first consignment of molasses was pumped into the tank, filling it to a depth of thirteen feet. 

north_end_molasses_tank-7786622 The Purity Distilling Company’s tank, with the elevated railroad on the left. Date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Molasses, or black treacle as it’s known in Britain, is a sticky, viscous by-product of refined sugar. It can be used in baking and was once a common sweetener. It can also be fermented to produce ethanol – in other words, alcohol.

This was what the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, was importing it for. It would be shipped in from places like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the West Indies, stored in the tank, and delivered as needed to the company’s manufacturing plant in East Cambridge. Having their own local storage would save them a small fortune compared to buying the molasses from a third party. Just as importantly, it would also allow them to meet a high demand that was on the horizon; the First World War had begun, and although America was still neutral, they could expect a roaring trade in munitions – and industrial alcohol was a key component in those munitions.

A little over three years later, in January 1919, the molasses tank had become a familiar part of the North End landscape. The war had ended, the Red Sox held the World Series championship, and the terrible Spanish Flu pandemic seemed to be over.

But all was not well.

On Sunday, January the 12th, the steam ship Miliero drew up to the North End docks, connected their discharge hose to the dockside pumps and transferred 600,000 gallons of molasses into the Purity Distilling Company’s tank. It wasn’t a quick process – they started at 11:20 on the Sunday, pumped through the day and night, and finally finished at 10:40 on the Monday morning. But then, molasses was not known for moving quickly, so nobody expected it to be quick. The delivery brought the contents of the tank to about two million gallons – close to its maximum capacity.

The following Wednesday, the 15th of January, looked like it would be a great day. The Massachusetts winter had given way to a sudden warm spell, with temperatures rising to above 40°Fahrenheit (4° Celsius). Around the North End, people were making the most of it; housewives turned to chores they could do outside, and workers took their breaks in the sunshine.

The neighbourhood around the molasses tank would have been ringing with life. There was a stable owned by the city, housing some twenty horses, and a blacksmith whose hammer was kept busy keeping those horses shod; in the paving yard, stonecutters split rock for the city’s construction projects, while teamsters, stevedores and labourers went to and fro handling cargo and deliveries for the ships at the docks. Right above Commercial Street itself, the Boston Elevated Railroad carried passengers past in rattling trains, while other locomotives took the spur track to the wharf to collect or deliver cargo. 

alex-blajan-c37kbfyraqw-unsplash-1024x683-6873791 Source: Unsplash

As the lunch hour rolled around, there were people everywhere. 

In the firehouse, behind the molasses tank, firefighters Bill Connor, Fred McDermott, Nat Bowering and Paddy Driscoll were playing cards, watched by their colleague George Layhe and a stonecutter named John Barry, who often joined them at lunchtime.

Local children Antonio and Maria DiStasio, and their friend Pasquale Iantosca, were going home from school for their lunch, collecting firewood along the way. They weren’t supposed to play around the molasses tank, and workers would chase them off if they were spotted, but it was a good place to find wood. It was also a good place to get a free treat – they could use a stick to scoop up some of the molasses leaking out of the tank, and create a makeshift lollipop.

William White, the superintendent for the Purity Distilling Company, decided to leave the office and meet his wife for some lunchtime shopping. The tank would be unsupervised in his absence, but he didn’t think that would be an issue.

Frank McManus, a patrolman for the Boston Police, was making his rounds, and stopped at a callbox on Commercial Street to make a routine report back to headquarters. Suddenly he felt something; “a wet, sticky substance” hit him on the back and shoulders.

“I was at a loss to know what it was at first, thinking it might be mud, but when I turned my head I saw the molasses tank plunge out in the direction of the elevated structure, which buckled over. The next second, a wave of molasses swept up the street in my direction, but I beat it out in the race, for I rushed up a side street and escaped except for my uniform, hat and shoes being literally covered with the sticky substance.”

The tank had collapsed, spilling its entire contents across the neighbourhood, and despite its reputation for slow movement the molasses spread out in all directions at a speed estimated to be up to 35 miles per hour, or 56 km per hour. The black wave was huge, at its peak some 25 feet or 8m high, and with so much weight behind it, many of the buildings in its path stood little chance.

Martin Clougherty, a local club owner, was asleep in bed, across the road from the molasses tank. His mother, sister and brother were also at home. He later told the Boston Globe:

“I was in bed on the third floor of my house when I heard a deep rumble. I was asleep and the rumble did not wake me thoroughly. The first impression I had that something unusual had happened was when I awoke in several feet of molasses. It didn’t dawn on me that it was molasses I was in. I thought I was overboard. A pile of wreckage was holding me down, and a little way from me I saw my sister; I struggled out from under the wreckage and pulled my sister toward me and helped her onto a “raft”. I then began to look for my mother. It seemed as if the house had split in two when it hit the Elevated structure and I was in one side and my people in the other. I couldn’t find my mother. I shouted for her and yelled for those who had come along the street to find her. But I couldn’t locate her. It seemed an hour while I was trying to find her. But soon someone told me that she had been found and that she was dead. Joe Walsh, who lives nearby, came through the sea of molasses toward us and he helped me and my sister to Robert Burnett’s house…

I saw some sparks and smoke as I lay in the wreckage, but whether this came from the contact of the house with the third rail on the Elevated structure or from the explosion I could not tell. All I remember was a smothering sensation, probably as I was flying through the air, then I thought I was overboard. What had really happened didn’t occur to me at all for a long time.”

Although his brother Stephen survived, he died later in an asylum; his family said that he had never recovered from the trauma of the molasses flood.

Another report gave more detail of what happened to his mother. 

“Mrs Bridget Clougherty… was standing in the door of her old homestead at 6 Copps Hill terrace when the first shock came. Her house was a wooden structure which extended along Commercial st, but fronted on the terrace. It was diagonally across Commercial st and many feet away from the giant tank. The tremendous rush of air created when the great sides of the giant molasses tank opened out created a vacuum of such force that it pulled the house into Commercial st and it fell a heap of ruins beneath the Elevated structure, where the uprights were broken. Mrs Clougherty was picked up and carried across Commercial st and dropped, where the roof of her home fell upon her, crushing out her life. She died before aid could reach her.”

bostonmolassesdisaster-1024x815-7630284 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Royal Albert Leeman was a brakeman on the Elevated Railroad; as the tank collapsed he was working a train from South Station through the North End. He saw the wave coming toward him, and felt the train tip as the trestle carrying it buckled. Through sheer luck, the train managed to pass over the damaged section, and once Leeman pulled the emergency cord it came to a stop just a few car-lengths clear. 

It was a busy length of track; there would be a train coming from North station, and another train from the South just a few minutes behind his. He ran first to a nearby guard shack, where he told the railroad worker on duty to stop the train coming from the north, then scrambled across the broken trestle and raced along the track to wave down the next northbound train. According to Stephen Puleo, in his book “Dark Tide”:

“Leeman stood in the center of the track, waving his arms frantically, screaming, “Stop – the track is down! The track is down!” Through the vestibule glass, he saw the look of disbelief on the engineer’s face, knew the engineer couldn’t hear him, but Leeman held his ground, standing on the track high above Commercial Street, the shredded track and snapped trestle behind him, a three-car train bearing down on him. Finally, Leeman heard the shriek of steel wheels on rail, saw the train slowing down to stop. The engineer opened the vestibule door and stepped out. Leeman turned and pointed northward, behind him, and shouted again: “The track is down – almost to the street. You can’t go any further. The goddamn molasses tank burst!””

Almost as soon as the wave had come to a stop, rescuers were on the scene. Patrolman McManus had been able to report the collapse at the moment it happened, so the police were on their way immediately. However, the very nature of the disaster made rescue difficult.

The Boston Globe reported:

“There was difficulty in getting near the scene of the fearful accident, because the more than 1,000,000 gallons of molasses found its way through the streets and piled up so quickly that it was higher than the curbing in every place within two blocks of the scene. The police, firemen and civilians who were near plunged through the great streams of heavy liquid, eager to give aid as best they could.The shock of the explosion has resulted in dismantling the buildings of the distilling plant, the buildings of the Public Works department close by, and a large section of the “L” structure along Commercial Street came tumbling into the street to add to the confusion.

In fact, for a radius of some 200 to 250 feet there was a scene of great wreckage, while the shouts and screams of the dying and injured rent the air. For the first quarter of an hour pandemonium reigned.”

boston_1919_molasses_disaster_-_el_train_structure-1024x767-6119131 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those who had been engulfed faced a horrific struggle; the thick, sticky molasses not only made it difficult to move, it choked, drowned and crushed them where they lay. The reports continued:

“One of the structures where considerable death and injury was inflicted was in the building located in the yard of the Paving Department. Here a large number of city employees were eating their lunches, and all of these were caught in the building when it collapsed. Practically every man in the structure was either killed or hurt.”

“Many horses had been killed outright in the streets by the huge chunks of debris that came tumbling down, and in addition to these many more horses were so frightfully injured that the police had had to end their sufferings by shooting them. In the plant of the Public Works department several horses were killed outright and more had to be shot.”

The firehouse, one of the nearest buildings to the molasses tank, had collapsed; it had been lifted off its foundations and moved about ten feet towards the water.

Lieutenant John Williams, who was in charge of the fire company, had just left the station for his lunch; when he heard the roar of the tank collapsing, he ran back to help. Unable to get to the entrance because of the molasses, he took a launch around to the fireboat, moored at the pier. There, he met hosemen Gillispie and Gregorie, who had escaped by jumping through windows as the building fell – but their colleagues were still inside.

According to the Boston Globe:

“When he left the station for dinner, the men on duty were Engineers Layhe, Browning and Connors, and hosemen Driscoll, McDermott, Gillispie and Gregorie.

When the additional rescuers arrived in answer to the alarm, Browning and Connors were quickly pulled out and with Driscoll and McDermott sent to the hospital. Layhe could not be located, but groans from under the rear of the building led the rescuers to believe that he was there.”

Unfortunately, a large section of steel from the tank was blocking their rescue attempts; two men from Rescue Company 1 had to bring out a metal-cutting torch and cut a hole through before they could continue. Climbing through, they extricated the man they found trapped there – and realised that it was not Layhe, but the stonecutter John Barry.

While he was rushed to the hospital, another problem arose; a heater in the building had tipped over and started a fire. Rescue efforts, for a time, had to be split between fighting the fire and searching for Layhe.

“…after hours of work, every bit of which was done in the most careful manner, Layhe’s body was found at the foot of the sliding pole pinned down by a big timber, with the piano and pool table across the timber. When it was learned that the body was still warm, a call was sent for a doctor and one of the Army surgeons responded, plowing through the mud and molasses, but he said that no signs of life remained.”

A relief station was set up at Haymarket Square to receive the injured; 

“…where for more than an hour the ambulances brought in groaning, struggling men, covered from head to foot, eyes and ears and mouth, in some cases, with black molasses, many of them also suffering from injuries.

The organization of the relief station was strained to its utmost, but deserves great credit for the expedition and efficiency with which it took care of the men. Every room on the two floors of the building was filled with the injured, and nurses and orderlies, their clothes covered with molasses streaks, hurried about, pushing equally sticky stretchers, while in the rooms they cut off the clothes which were too saturated with the heavy liquid to be removed, clinging about the bodies of the victims.”

They received so many in a short time that they weren’t able to keep records; some who had minor injuries left without leaving their names. 26 remained at the end of the day; six more had been sent to the City Hospital. Three men had been declared dead on arrival, and one more had died while being treated.

It was thought for a while that five-year-old Albert Gianci was the flood’s youngest victim; he had been swept off his feet and was thought to be seriously injured. However, in what must have been a welcome relief for the medical staff and the Gianci family, when the molasses was cleaned off he was found to be completely uninjured, and went home after having some supper.

Other families were not so fortunate. On the front page of the Globe on the 16th, a list of the dead included:

“Unidentified girl, about 12 years old, wearing gray jacket over middy blouse and having small handbag in which were tags of Revere Rubber Company.”

It was ten-year-old Maria Di Stasio, who had been looking for firewood around the tank. One of her playmates, Pasquale Iantosca, the same age as Maria, was also among the dead. 

A more heartwarming side bar from the Globe’s coverage announced that work with large cranes to clear the wreckage of the Clougherty house had been suspended when one of the workers heard a kitten meowing from the wreckage. Workers rushed in to effect a feline rescue, and the kitten was found to be “little the worse for her imprisonment of several hours.”

manki-kim-2nca6aum17o-unsplash-1024x683-9225768 Source: Unsplash

Recovery would not be quick; once the momentum of the collapse had dissipated, the molasses started to cool and thicken, making movement through the area increasingly difficult. In order to wash it away, they pumped saltwater from the harbour – it was found to break it up more easily than plain water. The cleanup would take weeks, and in the meantime the sticky goo spread around the city, tracked by the shoes and clothes of anyone passing through the North End. It was said that, for a while, everything a Bostonian touched was sticky.

Some of the dead were not recovered until three to four months after the disaster, because their bodies had been washed out into the harbour. Including Stephen Clougherty, there were 21 dead in total, and around 150 injured.

Now, of course, everyone wanted to know why and how the tank had collapsed.

Because of the political climate of the day, fingers were quickly pointed – largely by the tank’s owners and their associates – at anarchists. There had previously been an anarchist bombing at a police station in Boston, not far from the North End tank, and there were a series of bombings in the United States by anarchists in 1919, with more than thirty booby-trapped packages posted to prominent figures in April. In 1920 the Wall Street bombing, officially unsolved but believed to be committed by anarchists, would kill 38 people. The molasses tank would not be such an unlikely target as you might think; it was, after all, an important cog in the war machine as part of the munitions trade.

“Harry F. R. Dolan, attorney for the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, said… that the company holds the theory that the explosion was caused by some outside force and not from within the tank. He said further that molasses does not ferment in Winter weather and that the tank was bigger and stronger than required by law. The company has no enemies, as far as he knows.”

This was the line that the company maintained when the case was brought to civil court. 

119 separate claims against USIA were combined into one, with Damon Everett Hall leading the attorneys for the plaintiffs, and Charles Francis Choate leading the defense. Hugh W. Ogden was asked to preside over the case as auditor, an impartial party who would hear evidence and issue a report, based on which it might go on to a full civil case.

Consolidating the claims made practical sense – the courtroom didn’t even have enough room for all the lawyers, let alone the witnesses, courtroom staff, press and public – but it could provide an advantage for the defense; discrediting one witness could undermine all 119 claims.

Choate summarised the case for the defense in his opening argument.

“What was there to have caused a tank containing a perfectly harmless substance, in common commercial use, to go down with every indication that its breaking was caused by some tremendous explosive force?”

The tank, he stated, was built, “by reputable people, who were skilful in this kind of work… it was carefully painted and kept up in perfect condition… there is no suggestion of a defect or deterioration in the tank which could account for the fracture in any way.”

And, with that in mind, he said, “your mind is drawn irresistibly to the conclusion that the tank could not have collapsed without the operation of some agency which, in an instant of time, multiplied the pressure on that outside shell hundreds or thousands of times.”

“At the time of the accident no one connected with the defendant was on the premises. There was a flight of steps that led to the top of the tank which was necessary to permit the gaugers of U.S. Customs to make their measurements and keep their records… it was an easy thing for a person to go up those stairs, get onto the top of the tank, and drop down an explosive device through one of the four manholes.”

USIA had employed expert witnesses; metallurgists who conducted experiments with replica tanks and who reported that dynamite would produce the same sort of twisting in the metal plates as had been found.

Choate attributed much of the damage not to the molasses itself, but to the force of the explosive blast. “It was sufficient to break glass at a considerable distance, to throw and shatter all kinds of wooden and metal objects, to rend and shatter them into kindling wood, to spatter – and I used that word with a purpose – to spatter molasses to the places where the wave of molasses never reached at all… the appearance of things about the tank point to the action of an explosive, and could only attend the action of an explosive.”

The expert witnesses called to the stand included engineering professors George E. Russell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George F. Swain of Harvard, and Lewis E. Moore, engineer of the Massachusetts Public Utility Commission. They testified that the tank was structurally sound, although they admitted that the factor of safety was less than it ought to have been. Nationally renowned metallurgist Albert Colby spent three weeks testifying on the tensile strength and behaviour of steel.

diagram-4748009 A contemporary diagram of the area

Choate also called state police chemist Walter Wedger to the stand; he had more than forty years experience and was the state’s primary investigator of explosions and suspicious fires. He stated that, in his opinion, the tank’s collapse was caused by an explosion, and that it could have been “most any kind of high explosive – dynamite or nitroglycerine”. A suitable amount could have been contained in “a pipe three inches in diameter, about two-and-a-half feet long.”

It seemed to be convincing testimony, however when Hall cross-examined Wedger, he quickly made the expert’s testimony fall apart. After having Wedger describe a common explosion scene and mention that broken glass was “one of the almost inseparable evidences” of a dynamite or nitroglycerine explosion, he turned to what Wedger had seen at the scene of the molasses disaster, just one hour after it happened.

Hall: So, given that, did you find any of the common evidences of a dynamite explosion?

Wedger: I did not.

Hall: Nowhere on that day were you able to find that cardinal evidence of a dynamite or high explosive explosion, were you?

Wedger: I did not find it.

Hall: Did you see any effect that day, such as you would expect to find where a high explosive has been used?

Wedger: No, sir.

Hall: Did you see any evidence in any of the parts that were collected… from which you could make up your mind that dynamite or any other high explosives had caused the failure?

Wedger: Did not, no sir.”

Hall also quoted evidence that Wedger had given at the 1919 inquest, when he had stated that he had taken samples of the molasses to test in the state laboratory; within one hour he saw evidence of fermentation, and over twenty four hours a quart of molasses had generated pressure of half a pound.

He had also testified at the time that the upper layers of molasses would have had a leathery texture, which would act as a tamping agent and prevent, at least in part, the gas from the fermentation process from escaping upwards, thus increasing the pressure on the sides of the tank.

Choate relied mainly on his experts’ testimony, calling only one eye witness to the tragedy – a widow named Winnifred McNamara, who lived on Commercial Street. However, her behaviour in court did not exactly lend her authority. When under cross examination, she threw her hands into the air, left the witness chair and said she would do “some damage” if made to testify further.

The main point of calling McNamara was her testimony that she had seen smoke rising from the vicinity of the tank just before it collapsed.

“I saw smoke rising, and then the whole top slid off… just as a dish on a table would slide off, and then the molasses walked up, just walked up, and you know the froth and the smoke, like, walked up to the top, but I didn’t see the sides going out… I heard a sound like this: r-r-r-r-r-, a kind of heavy sound. In a few minutes I was lifted from the corner over to that corner, and I was hit on the side, and I pitched back on the broad of my back, and after that I couldn’t tell no more.”

Hall pointed out to the court later that, in this busy neighbourhood with factories, ships and tugboats all around, it was hardly likely that you wouldn’t see smoke or steam coming from somewhere, so how would that prove there was a bomb?

His own witnesses were more varied. He called a clerk named Josephat C. Blain, who gave testimony about the plans for the tank’s foundation. Because the tank itself was classed as a “receptacle” and not a building, it didn’t require a separate permit. However, the plans had detailed some of the tank’s specifications, including the specific thickness of steel that each part of the tank should be made from. He then showed that the Hammond Iron Works had provided, in every case, thinner steel than those plans specified. Choate countered that there was a “recognised custom of tolerance”.

Hall then called a number of witnesses who testified as to the actual state of the tank in the days, months and years up to the disaster.

Frances Brown worked as a clerk for the Bay State Railway, and her office window was right across from the tank. She said that she had seen;

“several times, that molasses flowed down the sides of the tank… at the time when the molasses boat would come in, around that time, before or after, I would notice it oozing out. I would notice it and call it to the attention of the girls; in fact, we all noticed it. Several times, I saw it on the ground.”

William Foster, a marine engineer of fireboat 31 said:

“The tank always leaked after it was put up. I noticed some of the vertical seams; the bottom ones leaked pretty badly. From the top, you could also see the molasses dripping out and running down the sides of the tank. The tank kept leaking right up to the time of the collapse, but you could not notice it so much at the last, because they repainted the tank… it was kind of a dark reddish brown and you couldn’t see the molasses as clearly.”

Phillip Lydon, a stevedore who had worked at the North End Paving Yard from 1916 to 1918, said that he had often leaned against the tank during lunch breaks.

“We could feel it, the vibration, bulging in and out. There was always a big leak, too, near the junction of the second and third plates… molasses ran down the side of the tank, enough for the children in the neighbourhood to be there every day to get a dose of it. They would be there from early morning till late at night.”

Likewise, paving yard night watchman Henry Minard said,

“I noticed that all summer before the accident, it leaked. I noticed that boys used to come down there with small cans and hold them under the seams… more on a hot day than on a cool day.”

Other witnesses included two caulkers, Patrick Kenneally and John Urquhart, who had been brought in to caulk or re-seal the tank on two separate occasions, and had to keep wiping away the leaking molasses in order to do so. Urquhart’s work had been done only a month prior to the disaster, on the 20th of December 1918. 

Isaac Gonzales, who had worked for the Purity Distilling Company prior to his service in the war, testified that he had expressed concerns about the state of the tank for a long time before the accident. Flakes of steel had fallen on him while he was inside the tank; he had tried to tell his boss, Jell, of his concerns but had been ignored. The only action taken, as mentioned by William Foster, had been to repaint the tank so that the leaks couldn’t be seen so easily.

“It leaked enough to make a pool, about a pail of molasses in twenty four hours. The leaks were principally in the horizontal seams but also in the vertical ones, too. I would spread enough sand to keep the molasses from flowing onto the railcar tracks. There was no place that I could say it was not leaking.”

Powerful testimony also came from five sailors who had been stationed on ships in the harbour when the tank collapsed. They were all extremely familiar with explosives, having served as ordnance machinists and detonation workers during the war. Each said that they had heard the noise of the tank collapsing – and that it was nothing like the sound produced by high explosives.

Perhaps the most important witness Hall called was Jell himself, the Purity Distilling Company’s treasurer. Choate tried to prevent Jell from taking the stand, but only succeeded in having him give evidence from a New York hotel, in front of the two attorneys and a stenographer, rather than  bringing him to the Boston courtroom.

Hall quickly got Jell to admit that the factor of safety that he had requested from Hammond Iron Works was not based on any advice or recommendations from “technically trained engineers, builders, or architects”; he said rather vaguely that he “had been told in the past by tank manufacturers that they built tanks with a factor of safety of 2. So I figured 3 would be sufficient.” He did not, however, know who told him that or what size tanks they were talking about.

And there was more. He admitted that, when the steel for the tank was delivered, he didn’t have it inspected by anyone; no engineer, builder, metallurgist, no “person outside of the employees of Hammond Iron Works” was asked to advise on the “quality and fitness of the steel which was delivered, or the method of construction”. No tests had been made on the steel. 

He testified that they had been frustrated by delays in acquiring the land on which the tank was to be constructed, and that the construction work had carried on right up until the day the first delivery of molasses arrived. Again, after the tank was built, it wasn’t inspected by “any architect, engineer or man who was familiar with steel construction”. Although the contract provided for a water test after the tank was built – in other words, filling it up to make sure that it didn’t leak – this was not done. They put only six inches of water in to check it. 

Hall: Why not?

Jell: Well, for one reason, there was not time… It would have been impossible to empty the water again before the arrival of the steamer. It would have been impossible to fill the tank. There was not a supply of water at that point sufficient to fill the tank within a reasonable time. We had only a very small water connection and it would have taken many days, possibly have run into weeks, to have filled the tank with water.

Hall: Do you mean by that, or do you not, that if you had made that water test, it would have delayed the unloading of the steamer?

Jell: Yes.

Hall: That is what you mean?

Jell: Yes, sir.

Hall: Did you investigate to see whether there were water mains on Commercial Street which would have afforded ample quantities of water to fill it in much less than weeks?

Jell: I did not.

Hall: Any other reasons why the water test was not made?

Jell: It was considered an unnecessary expense.

Hall: By whom was it considered an unnecessary expense?

Jell: By me.”

Addressing Jell’s statement that he had relied on the expertise of Hammond Iron Works to produce steel strong enough to hold 2.3 million gallons of molasses, Hall asked:

“Did you have any training or experience that enabled you to determine whether they were skilful and competent people or not?

Jell: I did not.

Hall: And… did you have any knowledge or experience whatever that enabled you to tell whether the construction work was done satisfactorily, or whether the tank was strong?

Jell: I considered the tank satisfactory for our purpose.

Hall: If you will just answer the question… no technical experience of any kind?

Jell: No. None.”

Hall was also able to introduce a report produced by MIT Professor C. M. Spofford on behalf of the Boston Elevated Company. Having taken pieces of the collapsed tank to MIT laboratories for examination, Spofford had stated that the steel was thinner than stated by the plans and “overstrained by the static pressure of the molasses.” In addition, the plates had been held together by an “insufficient number” of rivets.

“The tension in these plates should not have exceeded 16,000 pounds per square inch and a stress as great as 18,000 pounds per square inch is as high as should have been permitted under any circumstances,” the report said. However, on the day of the accident, the pressure exerted by the molasses on the tank’s walls would have been 31,000 pounds per square inch. The factor of safety was therefore only 1.8; not the 3 or 4 which Spofford stated ordinary practice would call for, or the 3 that Jell had fairly arbitrarily settled on. Spofford’s report continued:

“In my judgment, the tank was improperly designed, and its failure was due entirely to structural weakness. The formation of gases in the molasses might have increased the head of the molasses somewhat… [but] the stresses due to the static pressure of the molasses alone were so great that the whole structure was in a dangerous condition.”

Ogden decided that he would not give a decision on the liability until he had heard all the evidence on damages; the case then dragged on for two years as Hall called witnesses to testify on the loss of their husbands, sons, mothers, and livelihoods. 

Stonecutter John Barry had been on light duty only since he had been pulled from the rubble of the firehouse.

“The pain in my back hurts all the time. It’s as though my spine is breaking. I can’t straighten up; I feel like I am going to fall almost all the time. The doctor says there is no cure.”

Martin Clougherty testified,

“My ribs and my chest still hurt. I can’t lay on my left side. All across my chest, where the big planks fell on me, anytime I get a touch of cold it just chokes me right up. Even without cold, when I lay on my back in bed at night, I feel like my wind is shutting off.”

He also suffered from bad dreams.

“With buildings falling over me… and if I go into a subway, or if I go into a crowd, I feel like I’m being crowded and I need to fight my way out. I have a general feeling of depression all of the time while I’m awake.”

1919_molassesflood_boston-9914911 Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the defense, witnesses tried to minimise the damage, with doctors stating that those who died from molasses asphyxiation would not have suffered as they died so quickly. It was even argued that the company should not be liable for any damages in the case of the children, Maria Di Stasio and Pasquale Iantosca, on the basis that they had been trespassing.

In total, it took three years for all the testimony to be heard; Ogden had listened to 920 witnesses, and examined 1,584 exhibits. The attorneys’ closing arguments would take up another 4,600 pages of transcription. As well as covering the points made by the accumulated testimony, Hall argued that the company was negligent in their choice of location for the tank.

“You can’t collect and imprison such an enormous liquid volume above the surface of the ground, without realizing that if it gets loose, widespread devastation is going to follow.”

He argued that the company’s motivation was, quite simply, money.

“You have the company saying, “To hell with the public, give us the tank,” and the attempt to save a few dollars comes into play. So you have this man trying to save a few dollars by not having an architect examine the plans. You have him trying to save a few dollars on the storage charges of molasses, and therefore having this tank put up as a rush job. And you have him disregarding the provision – the eminently wise provision – of a test of the tank, because the water would have cost them a few dollars… It shows absolute incompetence and an absolute and utter disregard of the rights of the public, of the people on the streets, of the people in the houses and buildings adjacent to where this structure was erected.”

He finished his arguments by saying, “When I said that this was a sordid story, I submit that I was entirely right.”

alexander-schimmeck-h_kabgs8fmw-unsplash-1024x683-6426462 Source: Unsplash

It was April, 1925, before Ogden submitted his fifty-one page special report on liability to the Superior Court of Massachusetts. The claims of sabotage made by USIA were dismissed outright.

“No bomb or high explosive and no traces of a bomb or high explosives were discovered at or near the scene of the accident. No anarchist or other evilly disposed person was seen at or near the tank upon the day of the accident.”

He further pointed out that the concrete foundation of the tank showed no marks of an explosion, and that the lack of broken glass in windows above the level of the molasses wave indicated no concussive blast. 

The argument that the tank had been filled to capacity before and had not failed, therefore it could not have been a structural weakness, was also dismissed.

“Every time the tank was filled with molasses and emptied there was a bending back and forth of the lap joints which in time was bound to weaken the joints beyond the position of safety.

He heaped heavy criticism on USIA and, in particular, Arthur P. Jell.

“He at no time visited any other plant which was in operation, he had no technical or mechanical training, could not read a plan or tell from an inspection of specifications what factor of safety was provided for in them, could not read a blueprint for the erection of a tank, consulted no engineer, builder, or architect as to what was a proper factor of safety, and made no investigation regarding what factor of safety ordinary engineering practice called for. He made no personal investigation as to factors of safety, and did not talk with any representative of the Hammond Iron Works about factors of safety. He had blanket authority to enter into any necessary contract for the construction of the tank and the equipment to be used with it, given to him by the president of the defendant company.”

That negligence was compounded by the way they had rushed work on the tank and omitted to run a water test on it, and by their failure to act on reports from Isaac Gonzales and others that the tank was leaking.

“It does not seem conceivable that a responsible official of the defendant could have been definitely advised of danger from leaks of a tank of this description and failed to take any action whatever to guard against collapse… We have the testimony of a number of witnesses, most of whom were not plaintiffs or related to the plaintiffs, and all of whom testified to substantial leaks in the seams.”

That they had had the tank caulked twice, while not enough to prevent the collapse, was “material evidence that the condition of the joints was being affected to their detriment by high stresses. I think if leaking in the joints was plain to third parties, it should have been plain to the defendant. It certainly existed long enough and was marked enough to have been brought to their attention.”

Ogden recommended an estimated $300,000 in total damages; equivalent to about $30 million today. It was a fairly low figure considering the number of plaintiffs and their losses, but most of the victims were working class, and therefore their wage potential was not very high. The City of Boston was allocated more than $25,000 for their buildings, and the Boston Elevated Railroad Company were given $42,000 for the damages to the overhead trestle and tracks.

The damages given to the victims and their families varied by the perceived level of their suffering; for those who were killed instantly, including the two children and Bridget Clougherty, the damages were less than for those who had lingered; the family of firefighter George Layhe got $1,000 dollars more for the hours that he was trapped before succumbing.

In addition to the damages for the loss of their mother, Martin and Teresa Clougherty were awarded $2,500 each for the injuries they received, and $1,800 for the destruction of their house. They received nothing for the loss of their brother Stephen; Ogden concluded that his death was not connected to the flood.

Those amounts, however, were only advisory; Hall demanded a jury trial to determine damages, but negotiations with the USIA attorneys resulted in a private agreement. According to figures released in USIA’s 1925 financial results, they agreed to double the awards Ogden had suggested.

The most lasting impact that the Boston Molasses flood had was on safety standards in construction. The Boston Building Department introduced a requirement for all the engineer’s and architect’s calculations to be filed with their plans, and for all stamped drawings to be signed. This practice would eventually become standard throughout the United States. 

Engineering certification laws would be adopted in all states, and it became a requirement for a registered professional engineer to  seal plans for major structures before building permits would be issued.

In this sense, author and historian Stephen Puleo compared the flood to another historic Boston disaster, saying that “the Boston molasses flood did for building construction regulations nationwide what… the great Coconut [sic] Grove nightclub fire, did for fire code laws.”

Otherwise, the flood quickly entered history, becoming the kind of story that Boston grandfathers told, leaving their grandchildren wondering if it was made up. You may still hear it said that, on a hot summer’s day, the smell of molasses still lingers in the neighbourhood. That’s little more than myth – a hundred years is, after all, a very long time for a smell to linger. However, it was once true, and it may have lingered longer in the cellars which had been filled up with the stuff, and had less air circulation to clear the odour.

Other marks of the flood, like the brown tide lines seen on the windows of affected buildings, also faded with time, and today the site of the tank is covered by a baseball field; a plaque at the entrance to Puopolo Park is the only remaining evidence that it was there.

molasses_flood_historical_marker-1024x917-4530958 Source: Wikipedia

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Sources, References and Further Reading


Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 – Stephen Puleo (Also available via the Internet Archive)


Wikipedia article on the Molasses Flood

First hand accounts of the Boston Molasses flood –

The Boston Molasses Disaster: Causes of the Molasses Tank Explosion – Brighthub

Great Molasses Flood: US marks 100 years since deadly wave of treacle trashed part of Boston

Eric Postpischil’s Molasses Disaster Pages – includes articles originally published in Yankee Magazine and Smithsonian.

Why the Great Molasses Flood Was So Deadly – History

The Science of the Great Molasses Flood – Scientific American

12 Things You Didn’t Know about the Great Boston Molasses Flood – Boston Magazine

The Great Boston Molasses Flood: why the strange disaster matters today – The Guardian

‘There was no escape from the wave’: These are the 21 victims of the Great Boston Molasses Flood –


A talk by Stephen Puleo, author of Dark Tide

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