Do you know how many deadly ingredients are lurking in your kitchen pantry? You would hope that an ingredient used in thousands of recipes is completely safe, however, if you look back through history, you might find a very different answer.
In 1919, one Boston town and the people who lived in it were nearly wiped out, all because of one popular baking ingredient, which is probably sitting in your cupboard this very second.
The Perfect Sweetener
Molasses is a popular sweetener known for its thick texture, its deliciously sweet taste, and its deep brown color. As any baker knows, those qualities make it an ideal ingredient for adding flavor and sweetness to almost any baked good.
How It’s Made
The flavorful syrup, which has been used in different cultures for hundreds of years to sweeten other foods, resulted from boiling the juice from sugar canes after they are harvested and the juice is extracted by cutting or crushing the stalks…
However, molasses isn’t only used for adding a sweetness to our food. Depending on the amount of sugar, the extraction method, and the age of the plant, the thick brown liquid can also be used in a number of different ways, like as an iron supplement or for the distillation of rum.
Sweet But Deadly
For a long time, it seemed like there was nothing bad about this popular ingredient. However, in the early 1900s’, the North End neighborhood in Boston learned the hard way that the sweet product could also be incredibly dangerous…
The Purity Distilling Company
If fermented, molasses produces both rum and ethanol, which is why, in 1919, the Purity Distilling Company in Boston, Massachusetts used large quantities of the versatile ingredient and stored massive vats of molasses at their facility.
But the seemingly safe syrup can actually be incredibly dangerous at such large quantities. In 1919, the single ingredient was responsible for the deaths of 21 people and several horses, and it was also responsible for injuring 150 others…
The Tank Collapses
At about 12:30 in the afternoon on January 15, 1919, a molasses tank, which was 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter and contained as much as 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, collapsed at the Purity Distilling Company Facility.
According to witnesses near the site of the accident, they could hear a noise that sounded like gunshots as metal rivets started to shoot out from the tank. Moments later, the ground started shaking, and there was a loud rumble that sounded like a passing train…
Before anyone could figure out where the noise had come from, the collapsing tank unleashed a 25-foot wave of molasses that moved as fast as 35 miles per hour. The wave was strong enough to tip a train car off the tracks and some building were even crushed by the impact.
Drowning In Molasses
The force of the wave wasn’t the only concern. As the molasses plowed through the streets, people and animals were swept up in the thick, sticky liquid and started to drown in the waist-deep molasses after becoming trapped under the surface…
Only Making It Worse
“Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise,” the Boston Post reported after the flood.
The USS Nantucket, which was a training ship for the Massachusetts Nautical School, was docked nearby and the 116 cadets on board bravely ran straight towards the accident once they heard about the destruction from the flood and were the first to the scene…
Rescue Efforts Begin
While some of the cadets worked to keep curious civilians away from danger, others didn’t hesitate to climb into the knee-deep molasses and started pulling out as many struggling survivors as possible. Soon after, the Boston Police, Red Cross, and members of the Army and Navy arrived to help with rescue efforts.
Things Get Harder
Doctors and nurses set up a makeshift hospital nearby and rescuers worked tirelessly through the night to save as many people and animals as possible from the deadly brown sludge. But the longer the molasses was exposed to the cold air, the more it solidified and the harder it was to reach those still trapped…
Four Days Later
It wasn’t until four days later that rescuers finally stopped searching for survivors. Ultimately, the flood killed 21 people and injured about 150 more. And by the time the dead were recovered, they were nearly impossible to identify because they were glazed over in so much molasses.
In the wake of the accident, which became known as the Great Molasses Flood, rescue crews were replaced with cleanup crews. They used salt water to wash the molasses away and sand to try and absorb it. The clean up of the immediate accident site took two weeks, but according to locals, the harbor was brown with molasses until summer and the surrounding city became sticky as people inadvertently spread it on their shoes, clothes, and hands.
After the disaster, an investigation was held to figure out why the tank had collapsed, and investigators discovered that Arthur Jell, the man who was responsible for overseeing the construction of the tanks, didn’t perform any standard safety tests.
Local residents brought a class-action lawsuit against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, the owner of Purity Distilling who tried to deny any responsibility. After three years of hearings, however, they were forced to pay $600,000 worth of settlements to the victims.
In the months after the messy disaster, the tank was never rebuilt and the property became a yard for the Boston Elevated Railway. Many laws and regulations for construction, were also changed or implemented in order to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.
In 2014, a modern investigation took place and found that the steel in the tank was half as thick as it should have been and was especially weak because it lacked manganese. Two years later, a Harvard study also confirmed that the high speeds and height of the wave was possible because warm molasses had been added to the tank two days before the accident, which made the molasses more watery.