All about the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, which is no laughing matter.


History is endlessly fascinating. Does anyone remember the London Beer Flood of 1814?

The Boston Molasses Flood Is Worth Taking Seriously, by Cara Giaimo (Atlas Obscura)

In 1919, a viscous 40-foot wave slammed into the city’s North End, killing 21 people.

On January 15, 1919, 10-year-old Pasquale Iantosca went out to gather scraps for firewood. Although it was a warm day, his father, Giuseppe, was taking no chances: He had bundled his son into two crimson sweaters, and was keeping an eye on him from the second-story window of their small apartment building in Boston’s North End. But peril is not predictable, and as Giuseppe watched, Pasquale suddenly vanished. “A dark wall had consumed him as though he never existed,” the historian Stephen Puleo writes in Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. It would be hours before rescuers found the boy’s body, his arms and pelvis broken and both of his red sweaters gummed with brown.

The Great Molasses Flood was a tragedy. Twenty-one people died horribly, 150 were injured, and homes and buildings were destroyed. But it has become tragic in the Greek sense, too: The thing that makes it most memorable also undercuts it. The only mark it has left on the landscape is a brief plaque embedded in a wall near Boston Harbor, describing a “40-foot wave of molasses” that, like some sort of delicious Godzilla, “crushed buildings” and “buckled … railroad tracks.” The sight and smell of “brown syrup and blood,” so memorably described in the Boston Post, has been replaced in the city’s consciousness by a charming “scent of molasses” that supposedly still permeates the North End on hot days. As Puleo puts it in Dark Tide’s introduction, “the flood today remains part of the city’s folklore, but not its heritage.” The punchline takes away the punch.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Great Molasses Flood has plenty of lessons to offer at all levels: about corporate responsibility and negligence, about immigration and disenfranchisement, and about human bravery and suffering. One hundred years after the molasses tank burst, some people are trying to restore the disaster to its rightful place in Boston history …