Boston Disaster 1919

  January 15, 1919
  21 Dead
 150 Injured 

Bridget Clougherty hung laundry on her porch. Maria Distasio, 11, and her brother nine-year-old brother Antonio collected firewood. Nearby at the Boston Public Works Building employees sat outdoors eating lunch, marveling at the balmy forty-degree day.

In the streets there was a bustle of activity as horse-drawn delivery carriages and motorized trucks visited businesses along the docks or the ships moored in Boston Harbor. At the firehouse members played a game of whist.

But at 12:30 p.m. this calm, peaceful day erupted into unbelievable devastation. The cause? A flood. A manmade flood…of molasses!

In the early 20th century, Boston was the distilling capital in the United States. Many molasses factories, storage tanks and warehouses lined the city’s shores. During World War I, the demand for molasses skyrocketed when alcohol production was used for ammunition. At the same time, the public was clamoring for rum, which is made from molasses.

In 1915, the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol Company, constructed a tank in Boston. It was 50 feet tall and 240 feet around. The tank leaked constantly, causing consternation for both employees and neighbors. The company turned a deaf ear to complaints and repainted the tank molasses brown.

According to several sources, on January 14, 1919, the distillery wanted to make a final batch of alcohol before Prohibition inhibited that process. A large batch was dumped into the tank, mixing warm molasses with cold. The fermentation process was underway, stressing the tank’s weak walls.

Shortly after 12:30 p.m. on January 15, the tank burst, sending a wall of over 2 million gallons of molasses, rushing at a speed of 35 miles an hour through the streets. At its worst the wave was 15 feet high and 160 feet wide. Everything in its path was helpless to withstand the flow: buildings, livestock and humans. Not only did the molasses cause destruction, but the steel tank broke into deadly trajectories. One missile weighing 2.5 tons shot 182 feet into a playground while another caused tracks of an elevated train to collapse. An engineer saw the destroyed tracks and reversed the train. While it jumped the tracks, he saved many lives.

The roaring wave of death moved on. It struck the fire station, knocked it over on its side and pushed it toward the ocean until it fetched up on some pilings.

Chief Peter McDonough received word of the event at 12:40 p.m. When informed of its severity, he sounded a third alarm requesting additional workers and rescue squads. Police, firefighters and nurses from the nearby Haymarket Relief Station rushed to the scene. More than one hundred sailors from the U.S.S. Nantucket aided in rescue attempts. They arrived to find waist deep molasses still bubbling and swirling around them. Ladders were stretched across the wreckage to assist the firefighters as they pulled out the dead and dying.

Engine 7’s Captain Krake was working with his men under the elevated train when he spied yellow hair floating in the molasses. He plunged his arms into the gooey liquid and recovered the body of Maria Distasio, the young lady who had been picking up firewood earlier in the day.

At the firehouse, more than 50 men dug in to free firefighters George Layhe (some sources list him as Leahy), Nat Bowering and Bill Connor from the collapsed building. As Puleo reported in “Death by Molasses,” Connor later testified, “I looked out the window and saw a wall of molasses rolling like a wave at the seashore. I put my hand on the doorknob and the molasses surrounded the building; shut out the light, and the next thing I knew I came to under the building.” The second floor pancaked down onto the first and the men discovered an 18-inch crawl space held up by the furnishings in the room. Puleo quotes Connor again: “The flood of molasses at times flowed up to our ears. We bumped our heads on the floor above trying to keep our noses and mouths above the fluid.” A billiard table trapped Layhe . It took two hours for Boston’s firefighters to reach their own, using acetylene torches in the process. Layhe, exhausted, dropped into the ooze and died. The remaining men, though injured, survived.

The injured were transported by cars, wagons and ambulances to the Haymarket Relief and other hospitals. At the Haymarket Relief Station, hardening molasses was removed from mouths, noses and breathing passages. The entire facility soon bore signs of molasses everywhere. The workers were covered in it from head to toe. Gurneys could no longer travel up and down the halls as they were now stuck to the floor.

Cleanup was a challenge for the city of Boston. Laborers received stiff brooms, shovels and hoes to remove it from the area. Initially, the fire department tried spraying water from fire hydrants onto the mass but this was ineffective. It was discovered that salt water would cut through the molasses. Boston’s fireboat poured water from the harbor onto the streets. The Boston Fire Department also used hydraulic siphons to drain the molasses from basements. While the odor left after a week, the process of cleanup took over six months while everything coated with molasses was attacked including phone booths, movie theaters, automobiles and the streets. The Boston Harbor was stained brown for six months as well.

Over 100 lawsuits were filed against U.S. Industrial Alcohol. The company’s defense was that anarchists in Boston’s North End blew up the tank, using dynamite. This was considered at first because 95 per cent of the neighborhood was Italian and anarchists had been active several years prior to this event. Eventually, this theory was disproved and scientists showed that thin steel plates, anchored with too few rivets caused the tank’s rupture. When further investigation revealed only one insignificant stress test was conducted and no expert had inspected it, U.S. Industrial Alcohol lost its case. It wasn’t until April 1925 that the decision came down and the company was ordered to pay $1,000,000 in damages. In addition, Boston’s Building Department enacted strict regulations regarding the construction and maintenance of tanks and inspection by certified experts.

This event is still remembered today. In fact, in January 2004, the Boston Public Library had an exhibit commemorating the 85th anniversary of this tragedy.


“12 Killed when Tank of Molasses Explodes.” New York Times. 16 Jan. 1919: 4.

“Ask the Globe.” Boston Globe 12 Feb 1993: 66.
Bipasha, Ray. “Boston Recalls Molasses Mayhem.” Seattle Times. 25 Jan. 2004: A10.
Bipasha, Ray. “Deadly Molasses Flood Featured in Exhibit.” Grand Rapid Press.
1 Feb. 2004: A7.

Mason, John.The Molasses Diaster of January 15, 1919.  Originally published in Yankee Magazine: Jan. 1965.] 9 July 2004

Puleo, Steve. “Death by Molasses.” American History Feb. 2001: 60-66.

Raichlen, Steven. “A Day That Sticks in the Minds of Bostonians.” Los Angeles Times 28 Sep 1995: 22.

For photos of the event and more in depth information see: Steven Puleo: Author and Historian. Puleo also authored. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.