Intro

The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 is one of the strangest events of America’s early twentieth century, and yet it is also one of the least understood and acknowledged occurrences in Boston’s history. The flood remains “part of the city’s folklore, but not its heritage,” and we posit that this is partially due to Boston’s painful and complicated racial and ethnic history. In 1918, the United States Industrial Alcohol company constructed a fifty-foot-tall steel tank in the heart of the North End and filled it with 2.3 million gallons of molasses. The molasses company received several warnings that the tank was structurally unsound, but it routinely ignored these advisories because it was interested in making a profit, and not at all concerned with the welfare and safety of the North End’s Italian immigrant population.

A Brief Background

Molasses has deep and important roots within America’s early economic traditions that date back to the seventeenth century. New England traders exchanged molasses rum for slaves on the West Coast of Africa, and molasses rum distilleries were numerous in Massachusetts by the mid-eighteenth century. Therefore, “molasses - whether for eating, for export in exchange for cash, or for use in rum production - had become an indispensable part of the Massachusetts and New England economy by the eve of the American Revolution.” Molasses was a significant part of Boston’s historical fabric, making the flood a symbolic tragedy.

          World War I increased the need for USIA’s production of industrial alcohol, which was used in “the production of fulminate of mercury, acetone, and cordite - critical components of high explosives and smokeless powders.” This increased demand caused the company to rush the tank’s construction, cutting corners and ignoring safety protocols. The molasses tank, which was the largest aboveground receptacle in Boston’s history, had significant flaws from the beginning. In fact, such a colossal structure should not have been located in one of the city’s most densely populated areas. "Such a colossal structure should not have been located in one of the city’s most densely populated areas" It was common knowledge that the tank was leaking molasses from its seams; poor Italian immigrant children would even collect the oozing molasses and bring it home to their families. When some brave and concerned workers complained to upper management that the tank was obviously defective, the company merely responded by painting the tank to merely hide the danger. The Italian immigrant population had “remained silent when the USIA molasses tank was built, and afterward, once it started to leak,” further proof of the Italian population’s social, political, and economic disenfranchisement.

What Happened?

At approximately 12:45 pm on January 15, 1919, “[m]idday turned to darkness as the 2.3 million gallons of molasses engulfed the Boston waterfront like a black tidal wave, 25 feet high and 160 feet wide at the outset.” The tank “disintegrated into deadly steel missiles” and the molasses traveled at thirty-five miles an hour, tearing apart several buildings in its path, including the Engine 31 firehouse, which was ripped from its foundation. The devastation was significant and far-reaching: “Rolling walls of molasses, fifteen feet high, scraped everything in their paths, carrying a wreckage of animals, humans, furniture, produce, beer barrels, railroad cars, automobiles, and wagons, and smashing them against other buildings, into the street, or sweeping them into the harbor.” Police officers, firefighters, and sailors worked to pull people from the molasses, which was “waist deep, [and] covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage.” In addition to the twenty-one people who perished and 150 who were injured, dozens of horses were also trapped in the molasses, and police officers walked through the streets, shooting the animals to put them out of their misery. The devastation was unimaginable: “In minutes - in seconds - the landscape in the North End inner harbor area resembled a bombed-out war zone.” “In minutes - in seconds - the landscape in the North End inner harbor area resembled a bombed-out war zone.” The hospital was filled with people covered in molasses, and soon the doctors and nurses were also encrusted with the substance. The Boston Post reported that “those already on duty were soon covered from head to foot with brown syrup and blood. The whole hospital reeked of molasses. It was on the floor, on the walls, the nurses were covered with it, even in their hair.” The entire city was affected by the flood, and it was all Boston could talk about for the next several weeks.

          The disaster made the front page of the New York Times (taking precedent over the news of Prohibition) and the story was covered by newspapers all over the country. The cause of the explosion was the subject of much debate: the state chemist and U.S. inspector of explosives believed very strongly in the “collapse theory,” that the “tank disintegrated because of a combination of structural weakness and fermentation inside the tank.” USIA’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the tank had been structurally sound, and that outside influences, “evilly disposed persons,” were responsible for bombing the tank. During this time, the North End had become a hotbed of anarchist activity; Italian anarchists “preached the overthrow of the U.S. government and the capitalist economic system.” Anarchist attacks had happened throughout the city and threats had been made against the USIA company itself; because the USIA was producing molasses for the war effort, the company argued that anarchist terrorism had been the cause of the explosion.

The Aftermath

In 1920, one of the nation's largest civil lawsuits was filed against United States Industrial Alcohol. USIA managed to escape criminal prosecution, but the families of the victims still sought justice. The Massachusetts Superior Court decided to consolidate the 119 separate legal claims into "the largest class-action suit to date in Massachusetts history." The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs argued that “the molasses tank had been structurally deficient, built without safeguards, and carelessly located in a busy, congested neighborhood, ” and sought financial damages for the victims’ families and property owners. The defense, on the other hand, claimed that anarchists had blown up the tank with an explosive bomb, and that the North End waterfront area had been a site of commercial businesses for years. Both sides called upon expert witnesses to testify on the structural conditions of the tank, and different opinions were offered on the plausibility of the tank’s potential defects. The long and complex trial went on until 1925, when the judge finally ruled in favor of the flood victims. The USIA attorneys negotiated a private settlement of $628,000 (approximately $61 million in today’s market), an act that not only benefited the victims but also “tacitly admitted” to the company’s guilt.

          After considering the facts of the disaster, there is no denying that the flood was a devastating and severe event in American history. The calamity could have been prevented if the company had considered the safety of the North End’s residents, but the desire for profit outweighed the concern for Italian immigrants, who were deemed inferior. Furthermore, the flood “was the first in a series of events that disrupted the equilibrium of the city and the country in 1919, events that generated first uneasiness, and then fear and disillusionment, across the land.” As the joy from the armistice faded and American men returned home to their jobs, labor unrest swept across the country. The molasses disaster was one of the initial events that caused workers to galvanize against unfair labor conditions and practices, making it even more historically significant. Why, then, has its legacy been ignored?

An Immigrant History of Boston's North End: The Italians

In order to understand why the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 is not well remembered today, we must first look at underlying social, political, and economic factors of the neighborhood in which the molasses tank was built: The North End. Prior to the American Revolution, the North End was considered a very affluent neighborhood, filled with prominent members of Boston society such as Paul Revere. However, after the Revolution, the neighborhood changed. Loyalists did not return to their North End residences and instead moved to Beacon Hill, a much quieter and less commercial part of the city. The nineteenth century brought new immigrants, at first German and then Irish, to the North End. Immigrant families, cramped into individual rooms, brought with them disease, poor hygiene, and customs unfamiliar to native Bostonians.

          Italian immigrants that settled in Boston in the late nineteenth century were similar to previous generations of immigrants in this regard. From 1910 to 1920, the Italian population in Boston grew from 18,000 to 77,000, and in the North End from 14,000 to 37,000. From 1910 to 1920, the Italian population in Boston grew from 18,000 to 77,000, and in the North End from 14,000 to 37,000.Italians immigrated to the United States for a variety of reasons: to escape famine, earthquake, and repressive political policies. Many of these immigrants were unskilled or semiskilled laborers, arriving with background handicaps that impaired their ability to compete with other immigrant populations such as illiteracy, inability to speak English, lack of vocational skills, and unfamiliarity with urban life.

          Although Americans identified Italians as one ethnicity, Italian immigrants lived in enclaves in Boston of their respective Italian villages; Campanians, Sicilians, Napoletano, and Abruzzesi lived amongst themselves and considered themselves distinct from each other. Because of these strong ties to their respective villages, recent Italian immigrants in the North End sought out paesani, or fellow villagers, in order to feel connected to their cultural roots. Consequently, these enclaves and sought after paesani impeded the process of assimilation for Italian immigrants and contributed to the discrimination they would face in the early twentieth century.

Discrimination

Native Bostonians viewed Italian immigrants as “inferior,” “lazy,” “ignorant,’ and “clannish” because of their poor living conditions, background handicaps, and closed off communities. This particular attitude was not just held by Bostonians but all over the United States, including Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th President. In his 1902 A History of the American People, Volume 5, Wilson describes recent Southern Italian immigrants as "men of the lowest class...and men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population".

          Although Wilson later wrote an apology upon receiving criticism in a popular Italian review, his comments on immigrants, particularly Italians, reveals a growing prejudice of Americans to view Italians as inferior. These attitudes eventually became full fledged discrimination against Italian immigrants. Anti-Italian sentiments were commonly expressed by politicians and journalists, and Italian immigrants were lynched more frequently than any other group except African Americans.

          One of the biggest cases of Italian discrimination was held in New Orleans in 1891. New Orleans Police Chief, David Hennesy, was murdered and the general public suspected Italian immigrants as the perpetrators because of Hennesy’s police involvement in Sicilian murder vendettas. Eleven Italian suspects, nine of whom were acquitted and two who were awaiting trial, were held in jail for a short period of time before they were beaten, shot dead, lynched, hung in public, and shot again. It was never resolved who murdered Hennesy but the fact remains that twenty-thousand angry citizens took the law into their own hands and killed the Italian suspects regardless of their guilt or innocence.

          Another factor that impeded the process of assimilation and contributed to poor race relations in the city of Boston was the absence of Italian participation in local politics. The U.S. Industrial Alcohol company “expected and received virtually no opposition—the poor, vilified, mostly illiterate, and politically toothless Italian immigrants who lived and worked in the shadow of the tank day and night had neither the inclination nor the political power to offer organized resistance" - Stephen PuleoIn 1903, historian Frederick A. Bushee commented that “even after deducting more than half of the total number of males on the single ground of illiteracy, they still show the smallest percentage of voters. Migration of single men helps to break up organized political work among the Italians, but the chief reason is that the Italians themselves have developed little interest in politics, and Irish politicians have no great influence over them.” Stephen Puleo discusses these factors and reveals that U.S. Industrial Alcohol company “expected and received virtually no opposition—the poor, vilified, mostly illiterate, and politically toothless Italian immigrants who lived and worked in the shadow of the tank day and night had neither the inclination nor the political power to offer organized resistance.” Because Italian immigrants did not participate in local politics, companies, like U.S. Industrial Alcohol, took advantage of Italian seclusion as a means to further their own plans to construct the molasses tank.

Forgetting

There is no denying that the Molasses Flood has been erased from Boston’s public collective memory. According to memory scholar Barry Schwartz, “collective forgetting refers to what is unregistered in the imagination of individuals, unchronicled in research monographs and textbooks, and/or commemorated by monuments...” This definition is consistent with Boston’s treatment of the flood, as there are no standing structures of monuments dedicated to the event, other than a small, barely visible plaque located in the North End Puopolo Park. The plaque, which is easy to miss, summarizes the disaster’s basic facts:
On January 15, 1919, a molasses flood on 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40 foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster.

          While the plaque mentions “structural defects,” it does not even begin to explain the complicated social reasons for the tank’s explosion; the disaster was no simple accident, and it certainly could have been prevented. Although the plaque’s failure to mention these details may be somewhat understandable given that it is difficult to get into much detail within the confines of such a small space, this lack of detail and analysis has a significant impact on Boston’s recognition and understanding of the event.

          Stephen Puleo provides two main reasons for why he believes the Boston Molasses Flood is not remembered today. First, he says that it has been “mistakenly viewed as an isolated incident, unconnected with larger trends in American history,” as well as the “unusual, whimsical” nature of the substance itself. However, we disagree with his conclusions. The unconventional nature of the tragedy should have made it an appealing historical event for contemporary Bostonians to learn about. This hypothesis is supported by the recent appearance of several children’s books written on the flood, which appear to have become rather popular in children’s libraries and elementary schools. One popular book, written by Marjorie Stover and entitled Patrick and the Great Molasses Explosion, discusses the flood. However, the book's protagonist is Patrick McGonnigal O’Brien, a boy of Irish immigrant descent. There were very few Irish people living in the North End in 1919, so the author’s decision to write her story about an Irish boy could be viewed as a deliberate choice to avoid the Italian racial element of the flood’s story.

          People tend to be attracted to outré stories, and the Molasses Flood certainly qualifies as unusual; when people find out about the event, they are almost always intrigued and interested. Therefore, it is our position that there are deeper, more complex reasons for Boston’s lack of molasses memory. Boston has a long, shameful history of racism and xenophobia. Studying the Molasses Flood not only reminds us of the city’s anti-immigrant attitudes of the early twentieth century, it also stirs up painful allusions to Boston’s more recent racial strife. Boston is America’s third-whitest major metropolis city, and during the second half of the twentieth century, Boston experienced a lot of racial strife, particularly between Caucasians and African Americans. As the editor of Boston Magazine pointed out in an article on the subject, “[Race relations] is a subject in Boston that doesn’t get talked about a lot. Usually when it does get talked about, it’s not in very polite terms.” Boston’s difficult racial past still looms largely and therefore must be discussed constructively, and although Molasses Flood concerns anti-Italian sentiments rather than anti-black attitudes, the event highlights and reflects racial and class tensions that still plague the city to this day.

          We also believe that part of the reason why this event has not been remembered because it has been replaced with a favorable image of Italian Americans today. Italians have transcended their original stereotypes in America as uninvolved, illiterate foreigners and instead have become an integral part of local and national politics. Since the Molasses Flood, there have been at least nine Congressmen of Italian heritage, including John A. Volpe, 61st and 63rd Governor of Massachusetts and U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Paul Cellucci, who served as the 69th Governor of Massachusetts and U.S. Ambassador of Canada, as well as Thomas Michael Menino, the current mayor of the city of Boston. A look at the list of Massachusetts State legislators also reveals how many Italian-American politicians within the Commonwealth.

          The North End has transcended its nineteenth and early twentieth century image of tenement slums and is now considered one of Boston’s major commercial tourist destinations. Buildings that once housed many immigrant families have now been converted to apartments with working professionals, Catholic school classrooms have been replaced by million dollar condominiums, quite a few local businesses and family-run stores have been replaced by national chains, but the general theme of the North End remains “one big Italian restaurant.”

Conclusion

The Molasses Flood of 1919 reflects an era when the North End was not regarded by the general public as a neighborhood worth visiting. The Flood represents an uncomfortable part of the city’s history in which neglect and discrimination of Italian immigrants were commonplace. However, after the Molasses Flood, Italian immigrants became more active in the politics of the city and eventually obtained U.S. citizenship in increased numbers. This transformation may be one of the reasons why people are unaware of the tragic Molasses flood that ended in death and devastation. As Anthony V. Riccio states, “If we look back into our family histories, many of us will find a common thread: ancestors who journeyed to this country in search of a better life, willing to work hard and to make sacrifices for the welfare of their families, paving the way for the success of future generations--our collective immigration heritage is the foundation on which many of us stand today.” An important yet overlooked part of the city’s heritage, the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 allows us to examine the Italian immigrant experience and implores us not to forget the legacy of our country’s larger immigration and labor history.

Works Consulted

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