Wednesday, May 3, 2017
May 3, 2017: DisasterStudying: Boston’s Great Molasses Flood
[May 6th marks the 80th anniversary of the Hindenburg fire, a turning point in the use of video and newsreel footage to chronicle tragic disasters. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of historical disasters, leading up to a weekend post on that and other contexts for the Hindenburg.]
Three telling details about the unique 1919 North End disaster, which plays a small but significant role in Dennis Lehane’s historical novel The Given Day.
1) The Anarchists Did It—Or Not: When a tank containing more than 2 million gallons of molasses burst at the Purity Distilling Company on January 15, 1919, suspicion initially fell—as it did so frequently in this Red Scare era—on “anarchists.” Some of the alcohol produced by the factory was used to produce munitions, so the accusation wasn’t entirely without cause. But after nearly three years of investigations and hearings, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA) was held solely responsible for the disaster; one theory is that the company was trying to work faster in order to outrace Prohibition, as the 18th Amendment was ratified the day after the flood. In any case, the disaster serves as a telling reminder, in this pre-Depression moment, that corporations were at least as dangerous to American communities as Reds.
2) A New Class of Response: The reason for those three years of investigations was simple but very new as of 1919—local residents brought a class-action lawsuit against USIA. In our famously litigious 21st century moment, that response might seem like a given; but in 1919, the idea of a class-action suit was largely unfamiliar, as illustrated by this list of six game-changing such suits that dates back only to 1925. So when these North End residents brought their suit against USIA, when they pursued it to victory and received an unprecedented $600,000 in settlements from the company, they represented a potent, populist extension of the Progressive Era’s efforts to regulate and curb big corporations.
3) How We Remember: Adjacent to the site once occupied by the Purity tank, and now home to the city’s Langone Park and neighboring Puopolo Park, is a small plaque (placed by the Bostonian Society) that commemorates the flood. Yet I would venture that literally millions more Bostonians and tourists have encountered this history not through the plaque, nor through Lehane’s novel (bestseller that it was), but rather through one of the city’s ubiquitous Duck Boats (run by Boston Duck Tours). That dark brown boat, named Molly Molasses, comprises a pitch-perfect representation of the role that historic tourism plays in our collective memories, for good and for bad. But far be it from me to critique any attempt to better remember this unique, compelling, and exemplary historic disaster!
Next DisasterStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historical or contemporary disasters you’d highlight?