The great Boston treacle tragedy | Steve Canavan

On the off-chance the question ‘has anyone ever been killed by molasses?’ comes up at your local quiz, I’m here to tell you the answer, bizarrely, is yes.

Friday, 17th January 2020, 9:10 am
Updated Friday, 24th January 2020, 3:10 pm
Steve Canavan tells a story about the Boston molasses tragedy. Pic: Shutterstock.

I was leafing through a book of historical facts the other evening (I know, I know, I need to calm down and stop leading such a hedonistic lifestyle) when I came across something that happened this very week in 1919 which astounded me, because it involved 21 people being killed and hundreds more injured by treacle.

That’s what molasses are, for those not au fait – a thick black treacle used in food and, when fermented, in alcohol and therefore it’s kind of mind-boggling that it could harm anyone, let alone kill.

But here’s what happened. 101 years ago in Boston (that’s Boston in the US, something I feel compelled to clarify in case anyone thinks I mean that slightly dull place off the A1 near Lincoln), a 50 foot high storage tank filled to the brim with almost nine million litres of molasses, weighing more than 10,000 tonnes, suddenly burst.

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A giant tsunami of treacle raced through the streets at speeds of 35mph, covering anybody or anything in its path, and travelling at such speed and with such force that it swept nearby buildings off their foundations and sent them crashing to the ground. Several blocks were flooded to a depth of three feet.

A whole neighbourhood in a busy city destroyed by treacle, and bodies everywhere. Imagine if that happened now? Huw Edwards would be fronting the BBC 10 o’ clock news from Boston for the next three months (staring earnestly into the camera each night with those sad Welsh puppy dog eyes, saying, solemnly, ‘Here in Boston, the scene remains one of carnage…’)

One can only imagine the terror the local people wandering about felt at the moment they saw a giant sticky wave heading towards them at a speed too fast to outrun for even the fittest.

As well as human fatalities, hundreds of horses were killed too, for this was the age when horses were used every single day to pull carts and transport goods about.

One eyewitness, giving an account of what he saw, said: “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 was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared.”

More than 100 sailors from the nearby docks rushed to help and worked through the night, wading into the thick treacle to try and pull out those submerged or trapped.

According to another report, “rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims and four days elapsed before they stopped searching. Many of the dead were so glazed over in molasses that they were hard to recognise”.

Pretty grim to say the least.

It took more than six months to clean up the mess. The authorities used salt water to try and wash the treacle away, though apparently everything locals touched for a long while felt sticky and for decades afterwards on hot summer days the area smelled of molasses – an unpleasant constant reminder of the tragedy that had occurred.

Relatives of those who’d lost their lives or been badly injured wanted – not surprisingly – justice and launched one of the first ever class-action lawsuits. The company which owned the storage tank attempted, as rich companies seem to often tend to do, to lie its way out of trouble, claiming anarchists had blown the tank up – when in truth, it burst due to poor construction and a change of temperature which increased the pressure within and caused the explosion.

Thankfully they - the Purity Distilling Company - were found out and ending up being ordered pay out 626,000 dollars. Relatives of the deceased received around $7,000 each (the equivalent to $103,000 in 2019 terms).

In truth the company was lucky to escape a heftier fine as it later emerged it were trying to out-race prohibition – which was to be ratified the very next day (and implemented a year later). Molasses can be fermented to produce ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks. The tank had been filled to capacity (even when testing it after it was built, the manufacturers hadn’t filled it to capacity … something you’d think kind of vital) and a later study by an engineering firm found the steel lining of the tank was half a thick as it should have been. In short, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

Mind-boggling really, and another reminder that ‘twas ever thus … if there’s a quick buck to be made, companies often put profits before safety.

So there you go – not a very joyful column this week, but (hopefully) vaguely interesting. If you go to Boston there is a plaque at the site to mark where the 21 unfortunate souls lost their life. Killed by treacle – what a way to go.