95 Years Ago in Boston, A Giant Wave of Molasses Killed Dozens of People [Updated]

By | Boston Daily |

Today marks the 95th anniversary of perhaps the most bizarre tragedy in Massachusetts history: the Great Molasses Disaster. The subheading of the Boston Post on January 15, 1919 says it all: “Giant Wave of 2,300,000 Gallons of Molasses, 50 Feet High, Sweeps Everything Before It—100 Men, Women and Children Caught In Sticky Stream—Buildings, Vehicles, and L Structure Crushed.”

Okay, so it doesn’t exactly say it all. Actually the prospect of a giant wave of molasses killing a dozen people often generates some questions. Most common among them: how could anyone fail to outrun something as slow as molasses? The answer: when the storage tank exploded, the wave moved through the streets at an estimated 35 miles per hour, which is pretty dang fast. Actually, the more you learn about the disaster, the faster it moves from “amusingly quirky” to “genuinely horrifying.” Take this anecdote from a 1983 Smithsonian article, which should put to rest the objections of anyone who says the victims ought to have outrun the wave:

How fast is molasses in January? That day the wave moved at an estimated 35 miles per hour. It caught young children on their way home from the morning session of school. One of them, Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him. (Another sister had been killed.) They had found little Anthony stretched under a sheet on the “dead” side of a body-littered floor.

Perhaps because it’s so implausible that it recalls some cheesy 1950s horror film, this little piece of Boston lore attracts a fair share of notice on its anniversary. Newspapers ran remembrances every ten years or so. Today, we still remember, but we do so in decidedly different venues: Twitter, Reddit, and Boston.com.

  • dmlee

    you need to add to this story the following.
    in the years following this tragedy, the molasses went into the sewer pipes and was never totally cleaned up. and in july of the years after the tragedy the summer days would get so hot that you could smell the molasses coming out of the sewer pipes all over the north end of town. and this is where a famous boston phrase comes from that i learned back in the 1980's when i worked in the city of boston. when someon asks you “how hot it is out”. you give them back the phrase “it's so hot, you can smell the molasses”. i have told many people this and especially this last year of 2012 because it has been a very hot year where i was staying and working. thank you for publishing this article. i was originally told that it was a truck that exploded, or a wagon. i was not told it was a tank. i have seen tanks of crap(fertilizer) this big and if they had exploded and 11 people died, it might have been even comically worse.

  • Erin Calvo-Bacci

    I just read Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo and learned a lot about this most fascinating disaster. No one alive and living in that area then would dare joke about molasses. This really should be part of our history lessons in school because so much changed from building codes to labor practices as a result of the terrible tragedy.