The Boston Molasses Flood in Pop Culture
The disaster lives on in film, books, and Drunk History.
If you haven’t seen the Drunk History episode that takes on the Great Boston Molasses Flood, you really should. The Comedy Central show, known for retelling lesser-known moments from America’s past from the perspective of someone who is more or less shitfaced, took on the Boston disaster in Season 4 (by coincidence in the same episode as its biography of Julia Child).
“Molasses was a big motherfuckin’ deal,” begins comedian Lucius Dillon, who narrates the events of 1919 while swilling a glass of brown liquor. What follows in the segment is a hilarious and basically accurate description of what went down a century ago, starring actors Michael McKean as U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co. project manager Arthur Jell and Jason Ritter as North Ender John Barry. The eight-minute segment features a miniature model of the North End as a backdrop for an extremely cool reenactment of the flood. “People were just, like, knocked off their ass,” Dillon tells us.
A globular, mysterious force cascades through streets, bursting into buildings, and swallowing innocent townspeople whole. Sound familiar? It’s both the very real fate of North Enders in 1919, and the plot of the 1958 cult classic The Blob.
We can’t say for certain the movie was directly inspired by the disaster, as there’s no solid evidence to support the theory. A more likely explanation is that, like others of its time period, it explored anxieties about a Communist threat lurking in communities Still, the similarities are uncanny. The Criterion Collection describes the monster, which still lingers in the popular imagination, as a villain that “absorbs people” and “can flow under or around any obstacle. … It is a monster of appetite: an absolute consumer, voracious, growing. And it hates cold.”
So it made sense that science journalist Forrest Jabr would give a talk on the science of the flood at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre a few years back, ahead of a screening of The Blob (as part of the venue’s cheeky yet informative Science on Screen series). You can watch it here:
It’s no small thing to be immortalized via Duck Boat, and the Great Boston Molasses flood has in fact been recognized on one of them. The “Molly Molasses,” which is painted a syrupy brown, was added to the fleet back in 1999. So it’s forever a part of our city’s tourism economy, and every so often, a participant in our many victory parades.
Poke around online and you can find plenty of music referencing the disaster—from countless Americana ballads to, for some reason, a track from the EDM jam band Lotus. But one group of musicians in particular is really going out of its way for the occasion. A Boston-based folk band, appropriately called The Great Molasses Flood, says it plans to record a live album dedicated to the flood during the anniversary on Tuesday, January 15, at Cambridge’s Club Passim—100 years to the date after the the North End was swamped with goo.
The quartet of local singer songwriters will perform eight songs about the flood, including one called “21,” an homage to the nearly two dozen people killed in the disaster, and “The Sticky, Sticky Mess,” a tale told through the eyes of North End firefighters trapped by molasses.
“We realized when we named the band after a tragedy, with a 100th anniversary coming up, we needed to do something to honor this and promote this part of history,” says Dan Cloutier, a songwriter who plays guitar and banjo in the band. “It’s a really important part of Boston history and it’s relevant in terms of big business overstepping, and populations of immigrants being negatively effected.”
Meanwhile, another flood-inspired band called Hot Molasses is performing Tuesday night at Aeronaut, as part of a fundraiser for the immigrant advocacy nonprofit Cosecha, and Allston’s Model Cafe is hosting “a night of comedy, music, poetry, photography, and molasses filled baked goods.”