Throwback Thursday: A Historically Curious Week for the North End

It's the time of 'the crime of the century' and a huge flood of molasses.

Photos via AP and Wikimedia Commons

A reporter wears a rubber mask similar to that worn by the Brinks bandits, the site of the Great Molasses Flood in Boston’s North End / Photos via AP and Wikimedia Commons

It’s no secret that Boston’s rich history is peppered with bizarre stories. From America’s first UFO sighting to the time the Omni Parker Hotel employed Ho Chi Minh as a baker, there has been no shortage of oddities. But two events in particular—the Great Molasses Flood and the Boston Brinks Robbery—happened during the same week in the same neighborhood, 31 years apart.

Both unfolded in the North End, a place that has seen the likes of Paul Revere, the witchcraft-fearing Mather family, as well as multiple waves of immigrants. While Italians have kept hold of the neighborhood (many are presently churning out excellent cuisine nightly), the North End’s reputation has been anything but excitement-free. It was home to the Mob, the famed Sacco and Vanzetti, Charles Ponzi, and the two aforementioned peculiar January events to boot.

Topping the list of offbeat Boston history tidbits is the North End’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919. When a huge tank filled with molasses burst 97 years ago on January 15, it let out a wave of more than two million gallons of the sweet, sticky goo. Contrary to the fluid’s “slow as molasses” reputation, it traveled at 35 miles per hour, taking down a fire station and damaging the supports of an elevated train rail. It destroyed everything in its path, swept up 100 people, and ultimately killed 21. The explosion was attributed to poor maintenance and construction, but has remained a unique tragedy.

boston molasses flood

Great Molasses Flood photo via Wikimedia Commons

Two days later (and 31 years after), on January 17, a group of men in some over-the-top Halloween masks, peacoats, gloves, and chauffeur’s caps nabbed almost 3 million dollars from the Brink’s Building on Prince Street. They expertly unlocked three doors, and gagged and bound five attendants after meticulous premeditation. At the time, it was the largest robbery in American history, and was later nicknamed the “crime of the century.”

The FBI’s extensive report on the robbery tallies their bags of loot: $1,218,211.29 in cash and $1,557,183.83 in checks, money orders, and other securities. The FBI’s investigation saw years of dead ends and frustration. But once two leaders of the gang were jailed for unrelated crimes, one named James O’Keefe eventually confessed. Thus the FBI was able to round up the rest of the robbers before the statute of limitations beat them to it, and they served life in prison.

boston brinks robbery

Curious bystanders and a few reporters gather at the Prince Street entrance to Brinks’s Inc., Jan. 18, 1950. / Photo via AP

While there are probably hundreds of more stories to trace back to this week—or any week in Boston, really—these two offbeat favorites can go down as January classics.