It was midway through the lunch hour on an unseasonably warm day in Boston, Massachusetts. Folks outside taking in the nice weather were the first to hear the loud rumbling sound and feel the ground beneath them shake as if a train were passing by. And then they were suddenly engulfed by a sweet tsunami, a 25-foot wall of molasses moving faster than molasses ought to move. The goo rolled relentlessly through the streets of Boston just like the creature in The Blob (with nary a Steve McQueen to save the day).
Some conspiracy theorists (before they were swallowed) thought it might be an invasion from outer space. But no, this was a locally spawned terror. The culprit was the Purity Distilling Company, producer of molasses used primarily as a sweetener throughout the United States but also fermented to produce rum and ethanol, and a key component in the manufacturing of munitions. The wayward molasses was stored in a large tank holding over 2 million gallons, awaiting transfer to a plant in Cambridge when the tank burst on January 15, 1919.
The result was devastating. Molasses, waist deep, covered the streets,swirling and bubbling about the wreckage of automobiles, trucks and even a passenger train. People and animals alike were trapped like flies on sticky fly-paper. Twenty-one people and several horses were killed; 150 were injured. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were engulfed.
Cleaning up the gooey mess took several weeks and over 87,000 man-hours. The harbor was brown with molasses for months. Purity, despite its innocent-sounding name, was held responsible, even though the company tried to blame the whole thing on anarchists. Turns out the molasses tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks.
Some local residents in the true spirit of enterprise made lemonade, collecting enough molasses to sweeten their tea for years to come.
January 15, 1870 – First depiction of Democratic Party as a donkey (by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly)