Boston legal history: the Great Molasses Disaster

The Great Molasses Disaster of 1919 – A Strange Case in Boston Folklore

On January 15th 1919, in what may have been the most bizarre disaster in US history, a giant molasses tank burst near Boston harbor. It released more than two million gallons of molasses in a 25 feet high, 160 feet wide wave that raced through the city's North End at 35 miles per hour destroying everything it touched.

The force of the flood was so strong that it wiped out one of the girders supporting the Boston Elevated Railway and several municipal buildings were also destroyed. After spreading out, the liquid settled to a depth of two or three feet right across the North End. 

Soldiers recently returned from the Great War said that the sound of the rivets shooting out of the framework was like the sound of gun-fire. In total, 21 people were killed, including three firemen, while another 150 were injured. Dogs and horses also died. Since that day the event has become part of the local folklore. 

First to arrive on the scene were the 116 cadets who'd been on board the USS Nantucket docked nearby. Soon after, the Police, the Red Cross and the Army arrived, alongside other Navy personnel. Doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital to tend the injured once they'd been dragged from the sticky goo. 

It took four days to find all of the victims and another two weeks to clean up the mess. Around 300 people helped out and it took more than 87,000 man-hours to remove the mess.

The damage done to Boston's infrastructure wasn't the only mess the disaster left behind. It took a lot longer to clear up all the legal wrangles – six years to be precise. In total, 125 lawsuits were filed against the owners of the tank, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. The litigation itself involved 3,000 witnesses while nearly 45,000 pages of testimony and arguments were recorded. There were so many lawyers involved the courtroom couldn't hold them all. 

At the heart of the lawsuits were disagreements as to how it had all happened. The United States Industrial Alcohol Company spent more than $50,000 on expert witness fees, claiming that the collapse was the result of sabotage rather than any structural weakness. This was at the time of the first Red Scare so for some the idea of a Communist plot wasn't all that unlikely. Others suggested that the fermentation of the molasses had caused an explosion inside the tank. 

Eventually the court found that the tank had bust simply because the 'factor of safety' was too low. Insufficient maintenance had been carried out on a storage unit that was poorly put together in the first place. This chimed with the accounts of locals who said that although the tank was barely four years old it leaked molasses so badly you could collect the syrup in a cup. 

Put simply, the company was to blame for all the carnage. Settlements for more than 100 claims were made out of court and the United States Industrial Alcohol Company ultimately paid out more than $600,000 in out of court settlements – about $10 million in 2013 dollars. The survivors of those killed were reportedly given $7,000 per victim. 

While that concluded the legal fallout, the city of Boston wasn't able to draw a line under the catastrophe completely – for many decades later, people said that on summer days you could still smell... molasses.