June 7, 2021

Prohibition & The Boston Molassacre

Sarah explains the manufacturing process of molasses, the Triangular Trade, and how this all relates to rum. Becca then discusses the key events that led to prohibition and how this relates to a tank explosion that left 21 dead and covered the city of Boston in molasses. This is the story of the Boston Molassacre.

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Alcohol Problems and Solutions. (n.d.). Fifteen Gallon Law: A Temperance Alcohol Prohibition Effort. https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/fifteen-gallon-law-temperance-alcohol-prohibition-effort/ 

Difford, S. (n.d.). Rum - How Rum is Made? https://www.diffordsguide.com/encyclopedia/337/bws/rum-how-is-rum-made 

Fillipone, P. T. (2019). Learn About the History of Molasses. The Spruce Eats. https://www.thespruceeats.com/history-of-molasses-1807630

Fillipone, P. T. (2020). How to Store Molasses for a Long Shelf-Life. The Spruce Eats. 

History. (2020). Prohibition. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/prohibition 

Hudson, J. (1998). Molasses’ Bittersweet History. SF Gate.  

Jabr, F. (2013, Aug 1). The Science of the Great Molasses Flood. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/molasses-flood-physics-science/ 

Lyons, C. (2009). A Sticky Tragedy: The Boston Molasses Disaster. History Today. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/sticky-tragedy-boston-molasses-disaster 

McCusker, John J. Rum and the American Revolution: The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies. New York: Garland, 1989.

Nature BioScience Pvt. (n.d.) Molasses Fermentation. http://www.naturebioscience.com/molasses-fermentation.php#:~:text=Molasses%20Fermentation%20is%20a%20biological,appropriate%20substrate%20for%20ethanol%20production. 

O’Brien, J. (2015 Mar 9). The time when Americans drank all day long. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31741615 

OldColonyCast. (2020). Boston Molassacre. https://oldcolonycast.libsyn.com/the-boston-molassacre 
Ostrander, Gilman M. "The Colonial Molasses Trade." Agricultural History. 2nd ed. Vol. 30. Winter Park: Agricultural History Society, 1956. 77-84. Via JSTOR.org

Scinto, M. (2020). The Untold Truth of Molasses. Mashed. https://www.mashed.com/224061/the-untold-truth-of-molasses/ 

Shelton, J. (2020, Jan 15).  The Great Molasses Flood Sounds Like A Joke, But It Killed 21 Bostonians. History Daily. https://historydaily.org/great-molasses-flood-sounds-like-joke-killed-21-bostonians 



 Hi everyone! I’m Becca.

And I’m Sarah. & I’m feeling slow as molasses this morning! 

In today’s episode we are going to cover a pretty sticky situation. Sarah is going to start us off with the history of molasses and I am going to dive into a story that shook the Boston area in the early 1900’s, killed 21 people, and completely contradicted the saying “as slow as molasses in January”. And that’s the story of the Boston Molassacre. 

Before we get into it, I just want to give a shoutout to one of our listeners. This episode idea came from Genevieve Berube. Thank you so much for this amazing suggestion. This story is so fascinating. Had you heard of the molassacre?

S: Okay - first things first: did you know that Molasses is called Treacle in the UK?

So Treacle, or Molasses as we call it in North America, is a viscous, dark liquid that is extracted from sugarcane (and less commonly from sorghum) and boiled down to a syrup. If you’ve never had it before, it has a very distinctive sweet, rich, and almost smoky flavour and I personally have only ever made one thing with it: ginger cookies! Which means that for the rest of the year beyond the holiday season, I have a carton of molasses gathering dust in my cupboard. But, that’s okay because much like honey and maple syrup, the high sugar content and lower water activity make molasses fairly shelf-stable. 

Believe it or not, despite the distinct flavour, molasses used to be a sweetener of choice in North America. Up until about the 1880s, molasses was one of the most popular sweeteners because it was cheaper than refined sugar. In the early 1900s, the price of refined sugar plummeted and most North American consumers made the full switch from molasses to refined sugar, which you can learn all about in our fifth episode where we covered the history of sugar and the Harvard Sugar study. Anyways, when molasses was having its heyday, some of the more popular uses were: baked beans, bean soups, corn chowder (?), meat marinades and barbecue sauces, cookies, puddings, fruitcakes, shoofly pie, and breads, it was used as syrup on pancakes and waffles (major downgrade from maple syrup), and it would even be used to sweeten coffee! And possibly the most important use with regards to today’s story - Molasses was also used to make alcohol! Primarily rum. 

You might remember from episode 5 that the process of extracting sugar from sugar cane juice produces a byproduct called molasses. So the sugarcane is chopped and crushed to get the juice, then it’s boiled so that the water evaporates off, and you get a syrup called “wet sugar”. Then this syrup is clarified, crystallized, and separated from a thick, black liquid that is about 40-50% fermentable sugar aka. Molasses! Then the molasses is fermented and distilled to make rum. During fermentation, the sucrose in molasses is converted to ethanol and carbon dioxide. Molasses is actually thought to be one of the earliest substrates used for fermentation by humans, because it’s cost-effective and it also contains B-vitamins and biotin that speed up the ethanol production. 

Now, you’ll probably remember, Becca, that the history of sugar is anything but sweet, and our dear friend Molasses is very similar. Christopher Columbus made a voyage to the Caribbean in 1493 and he made a pit stop in the Canary Islands to grab a stalk of sugar cane to replant in Hispaniola (which is Haiti and the DR today), and by the early 16th century, sugar cane plantations were well-established throughout the hot and humid West Indies. Molasses, a by-product of sugar production, quickly became a key product in something called the Triangular Trade, which is a cyclical trade route that literally looks like a triangle on the map between Africa, the Carribean, the Thirteen Colonies (which were the British colonies along the East Coast of what would eventually become the US). So Sugarcane plantations in the Carribean, owned by English, Spanish, and French colonies, would              produce molasses, then ship it to the thirteen colonies in the US where it was used for both household use and rum production, and then rum was sent to Africa where it was traded for people being sold into slavery, and then the enslavee people were sent to the Caribbean where they would work on the sugarcane plantations. That formed the Triangular Trade: molasses, rum, slaves. 

The triangular trade was very lucrative. By the 1700s, New England was one of the leading rum producers in the world. They had a great deal in which they traded their main exports - lumber, cheese, and flour - for the excess molasses from the French West Indies. But eventually, the molasses trade began to run into issues. First of all, the supply was exceeding the demand. In England and France, there wasn’t much of a market for molasses beyond rum, and in France they actually prohibited the import of rum because it was competing with the brandy market. To deal with the excess, many of the sugar plantations began distilling their own rum to deal with the large surplus of molasses. 

Now, around the same time, the French West Indies began ramping up molasses production and selling it at a cheaper price to the 13 colonies. The British couldn’t compete with the low prices and they were not happy about that. Up until this point, trade had been mostly unrestrained, so the Parliament of Great Britain saw an opportunity and imposed the Molasses Act of 1733. The Molasses Act imposed a tax of 6 pence per gallon on any non-English molasses being imported into the 13 colonies, and the purpose of this act was to stop the colonies from buying any molasses that wasn’t English. The colonies were angry and protested the act and eventually just set up a very effective underground molasses trade where they ignored the taxes and smuggled in molasses from the West Indies. Which gives me serious great Canadian maple syrup heist vibes!! 

So the rum industry in New England continued to thrive, particularly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. By the mid-1700s, Massachusetts was the epicenter of rum production with over 63 distilleries. And I think that’s where you’ll pick up the story, Becca, but really quickly I wanted to touch on the nutrition of molasses… 

There are plenty of reports of molasses being a SUPERFOOD! And there are two important caveats here: a) it’s not a miracle product, remember, superfoods are usually just regular, nutrient dense foods and b) it’s not traditional molasses that has all the health benefits, it’s blackstrap molasses. Blackstrap molasses is molasses that has been boiled down even further and has a much lower sugar content and a fairly high concentration of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, b6, selenium, and potassium. The catch? It’s a bitter, salty sludge that will ruin whatever you’re baking. So while it can be a good source of some vitamins and minerals, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and there are plenty of other healthful ways to get those nutrients! & with that, I’m going to sit back and enjoy my coffee!

B: Thank you Sarah - you’ve set me up perfectly. Before we get into this story, it is pretty important to know the history and properties of molasses, and you did an excellent job walking us through that. The sources I used for my section include an article by Chuck Lyons in History Today and another article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American.

Alright, so I am going to start us off a few decades from where you left us. But in a time where the rum and the overall alcohol industry were thriving. I’m talking about the pre-prohibition era. So it’s the early 1900’s in the United States and the temperance movement has begun. Temperance by definition is the moderation or abstinence of something, so it is often used to describe this period of time when there was an upheaval of individuals against the sale of liquor. Women played a huge role in this, as alcohol was often associated with domestic abuse and infidelity. Many business owners also supported the concept of prohibition, if only to prevent workplace accidents and increase the efficiency of their employees. This is a time when industrial production had picked up and factory workers were putting in extended hours (History, 2020). And it honestly sounds like everyone was constantly super intoxicated at this time.

There had already been an attempt to ban the trade of alcoholic beverages in the 1800’s, and certain states and communities implemented laws against liquor. Massachusetts, which is where this episode takes place - they passed a law in 1838 prohibiting the sale of alcohol in amounts under 15 gallons. To put things in perspective, 15 gallons is 1,920 ounces, which is the equivalent of 74 26er’s of alcohol. And that’s a lot. But likely the equivalent of what I consumed during my university career. To put this in perspective, today Americans drink an average of about 2 gallons of alcohol per year. Around this time, Americans drank an average of 7 gallons of alcohol a year (O’Brien, 2015). So it was a lot. So they implemented this 15 gallon rule to financially discourage its individual sale - so you couldn’t buy an individual drink at a bar or a single bottle at a store; but the law would allow doctors and pharmacists to purchase smaller quantities for medical purposes. 

This tactic was extremely unsuccessful as local friends would all pitch in and divide the 15 gallons amongst themselves; other times store owners or sellers would strategically sell 16 gallons of alcohol to customers, then the customer would sell 15 gallons back to the store owner. Another method of legally obtaining alcohol was if it was given to you at no cost, since the law specified the sale of alcohol, not the consumption of it. Individuals would host gatherings where they would charge people for VERY low cost entertainment, like to go to see a pig with stripes on it. And while they were there, they would be given “free” drinks (I say free in quotation marks, because they were actually paying for the cost of the drinks in their entry fee to go and look at a pig). This law was repealed in 1840, two years after it was set, due to all these work-arounds that sellers and buyers had created (Alcohol Problems and Solutions, n.d.).

And it wasn’t until 1919 that Massachusetts, and the rest of America, were at risk of losing their precious alcohol again. The development of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was in the talks, but had yet to be approved. This Amendment legally banned the production, transportation and sale of alcohol across the country. The US had declared war on Germany two years prior to this and as they entered World War I President Woodrow Wilson wanted to ensure that grain was saved for food production, rather than alcohol like vodka and whiskey (History, 2020). So the 18th Amendment was being discussed, and this new legislation put many alcohol producers and drinkers into a panic. And not just wheat-based alcohol, but other types as well, such as rum, which as we now know, is sometimes made from molasses.

Now we are at the Purity Distilling Co. in North Boston, which is located on Commercial Street, in an area that was mainly populated with Irish and Italian immigrants at the time. In addition to the many modest homes, this area was also home to many small businesses. Purity Distilling hosted a massive 2.3 million gallon molasses storage tank within its facility. And this thing was 50 feet high (which is about the height of a 5 story building) and 90 feet in diameter, so it’s huge. It was built 3 years prior to 1919 and had cost about $30,000 to construct. It was located a short distance from the harbour - so only about 200 ft away - making itt perfectly situated to receive shipments of molasses that came by boat mainly from Cuba; and it was also close enough to the train station so it was easy to move the molasses and the final ethanol product around. I should mention here that some sources claim that Purity Distilling distilled rum from molasses, while others claim that the molasses was used for both drinking and chemical ethanol purposes.

Regardless, this tank was created for mass amounts of the sticky substance. But unfortunately, it had not been properly tested following its construction. Typically, a tank of this size, or anything that will carry a significant amount of liquid would be tested by filling it with water to assess for leaks and repair any damage. But a shipment of molasses arrived a few days after the tank’s completion, so they didn’t have time to test it. And this tank had issues right from the get-go. There were tiny leaks that allowed for molasses to drizzle down the sides of the tank. Neighbours of the distillery would bring cans to fill up with molasses to bring home, and kids would even scrape off the tank remnants to make candy. The leakage was so bad that the company actually painted the tank from blue to a brown-red colour to cover up the leaky appearance. People who lived nearby or worked at the facility also reported noises that would come from the tank - it apparently sounded somewhat like a rumbling noise (Lyons, 2009).

After the fact, it was revealed that this contraption was made out of steel that lacked manganese (like the chemical element or mineral); and this made it much more brittle in colder temperatures. It’s rivets, so the bolts, were also poorly placed, which is often where the molasses would leak from. 

It had been filled a total of 29 times, and only four times at its full capacity. The last time it was ever filled was two days before the flood, on January 13th, 1919, and a shipment of molasses that had arrived from Puerto Rico put it at full capacity - so it held 2.3 million gallons of molasses, about 3 olympic-sized swimming pools worth (OldColonyCast, 2020).

It was January, which is usually colder in Boston; but on January 15th it was only about 40 degrees fahrenheit, so 4 degrees celsius. Some say it was the mixing of the warm molasses from Puerto Rico with the cold molasses that remained in the tank that was also beginning to warm up with the mild weather; others say it was because the tank was so poorly constructed; some people also believe that the older molasses that was in the tank had started to ferment, producing carbon dioxide that created an explosion due to the pressure, but it was likely a combination of all these things.

At around 12:30pm in the afternoon the tank exploded, releasing 26 million pounds of molasses in a 40 foot wave at 35 miles per hour (or 56 km). And it destroyed almost everything it touched in those first few moments. Nearby buildings were literally reduced to kindling from shards of the tank, and from the speed at which they were hit with the molasses. A large piece of the tank landed on the railroad tracks and forced a train car into two people - Pasquale Iantosca and Maria Di Stasio, who were both only 10 years old and were fetching firewood with each other and Maria’s brother. A 3-story firehouse was taken from its foundations, trapping three firefighters under it. Many homes were also removed from their foundations and swept away. People, horses and other animals drowned if they were unable to get their heads above the wave (Lyons, 2009). For almost 100 metres, this molasses remained chest-height or higher. 

One article in the Smithsonian retells the story of Maria’s brother: “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 four sisters staring at him.” (Shelton, 2020). He was one of the lucky ones. So as he was running the molasses trapped his feet like fly paper and he was taken with the wave. 

The thing about molasses is that it exhibits completely different properties than water. Molasses is considered a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning that its viscosity is completely dependent on the forces applied to it. This really great article in Scientific American compared it to toothpaste. When we tilt a tube of toothpaste around with the cap off, nothing happens. It’s harmless. But if we take that capless tube and squeeze it with sudden force, you have a pretty big mess. And that is essentially what happened here. Molasses is also almost impossible to swim in due to its viscosity and density. It can get up to 10,000x’s more viscous than water depending on how it’s made. So if you were in a pool of it and you were trying to try to move it away from your face, the moment you bring your arm back up to remove more, it brings that molasses you just moved away back up to your face. Some research has been done to try to reenact what it would be like to be in this scenario, only the researchers used corn syrup instead, which has pretty similar properties (Jabr, 2013). 

The first wave of rescue came from 116 sailors who had docked nearby. They were joined by the Boston police, Red Cross and the army. The rescue lasted multiple days as the cooled molasses created a gelatinous state that people would get stuck in, and it was challenging to identify individuals who were covered in the brown substance. Other people were swept into the harbour and the Massachusetts Bay. But on mainland, molasses was everywhere - on all crevices of every building, on the people affected by it and the people helping. Can you imagine getting that stuff out of your hair? It is estimated that the clean up took about 87,000 man hours, which took about 6 months. They had to use fire hoses to power wash almost all surfaces and used chisels and saws to break it up when it had started to harden. The entire city also smelled of molasses. So I assume you would be thinking about it all the time.

Overall, it is said to have cost around $100 million dollars (in today’s money) to tidy and repair the damage, and the incident ultimately killed 21 people and injured 150. The day following the tragedy, Congress approved the 18th Amendment that I was talking about earlier. Whether this was a coincidence or not is unclear, but it’s possible that the molassacre may have had something to do with the beginning of prohibition. The Amendment didn’t officially go into effect until January 17th, 1920 though - so like a year later - and it lasted until 1933.

But back to 1919... there was some suspicion that foul play had caused the tank to explode. One month following the disaster though, the results of the investigation were made public by the Chief Judge of Boston Municipal Court, Wilfred Bolster. He ultimately blamed the tank stating that it was structurally insignificant to handle the load of molasses. He also charged the parent company of Purity Distilling, called United States Industrial Alcohol (or USIA), with manslaughter for their clear neglect in this tragedy. The grand jury in the case found that the tank was both built and inspected insufficiently, but they did not agree on the manslaughter charge.

USIA maintained that the tank had been sabotaged, likely by Italian anarchists. They claimed that they had received a phone call threatening the tank one year prior to the incident. And they also stated that threatening posters had been plastered up in the neighbourhood just days beforehand. This alternative story wasn’t completely impossible, as a bomb had been found in another USIA location 3 years beforehand. Likely having something to do with the temperance movement.

Regardless of these claims, by August 1920, the USIA had 119 individual lawsuits filed against them from those who were injured and from the family members of the victims. They blamed the tank, and demonstrated evidence that the materials used to build it were thinner than what was documented (and they used shards of the tank to prove this). Apparently the man who had constructed the vessel, named Arthur Jell, he was a financial officer. Not an engineer of any kind. So the tank was likely constructed with money in mind, rather than safety. Jell couldn't even read the plans for the tank, nor had he sought out any advice from an engineer. The plaintiffs were also able to show that the tank construction was rushed and had not been tested.

3 years and 921 witnesses later, the existing transcript for this case is almost 25,000 pages. It took the hired auditor/attorney, Hugh Ogden, a year to review all the notes. To this day, this case remains the longest and most costly civil suit in the history of the state of Massachusetts. On April 28th, 1925, just over 6 years after the molassacre, Ogden finally concluded that the company was liable. USIA and the Distillery had been unable to provide any evidence that the tank had been attacked like they had claimed.
USIA was required to pay $300,000 dollars in damages, which is about $4.5 million in today’s money. Only $6,000 went to the families of the victims (although USIA agreed in a separate settlement to provide them with more, but the amount is undisclosed). Then $25,000 went to the City, and $42,000 went to the railroad company.

This incident actually set a precedent for all construction projects moving forward. The city of Boston started requiring that any plans be approved by an architect or engineer before putting them in action, which seems like such common sense. This practice then became the standard across America.

No one ever rebuilt the tank, and the space was cleared out and converted into what is now a public park. There is a small plaque there that explains the tragedy that took place that day, over 102 years ago. And it is often said that if you are in Boston on a hot day, you can STILL smell the remnants of molasses (Lyons, 2009).