Thursday, September 30, 2010

Woodrow Wilson, Prohibition, and the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919

At 12:40 p.m. on January 15, 1919, in Boston’s Industrial North End, a fifty-five foot high steel storage tank containing more than two million gallons of molasses exploded, unleashing an immense wave of thick, viscous goo that swept through the city streets as fast as 35 miles per hour.

The wave – initially thirty feet high, according to some bystanders – exerted enough force “to break the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway's Atlantic Avenue structure and lift a train off its tracks.” The force of the blast and the ensuing tsunami also overturned dozens of cars and trucks in its path and "demolished several nearby buildings, including a fire station which was crushed by a huge chunk of the steel tank."

Witnesses later stated that, as the tank collapsed, there was a loud rumbling sound, like a machine gun, and that “the ground shook as if a train were passing by.” In his book, Black Tide, Stephen Puleo described the disaster this way:

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was…Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise.

The next morning, the Boston Evening Globe ran a front-page story based on eyewitness accounts taken on that terrible day:

Fragments of the great tank were thrown into the air, buildings in the neighborhood began to crumple up as though the underpinnings had been pulled away from under them, and scores of people in the various buildings were buried in the ruins, some dead and others badly injured.

In all, more than 150 people were injured and 21 children and adults were killed, mostly by crushing or asphyxiation. Fueled by the intense anti-immigrant sentiments that swept through the United States during the post-World War I Red Scare, owners of the distillery tried to pin the disaster on Italian anarchists, claiming that they had bombed the tank because they knew that the molasses was intended to be fermented to produce ethyl alcohol, a key component in the manufacturing of munitions at the time.

Although the exact cause of the disaster was never determined, no evidence of sabotage was ever found and experts generally attributed it to unseasonably warm temperatures combined with structural defects and poor maintenance of the tank.

So what does this have to do with President Woodrow Wilson and food? Well, by coincidence, the day after the disaster, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of intoxicating liquors. With Prohibition looming on the horizon, rumors began to circulate which held that the tank had been overfilled to enable the owners of the distillery to produce as much rum as quickly as possible before the law took effect.

This claim was later proven untrue due to the fact that the distillery didn't make rum and specialized instead in the production of industrial alcohol, which was exempt from the state prohibition laws in effect at the time, and would later be exempted from the Volstead Act, which was passed by Congress on October 27, 1919 over President Wilson's veto.

Regardless of the cause, more than one hundred lawsuits were filed against the owners of the tank, and litigation dragged on for six years, during which 3,000 witnesses testified. In the end, the court ruled for the plaintiffs and ordered the company to pay nearly a million dollars in damages - a "bittersweet victory for survivors of one of the strangest disasters in American history."

FOOD FACT: Molasses was once used in the United States as the primary sweetener in cooking and baking. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, New England colonists also used molasses "as an ingredient in brewing birch beer and molasses beer and in distilling rum." In the early 1700s, "rum made in New England became an essential element in a highly profitable Triangular Trade across the Atlantic. The colonists exported rum to West Africa in trade for slaves; the ships brought the slaves from Africa to the French West Indies, trading them for more molasses and sugar; these products were then shipped to New England to make more rum....When the cost of refined sugar dropped at the end of the nineteenth century...molasses lost its role as an important sweetener in the American diet."