Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 - Stephen Puleo

A quick read that was also a real page turner. Mr. Puleo does his research; there are many facets to this disaster and he takes the reader on a step by step journey, complete with an epilogue that details (as much as one can) what happened to the people involved in the book after the court settlement. There is a lot of social, political, economic, and historical context given to really center the disaster and give it the importance it really should receive.

 

United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA), through its subsidiary Purity, Inc., was in fine form as the early days of WWI turned into quite a profitable time for the companies. USIA turned molasses from the Caribbean islands into industrial alcohol, then sold the alcohol to munitions manufacturers to make things that go boom - that was 80% of their business, the other 20% was grain alcohol that they then sold to distributors or other spirit manufacturers. However, leasing other companies storage tanks were cutting into profits; solution was to build a 50 feet tall, 90 feet wide storage tank (could hold 2.3 million gallons) on the Boston waterfront in North Boston - where most Italian immigrants lived in tenement housing. Italian immigrants were very transitory at the time, and if they did choose to settle for good in the US, they were not keen to get their citizenship papers. No citizenship papers = no votes, so nobody gave a damn about them or the fact that a massive tank to hold molasses until the rail cars could carry the sticky stuff to the processing plant in East Cambridge. The tank was built in a damn hurry in 1915 and starting holding molasses on the first day of 1916. The event took place in January 1919. The book goes further, detailing the civil suit brought against Purity/USIA (that took over 6 years to complete).

 

So much failure all round, but I did find a real-life Atticus Finch in lawyer in Damon Hall. Also the auditor for the state that presided over the civil suit investigation (Hugh Ogden) was in fine judging form. Anarchists, greed, stupidity, laziness, ambition, and 21 deaths (150 injured) - it's all here. It was a little repetitive regarding Italians dislike/disinterested in politics unless it was the anarchists. But it was really interesting about the little known disaster and the even less known lawsuit.