Dhe January 15 and 16, 1919 were difficult days for the city of Boston, at least for those who benefited as workers or consumers of the liquor industry of the great Massachusetts port. On Wednesday the 16th, the US anti-alcohol movement celebrated the realization of its long-cherished dream of ratifying the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that banned the production, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The day before, a meter-high wave from the burst tank of a rum factory had destroyed parts of the city and literally drowned numerous people in a sticky mass. The catastrophe went down in history as the “Boston Molassacre”.
It all started with a fresh shipment of sugar syrup from Puerto Rico. The waste product that results from processing sugar cane has always been used in the production of rum, which Boston distilleries, including the state-owned United States Industrial Alcohol Company, had specialized in.
At their warehouse in the North End neighborhood, 8,500 cubic meters of molasses were stored in a huge tank. With a height of 15 meters and a diameter of 27 meters, it was an imposing monument made of steel, which, however, was already gnawing at the ravages of time. To hide the leaks, the tank had been painted brown. He hadn’t become more stable as a result.
When the molasses delivery was let in, it had been unusually cold. This was followed by a temperature jump of 20 degrees to five degrees plus, which significantly accelerated the fermentation processes in the tank.
Eye and ear witnesses described the result as follows: At around 12:30 p.m. on January 15, a cacophony rocked the North End, reminiscent of volleys from machine guns. The pressure inside forced the bolts holding the tank together out of their mounts. Then there was a deafening bang that shook the earth and a huge wave spilled onto the streets of the city. The remains of the tank were later found scattered over hundreds of meters.
But those were the harmless consequences of the explosion. The brown wave poured deadly force over the neighborhood. Streets were flooded, houses squashed, the elevated railway collapsed. Witnesses remembered a noise that resembled a train rushing by. The brown tide is said to have been up to seven meters high and devoured everything that stood in its way, cars, horse-drawn carts – and people.
116 cadets from a Navy training ship were the first to arrive, trying to save what could be saved. But the panicked figures that had been seized by the sticky mass only ensured with their twitching movements that they were absorbed even deeper by it. Rescuers brave enough to dive in the sugar broth could be glad to escape their deadly grip. Victims and rescuers moved as if in slow motion; death also came in slow motion.
21 people died horribly in the sticky tsunami, as well as numerous horses, dogs and other animals. Around 150 people were injured, some seriously. It took six months for the fire brigade to clear the streets and ruins to some extent of the molasses, which could only be gotten off with salt water from the harbor, while they withstood the sweet extinguishing water. According to today’s value, the damage amounted to at least 100 million dollars.
How the murderous attack of the killer syrup came about has long preoccupied science. Just a few years ago, aeronautical engineer Nicole Sharp and physicist Jordan Kennedy came up with a conclusive solution. Then the molasses cooled suddenly after the explosion and became more solid. The characteristics that are characteristic of the syrup as a non-Newtonian liquid became apparent: it does not show any linear flow behavior, but becomes a tough to hard mass under pressure.
If it was previously assumed that the explosion alone determined the speed of the deadly wave, it is now clear that temperature also played a decisive role. On a warm summer’s day, the syrup would have been even faster, but less viscous, explained Nicole Sharp, but it would not have been nearly as deadly, says the scientist. “The more people tried to free themselves, the more firmly they stuck.”
Physical explanations only played a marginal role in the legal processing of the disaster. In a mammoth trial that saw around 3,000 witnesses speak, 125 plaintiffs sought compensation from the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. She resisted and assigned the blame to a group of anarchists who had been making a name for themselves with attacks for some time.
In the end, however, the obviously ailing condition of the tank convinced the court. The guilty verdict was in reparation payments of one million dollars. Organized crime had long since taken over the US liquor supply.
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This article was first published in January 2019.