Non-Fiction Review: Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Stephen Puleo's book Dark Tide covers a remarkably forgotten tragedy. On January 15, 1919, a 2.3 million gallon tank of molasses collapsed, spilling its contents in Boston's North End in a wave traveling some 35 miles per hour. Twenty-one people lost their lives and some 150 were injured. It almost sounds comical until you consider the horror such an event would no doubt present. Consider how horrible it would be to literally drown in molasses. Yes this is an event that is not in the popular history of the nation or even Boston. 
Dark Tide is divided into three sections. The first, "A Monster in Our Midst" deals with the construction of the tank. Rather than being an exercise in engineering discussion it instead explains why it was built and what the nation and city were like at the time. Puleo explains how the United States Industrial Alcohol Corporation (USIA) distilled molasses in various plants, with one such plant being in Cambridge. A portion of the molasses would be distilled into grain alcohol for rum but the great bulk of it would be distilled into industrial alcohol to be used in the manufacture of various high explosives. However, USIA lacked a large storage facility near its Cambridge distillery forcing it to purchase its molasses from third parties, cutting into its profits. With the World War going on, even without the United States as a participant, USIA was missing out on potential profits. In 1915 they built a tank but as in many construction projects, they ran into countless delays, resulting in the tank being finished barely in time for its first January 1916 delivery. We learn of the corners cut, the lack of testing performed, all to maximize profit. The result was a tank that leaked molasses constantly, with neighborhood children often gathering molasses with buckets as it dripped out of the enormous tank.
Beyond just dealing with the tank itself Puleo devotes a fair amount of text to the lives of many of the people who worked and lived in the vicinity of the tank, from an employee who constantly warned his management chain about the risk of the tank rupturing to firemen in the area to immigrant families. He also talks about the security concerns around the tank, especially once the United States entered the World War. The world in general had been dealing with violent anarchists for several decades, with President McKinley being felled by an anarchist's bullet back in. Boston's North End, with its large Italian immigrant community, was a hotbed of the anarchist movement with such notable anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and a series of bombing and bombing attempts in 1916 such as a failed bombing of the Massachusetts State House, a Woburn factory bombing, and the bombing of a Boston police station.
1919 saw more anarchist activity, with the year starting with anarchist threats. In this environment Puelo gives us his second section, dealing with the actual disaster. USIA was anxious to make one final big financial score. With the war over and Prohibition on the verge of ratification (with a one-year grace period after ratification), they wanted to churn out grain alcohol for the final year of legal alcohol. It was shortly after a major delivery that the tank ruptured. Puelo covers the ordeals of those people he introduced earlier in the book as well as many others and covers the rescue and recovery efforts.
The final section deals with the legal proceedings against the company. USIA claimed their tank was safe and the disaster was a result of anarchists. This was not difficult to believe, as 1919 and 1920 saw continued anarchist bombings, with a massive wave in late spring of 1919 leading to the "Palmer Raids" - Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's effort to deport anarchists, a process that did not spend much time worrying about the civil rights of the accused. Much of this section is from the perspective of the preliminary judge, a World War veteran as well as the prosecuting and defense attorneys. This "preliminary" hearing lasted several years, with the judge to render his initial recommendation, a recommendation likely to carry strong weight. During this long trial anarchists detonated a bomb in Wall Street, giving some apparent credibility to the defense's theory of events. This took place under the backdrop of the extremely pro-business Harding and Coolidge presidential administrations.
Overall it made for a very interesting read. Puleo does an excellent job showcasing the world this disaster took place in, letting us get to know the people of this world, their wants and their concerns. He does delve into the occasional glimpses of the thoughts of the participants, most likely a necessary convention in this type of work. He also gives a very useful bibliography for a variety of topics such as Boston of the time, the anarchist movement, court records, etc.
One thing which struck me is the similarity of this world to our own, especially the early years of the 21st century. The United States during both periods was in an extremely pro-business mood after a two-term Democratic administration. And both periods dealt with a terrorist threat which prompted some extreme fear-based responses.


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