When Sugar is REALLY Bad for You

No, that’s not a shot of the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, it’s a photo taken just after the Boston Molasses Disaster of January 15, 1919. What, you mean you’ve never heard of the Boston Molasses Disaster?

It was an incident whereby a two-and-a-half million gallon molasses tank located at the Purity Distilling Company suddenly failed, sending a 15-foot wave of sticky death hurtling down Commercial Street at some 35 miles per hour. How molasses could reach that speed (and viscosity) in the middle of a January day I don’t know. But then it was a hell of a lot of molasses. The wave demolished buildings, train tracks and conveyances, killing 21 people and injuring 159.

How it all happened is still something of a mystery, though most experts at the time were convinced that the collapse was a result of shoddy workmanship and an over-filled tank. The company pinned the blame on anarchists, who most people forget were a major source of international terrorism in their day. But then Purity Distilling was facing a massive class-action lawsuit at the time so they would, wouldn’t they?

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18 Responses to When Sugar is REALLY Bad for You

  1. Rachel says:

    Haha! I know this shouldn’t be so funny to me, but it is.

    • joepastry says:

      Mrs. Pastry is the same way. She reflexively laughs at tragedy. I think it’s a nervous tic…but I find it endearing. ;)

      - Joe

  2. Heidi says:

    I’m sitting here with my mouth hanging open. You write the most interesting blog. And where on earth did the saying “slow as molasses in January” come from if this is what it can do? Mind boggling, indeed.

    • joepastry says:

      Yeah that stuff was thin and moving fast. It might have been heated, I’m honestly not sure. I couldn’t find any information on that in my sources.

      Thanks for the comment!

      - Joe

  3. rainey says:

    OMG! What a terrible way to be injured!!! I’m sick just imagining the burns and I suspect in a very real way those who were outright killed were probably more fortunate.

    (I’m troubled having to use that word but I genuine think it must have been so.)

    Maybe we’ve never heard of it because those who witnessed it didn’t want to think about it again.

    • joepastry says:

      Indeed. It’s one of those really weird, weird disasters about which there isn’t much to be said…except maybe thank God for industrial regulation and inspection! Thanks for the comment!

      - Joe

  4. Linda says:

    What a horrible way to die. Like lava from a volcano! I had never heard of this before. Love what I learn here…not to mention the recipes.

  5. Rachel says:

    So molasses in January is not all the slow?

  6. Ann in NJ says:

    They say that in some neighborhoods you can still smell molasses when the conditions are right… I would imagine the saying did come from the tragedy, it may have been ironic initially.

    • joepastry says:

      Thanks Ann! Hope you’re hanging in there after Sandy.

      Thanks for the note,

      - Joe

  7. Rosanne says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Joe! I love Boston lore! The way i learned the story was that it was an unseasonably warm day in January and the rapid increase in temperature caused the expansion of the liquid and possible fermentation within the silo that had likely been already overfilled. The sun shining down on the steel would have caused the tank to start heating up, etc. The rivets, which were likely at their end anyway, all started to fail and popped out under the pressure. People reported it sounded like machine gun fire! The massive cleanup effort was done by pumping sea water into the street since nothing else could cut the sugar and the cobblestones were stained brown for decades after.

    Having been in the area on hot summer days, I dont recall ever smelling molasses… But granted, it happened almost 100 years ago. I can totally imagine it still smelled of molasses into the 60s or even the 70s though!

  8. Eva says:

    The same can be said for Chocolate! I’ve read two articles in the last decade of workers dying from falling into a vat of heated chocolate! I’d like to think “What a way to go!”, but it is rather horrific… and a waste of chocolate!


  9. Tanya says:

    Its like a page out of the book , Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs! Bizarre happening!

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