"Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919." By Stephen Puleo. Beacon Press. 263 Pages. $23.
It's an idea so bizarre as to be unbelievable, a massive flood of molasses - in January - sweeping all before it, crushing buildings, engulfing people and horses, battering railway tracks.
Yet it happened, claiming 21 lives in the process, with the collapse of a giant tank containing 2.3 million gallons of the syrup on the Boston waterfront. Twenty-one people died, others suffered permanent injury or were left homeless in the wake of the tragedy.
In "Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919," journalist Stephen Puleo details what happened in this first book on the subject.
Thoroughly researched, the volume weaves together the stories of the people and families affected by the disaster, with often heartbreaking glimpses of their fates. Puleo sets the scene carefully, in the context of the time and social conditions, and follows through with the years of lawsuits that ensued.
It had been a boom time for United States Industrial Alcohol, manufacturer of alcohol used in munitions during World War I. But the war was over and Prohibition was looming, cutting the market for alcohol. Hoping for one last big market, the company had filled its giant tank with molasses, planning to distill it into drinking spirits to sell before the ban on alcohol took effect the following year.
Then, shortly after noon on Jan. 15, 1919, the 50-foot-tall tank, hastily built four years earlier, gave way, sending millions of gallons of molasses in a massive wave sweeping across the docks, demolishing a home and fire station, and even bending an elevated railway structure.
Martin Clougherty, who worked the night shift, was asleep when the molasses demolished his house. "He had had the sensation of falling overboard, had felt his head go under, and it was only then - when the liquid rushed into his nose and mouth, when he could taste it - that he realized he was immersed in molasses," Puleo reports.
Clougherty was able to save himself and pull his sister to safety. But his mother was fatally crushed in the collapsing building. His brother Stephen died a year later in a mental hospital.
Stonecutter John Barry was trapped in the demolished city street repair building, others moaning around him. Repeatedly during the day, rescue workers had to crawl to him through the muck and inject morphine to ease his pain until they could get him out.
Giuseppe Iantosca was standing at his apartment window watching his son, Pasquale, gather firewood around the base of the tank when the little boy suddenly disappeared in the dark mass. Iantosca searched for hours before returning to his wife Maria.
"Exhausted and disconsolate, he trudged up the dark stairs and stepped into the house. Maria was waiting for him, her black eyes rimmed red from crying. Neither of them spoke - he had come home alone, and that said everything."
The boy's body was recovered days later.
The cleanup lasted months, the lawsuits years, the fearful memories a lifetime.