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On Killer Molasses

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I was speaking with fellow show business professional Dan Allen today on the topic of Postum, the elusive coffee substitute invented by cereal magnate C.W. Post and made available to the public from 1895 to 2007 (the year its production was controversially halted due to what insiders are calling "a shrinking demand"). As is often the case when one finds himself in the midst of a Postum discussion, the talk eventually turned to molasses, one of Postum's primary and no-longer-secret ingredients (the others being bran, wheat, and corn dextrin). And it was during this talk of molasses that Dan hipped me to the Boston Molasses Disaster (or "Great Molasses Flood" as it also sometimes awesomely known), arguably one of the top nine or ten molasses-related disasters the New England area has ever seen. The year was 1919 and it was a wild scene to say the least.

As the story goes, the people of the North End neighborhood of "Beantown" (as it is known to "some") were just going about their business as usual on January 15th of that year, exactly one day before the ratification of the 18th Amendment (which, of course, prohibited alcohol production and -- ultimately -- public groping and fun in general), when shit got seriously crazy all of a sudden. For as long as anyone could remember, the Purity Distilling Company had been maintaining an extremely large molasses tank at 529 Commerce Street. The tank held approximately 2,300,000 gallons (which is to say several shitloads) of the sticky sweet goo and on that fateful day it burst, sending mammoth waves of molasses (reportedly 8-to-15 feet tall, which is generally unheard of in molasses circles) raging throughout the streets at speeds up to 35 miles per hour (again, an extremely impressive molasses-related statistic) and with a force of 2 tons per square foot (I'm not sure what this means really but it certainly doesn't sound good).

As you can probably imagine, when a couple million gallons of molasses is sent hurtling through the streets at such girth and velocity, well, nobody wins -- not even the most diehard of molasses fans. By all accounts, molasses went everywhere, covering everything and everyone in its path. Horses, dogs, humans -- no one was spared and pretty much no one had even guessed that their day would involve being bitchslapped by the gooey brown sugar cane byproduct. Author Stephen Puleo, who witnessed the whole grizzly yet delicious debacle, described it like this:

"Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form- whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was.... Horses died like so many flies on sticky flypaper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings- men and women- suffered likewise. Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn't answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him."

I find it's hard to stay mad at a confectionery of any sort for very long, but on that infamous day in 1919 the people of Boston added molasses to their collective shitlist for a long time to come and with good reason. By the time the whole thing was over, approximately 150 people were injured and 21 people were killed altogether (easily the largest molasses-related death toll the city of Boston had ever known). Doctors and surgeons were forced to set up a makeshift hospital specially for the purpose of treating the many victims' painful yet delicious wounds. And it took over 87,000 man hours to clean up the sticky brown mess. Needless to say, any time anyone in or around Boston so much as mentioned the word molasses after all that they were met with dirty looks, the gnashing of teeth, and the occasional shake of a fist in the air coupled with the fistshaker in question saying the word molasses out loud with marked disdain.

They say if you walk the streets of the North End neighborhood of Boston on a hot day, you can still catch a whiff of the killer molasses in the air. And naturally, it's on these days most of all that the locals find themselves once again grappling with the "What the fuck happened?"-ness of it all. Some say the molasses tank burst just from having so much goddamn molasses in it. Others blame faulty rivets. Still others point their finger in the direction of foul play. The one thing they can all agree on, however, is this -- molasses sure is tasty and even fun a lot of the time, but just not when there's so damn much of it. Man, that shit was crazy. Seriously.

Dave Hill

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