The Messenger | The 1919 Molasses Flood: Destruction, Immigration, and Active Citizenship in Boston’s North End
By Amanda Tuttle
At 12:45 pm, on January 15, 1919, a tsunami-like wave swept down Commercial Street in Boston’s North End neighborhood. This giant wave of molasses took the lives of 21 individuals while injuring 150 others. “This was one of the worst catastrophes which has visited the City of Boston in my remembrance … Cold molasses has death-dealing and destructive powers equal to the tornado or the cyclone when it is suddenly unloosed,” said Damon Hall in August 1920.
The events of the Molasses Flood and subsequent trial illuminated and exasperated current tensions affecting America at large. Rampant xenophobia and racism, especially against Italians, was at a high. Anarchists were threatening the core of American ideals, and Big Business was running unchecked throughout the country. Through the lens of the Molasses Flood, one can dive deeper into the tumultuous early decades of the twentieth century to understand its lasting impact on our nation.
In 1915, the United States was a country on the brink. The Great War was underway in Europe, with the United States desperate to remain on the outside of the armed conflict but still supply vital munitions and aid to its allies abroad. At home, isolationism continued with an uptick in xenophobic and racist sentiments. In 1875 and 1882, the Federal government enacted its first laws to combat immigration to America. In 1902, future President Woodrow Wilson wrote, “but now there came multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy … having neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” Boston’s North End neighborhood was an ethnic Italian enclave. According to Boston police, it was increasingly the headquarters for the leading Italian anarchists in America, preaching the violent overthrow of capitalism and government. 
In late 1915, this neighborhood became the home of United States Industrial Alcohol’s (USIA) newest molasses storage tank. Ships bringing molasses to New England from the Caribbean followed the same shipping routes for over 300 years. USIA was importing molasses for its use in munitions and less for its more popular use in the production of rum. The location of the tank was also below the North End elevated railway. Molasses could easily be loaded onto railcars and transported to the Cambridge distillery. The North End, with its high percentage of Italian immigrants, had significantly low percentages of political participation. Many of those in the neighborhood were not citizens, and, therefore, could not speak up against the building of a massive steel tank. 
This is the context in which the molasses tank on Commercial Street received its first delivery on December 31, 1915. By 1916, with the United States still delaying their formal entry into World War I, the tank filled twice to almost two million gallons of molasses. Almost immediately, neighbors and workers reported seeing the tank leaking molasses onto the street. Tensions rose on June 24, 1916 when police discovered a bomb at the USIA facility in Brooklyn. USIA treasurer Arthur Jell erected a fence surrounding the Commercial Street tank in response. Shipments of molasses increased with Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on April 6, 1917. Later, Jell once again increased police presence at the tank after a bomb exploded at the North End Salutation Street police station following a riot by the International Workers of the World in North Square in early December 1918.  On January 15, 1919, just days after a large shipment of molasses brought the tank to a capacity of 2.3 million tons of molasses; a tsunami of the sugary substance engulfed the North End, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Following the tragedy, the District Attorney stated, “the evidence tends to show that the huge tank collapsed by reason of faulty construction and not because of an explosion,” contradicting claims by USIA that Italian anarchists blew up the tank as a way of protesting Big Business and American involvement in World War I. In response, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled to consolidate the 119 separate claims against USIA into one and appoint an auditor to issue a report on the findings. Dorr vs. United States Industrial Alcohol was the largest class action suit to date in Massachusetts and one of the largest in the United States. 
Beginning in August 1920, Damon Everett Hall and Charles Francis Choate put forth hours of testimony for the plaintiff and defense (USIA), respectively, that stretched over four years. During this time, Choate argued that Italian anarchists, still wreaking havoc across America and Boston, were to blame for the collapse. Arguably, the defense strengthened on April 15, 1920 when police arrested two Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, for murder in South Braintree. Conversely, Hall showed a pattern of gross neglect and shoddy craftsmanship on the part of US Industrial Alcohol.
Appointed auditor, Hugh W. Ogden, was a lawyer educated at University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law. He was active in the Episcopal Church of Boston, referred to as an “outstanding Episcopal layman” and authority on canon law. He was also a member of the vestry at the Old North Church. During World War I, Ogden served as Judge Advocate for the 42ndInfantry Rainbow Division in France alongside Generals Pershing and MacArthur. Following his service in the war, Ogden returned home to Boston, where he promptly took on the Molasses Flood case. On April 28, 1925, after almost five years of testimony, Ogden released the “Special Report on Liability to the Superior Court of Massachusetts” which rejected outright USIA’s claim of sabotage and concluded that the tank collapsed due to structural failure. Ogden assessed that USIA was to pay $300,000 in damages to the estates of the victims, the City of Boston, and the Boston Elevated Railroad Company due to their breach of common safety.
In its wake, the Molasses Flood of 1919 left more than death and destruction. It effectively ended more than 300 years of molasses trade in the City of Boston, showing that Big Business could not self-police. The rise of government insight and greater regulation paved the way for the New Deal politics of Franklin Roosevelt in the next decades. Across the country, engineering certification laws came into effect and professional engineers registered all major structural plans before cities issued building permits. In addition, there was an uptick in active citizenship within the Italian community of the North End. An increasing number of immigrations became US citizens, allowing them to become decision makers in the fate of their neighborhood. 
1. Panorama of the Molasses Disaster site, Globe Newspaper Co., January 15, 1919.
2. Map of Boston, 1917, Walter Scott Bromley and George Washington Bromley. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. Note the circular Molasses Tank and Old North Church.
3. Aftermath of the Molasses Disaster from under the tracks, photographer unknown, 1919.
4. Hugh W. Ogden (1871-1938) State Auditor Dorr vs. US Industrial Alcohol, ca. 1920. University of Pennsylvania Archives.
Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 168-169. Dorr vs. United States Industrial Alcohol(Boston: Social Law Library, 1925).
Daniel Okrent, The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America(New York: Scribner, 2019), 52, 183.
Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People(New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1902), 98-99. For more information on anti-immigrant sentiments in America, and specifically Boston, see: Okrent, The Guarded Gate, and Thomas C. Leonard,Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
Puleo, Dark Tide, 19. As historian Paul Avrich states in Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), “In the end, truth, justice, and freedom would triumph over falsehood, tyranny, and oppression. To accomplish this, however, would require a social key, for only the complete overthrow of the existing order, the abolition of property, and the destruction of the state, could bring the final emancipation of the workers.”
By 1900, over 400,000 out of 560,000 total Bostonians had at least one foreign-born parent.
Library of Congress, “Stars and Stripes: The American Soliders’ Newspaper of WWI, 1918-1919,” https://www.loc.gov/collections/stars-and-stripes/articles-and-essays/a-world-at-war/timeline-1914-1921/.
Felix Frankfurter, “The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti,” The Atlantic (March 1927), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1927/03/the-case-of-sacco-and-vanzetti/306625/.
Vestry- A group of laymen elected to represent the church. According to An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, the basic responsibilities of the vestry include, “help define and articulate the mission of the congregation; to support the church’s mission by word and deed, to select the rector, to ensure effective organization and planning, and to manage resources and finances. For more information about the vestry of Christ Church in the City of Boston, colloquially known as The Old North Church see: “Old North Church (Christ Church in the City of Boston) Records, Massachusetts Historical Society.
In July 1918, Ogden received the Distinguished Service Medal. For his “high ability, talents, and valuable service,” Ogden promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in September 1918. For more information about the 42ndRainbow Division see: “Under the Rainbow: The 42ndRainbow Division in World War I,” The MacArthur Memorial, http://www.macarthurmemorial.org/198/The-42nd-Rainbow-Division-in-World-War-I. For more information on Ogden’s work on courts-martial after World War I, see “Proceedings and Report of Special U.S. War Department Board on Courts-Martial and Their Procedure,” (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919).
Puleo, Dark Tide, 225-229. For more about the impact of the Molasses Flood on business regulation see “How the Boston Molasses Flood Began a New Era of Liability,” https://www.shefflaw.com/how-the-boston-molasses-flood-began-a-new-era-of-liability/.
On the other hand, the Johnson-Reid Act of 1924 made official the May 19, 1921 Johnson Bill which limited immigration on a national basis during World War I. This bill used “race arguments grounded in eugenic theory” to cap immigration to the United States based on ethnic and national origins. The quota was equal to 2% of each nationality population in the United States in 1890. This effectively stopped the immigration of Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox Christians from Southern and Eastern Europe.