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Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

4.1 83
by Stephen Puleo

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Shortly after noon on January 15, 1919, a fifty-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed on Boston's waterfront, disgorging its contents as a fifteen-foot-high wave of molasses that briefly traveled at thirty-five miles per hour. When the tide receded, a section of the city's North End had been transformed into a war zone. The Great


Shortly after noon on January 15, 1919, a fifty-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed on Boston's waterfront, disgorging its contents as a fifteen-foot-high wave of molasses that briefly traveled at thirty-five miles per hour. When the tide receded, a section of the city's North End had been transformed into a war zone. The Great Boston Molasses Flood claimed the lives of twenty-one people and scores of animals, injured 150, and caused widespread destruction.

But the molasses flood was more than an isolated event. Its story overlays America's story during a tumultuous decade in our history. Tracing the era from the tank's construction in 1915 through the multiyear lawsuit that followed the tragedy, Dark Tide uses the drama of the flood to examine the sweeping changes brought about by World War I, Prohibition, the Anarchist movement, the Red Scare, immigration, and the role of big business in society.

Stephen Puleo is a former award-winning newspaper reporter and now works in corporate public relations in the Boston area. He has done extensive research on Boston's North End, where the molasses flood took place, and is a frequent contributor to American History magazine. He lives in the Boston area.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In January, 1919, a fifty-foot tank filled with molasses exploded, sending waves of viscous goo through waterfront Boston and killing twenty-one people. Were Italian anarchists to blame or was it negligence by the tank’s owner, the United States Industrial Alcohol company? Such matters form the crux of Puleo’s account, which is narrated with gusto (and sometimes too much gusto: one victim has molasses “clinging to his private parts, like an army of insects that just keep coming”). Molasses was a vital commodity at the time, used in rum manufacture (the tank was full to the brim to cash in on pre-Prohibition demand), and it had been important in the production of First World War munitions. Puleo overreaches in claiming the story of the flood as a “microcosm of America”—an almost obligatory conclusion in this sort of history—but his enthusiasm for a little-known catastrophe is infectious.
Publishers Weekly
In this volume, Puleo, a contributor to American History magazine, sets out to determine whether the collapse of a molasses tank that sent a tidal wave of 2.3 million gallons of the sticky liquid through Boston's North End and killed 21 people was the work of Italian anarchists or due to negligence by the tank's owner, United States Industrial Alcohol. Getting into the minds of the major players in the disaster-USIA suits, victims, witnesses, North End residents, politicians-he re-creates not only the scene but also the social, political and economic environments of the time that made the disaster more than just an industrial accident. While the collapse's aftermath is tragic, the story itself is not exactly gripping. More interesting are the tidbits of Boston's and America's history, such as the importance of molasses to all U.S. war efforts up to and including WWI, which Puleo uses to put the tank collapse in the context of a very complex time in U.S. history. The most striking aspect of this tale is the timeliness of the topics it touches on. Describing Americans being persecuted because of their ethnicity, a sagging economy boosted by war, and terrorism on U.S. soil that results in anti-immigration laws and deportations, Puleo could just as easily be writing about current events as about events in 1919. Overall, this is another piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is Boston's long and rich history. Photos. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Boston native and journalist Puleo takes an incident that seems to belong in a Marx Brothers movie and resituates it in the city's social history. The 15-foot-high wall of molasses that inundated the streets of Boston's North End in winter of 1919, the debut author explains, flows into such issues of the day as "immigration, anarchists, World War I, Prohibition, the relationship between labor and Big Business, and between the people and their government." With a good sense of timing and an easy voice, Puleo sets the scene for the disaster to come: the rush to complete a giant tank holding more than two million gallons of molasses, the failure to have it properly tested, the blind eye that parent company US Industrial Alcohol turned to the tank's copious leaks, and the threats it levied at workers who complained. The author also paints the period's social picture. Discrimination against the North End's Italian-born residents and their lack of political participation, whether barred from it or of their own volition, were important factors in the tank's placement near their neighborhood. The rise of the anarchist movement and its strong antiwar sentiments made the tank a tempting target, since alcohol produced from the molasses went into the making of wartime munitions. The sheer destructive force of the molasses flood is jarringly presented in a number of vignettes about those trapped; 21 people died. In the ensuing court battle, Big Business was put on notice that it would not be trusted to police construction safety standards itself, it was not above the law, and it would be liable for damages. Properly and compellingly recasts quaint folklore as a tragedy with important ramifications.(Photographs) Agent: Joy Tutela/David Black Literary Agency
From the Publisher
Narrated with gusto . . . [Puleo's] enthusiasm for a little-known catastrophe is infectious. —The New Yorker

"Compelling . . . Puleo has done justice to a gripping historical story."—Ralph Ranalli, Boston Globe

"Thoroughly researched . . . weaves together the stories of the people and families affected by the disaster, with often heartbreaking glimpses of their fates . . . The cleanup lasted months, the lawsuits years, the fearful memories a lifetime." —Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press

"Giving a human face to tragedy is part of the brilliance of Stephen Puleo's Dark Tide . . . Until they were given voice in this book, the characters who drove the story were forgotten." —Caroline Leavitt, Boston Sunday Globe

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.02(d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Puleo is author of the critically acclaimed Boston-area bestseller Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, he holds a master's degree in history and wrote his thesis on Italian immigration and the settlement of Boston's North End. He donates a portion of his book proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), the leading charitable funder and advocate of juvenile (Type 1) diabetes research. Stephen and his wife, Kate, live in the Boston area.

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Dark Tide 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 83 reviews.
ChocolateChip More than 1 year ago
This book tells the story of a disaster that has been kept in the shadows since its occurrence in 1919. Many native Bostonians do not even know of the immense molasses flood that destroyed their home town almost a century ago. This book is the first full accounting of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. It starts by explaining the need for an enormous 2.3 million gallon molasses tank in Boston and continues through the extensive civil lawsuit that followed a decade after the flood. The first few chapters of this book are written in the eyes of a few workers that helped build and oversee the production of the tank. The reader gets an inside look at how the tank was completed, the dangers of being a crew member for the tank and the reason that caused a tragedy where twenty-one innocent people lost their lives. The next few chapters touch upon life outside of the molasses tank. The 20th Century was the time of World War I, Prohibition, the anarchist movement, immigration and the expanding of big businesses. This book not only describes the Molasses Flood, it gives incredible detail on other issues that were also present at the time of the flood. Vast detail is given of every event that took place the day of the massive flood. A full chapter is dedicated to remembrance of those who lost their lives and were injured by the flood. Also, the extent of the damage is recalled and first-hand pictures are shown for enhancement. The final chapters show the public's reaction to the flood, as well as details about the multiyear lawsuit and an explanation of why the flood was considered "One of the worst catastrophes." This book was compelling, interesting and informative and it has made the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 more well-known throughout the country. I would greatly recommend this book.
NZP More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. Parts are quite upsetting since people died fairly horrible deaths, but if you can get past that, it is worth it. It is so well written and so fascinating. I agree with others that it brings out all of the nuances of this disaster- class struggles, immigrant issues, the historical setting, corporate greed, etc.
Lady_Kaira More than 1 year ago
The subject was interesting, I had never heard of this event until now. I did not like the style of the author however. I felt he got a bit long winded and draggy describing individual people involved before ever getting to the tragic accident. I would only recommend this to those who are real history buffs.
Mel-NMRHS More than 1 year ago
This novel tells the story of the 1919 molasses flood in Boston. A molasses holding tank was built on the commercial street wharf. It had the ability to hold about 26 million gallons of molasses. On January 15, 1919 2.3 million gallons of molasses flood Boston's North End. The cause of this flood was faulty engineering, and a gas bubble formed by the mixing of the cold molasses and warm molasses from a new shipment. The result is a four fronted 25 foot high, 160 foot wide tidal wave that caused catastrophic damage, and multiple deaths. All structures surrounding the tank were destroyed. It took a many, many hours of man power to clear the destruction, using salt water to cut the hardened molasses. It was headline news all over the country, and Boston has never seen a disaster quite like this since.

It is clear the amount of research that Puleo put into this book. He uses characters from all ranges of the spectrum. He incorporates many important landmarks and events in Boston. His book not only gives insight into the happenings of the molasses flood but also a picture of what Boston was like through many important events in American history. He talks of the effects of World War II on Boston, such as the gathering of Bostonians on the Boston Common before Wilson's speech in April 1917. His great knowledge of American history, and his extensive research of Boston's North End make for a informative and intimate novel. His characters are so diverse that it is hard not to relate to something or someone in this story. All New Englanders should read this novel, it shows the true Boston. It shows Bostonians coming together to help each other in a time when the city was greatly divided by heritage and class. This is a smart read, with great voice and meaning. This story needed to be told.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading this book is like hearing a story rather than reading history. It gives accurate details and explains the politics of the time, while telling the stories of some of the victims. Extremely entertaining for non-fiction.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is not only entertaining but is also insightful to that period in time. The history and the events both nationally and locally enrich the setting of this story. I felt as though I was living in the moment. Highly recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo is a thoroughly researched, historically interesting look at what seems like an impossible event: a molasses flood in a congested and busy part of Boston in 1919. There are 3 parts of the book: part 1 consists of the human interest aspect of the current and past immigrant residents of the North End and their lives. Part 2 is the engineering aspect about how the molasses tank was built, why it was built, and what made it fail. Part 3 is about the legal aspects of the molasses flood and the lawsuit brought about by the survivors and those who lost their lives during the flood. Dark Tide takes you back in time to Boston just before WWI through prohibition. You can see the struggles of the immigrants in the North End, feel the pain of those who were injured or lost loved ones in the molasses flood, and get a sense of how big business allowed the catastrophe to happen all because of greed and irresponsible behavior for economic advancement.
Alex Espinal More than 1 year ago
Very interesting historical detail while still being an amazing story.
Tbirdmon1211 More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed the book. I thought that Stephen Puleo did a very good job of introducing the very many different vantage points of the flood and of the events that had lead up to it. He talked about how much the company had needed the tank due to the huge demand from America’s allies fighting in WW1, as well as how this developed into faulty engineering because they were attempting to rush the completion of it. The beginning I thought was the most interesting when he was going through the workers point of view. Saying how a few of the workers had mentioned that the molasses tank was leaking heavily and constantly looking like it was going to collapse. As well as all the dangers that the workers had faced while building the tank, for a quick example one worker had fallen into the tank and had died. Also this showed how little concern the management had when building the tank because when they heard about it, they were still far more concerned with making sure it was completed on time then about any of the workers safety. Other than the molasses flood directly he also talked about the society in Boston at the time with the massive immigration of Italians to the area. And how many of them were anarchist. Many of the anarchists Italians were causing trouble with the construction because the molasses it was storing was being used to supply military operations in Europe, which they were largely against. This lead to them having to keep police around, out of fear of one of them going after it. Overall like I said I really enjoyed this book mainly because I enjoyed the history behind it. The molasses flood was also something I had never really been aware of before I read this.
MdExTx More than 1 year ago
Fascinating account of an incident that took place in Boston, MA that I'd never heard of before I found this book. The author did not just tell us about the rupture of the tank which sent 2.3 million gallons of molasses over a crowded section of the city, but also introduced us to some of the people who worked for the company who owned the tank and people who lived and worked in the neighborhood. Puleo is a trained historian, and places the event in the context of history and relates it to the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, World War I, and the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson, Warren G Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Even with all the history, it reads well and is enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In today's political climate with the popularity of plans to further reduce government regulation of business, Dark Tide becomes a beacon of light regarding why regulations are needed & why some which have been removed should be reactivated. Yes, businesses are human, too, and as such they are subject to the same frailties and need the same firm limitations. The history of the great molasses flood in Boston in 1919 is not simply the chronicle of a disaster. It offers with superb journalistic & historical skill object lessons regarding not only regulatory needs but immigration problems that exist to this day & indicates solutions that history shows have been effective. In addition, Dark Tide tells its well-documented tale in a compelling narrative, a genuine page-turner.
RRPNC More than 1 year ago
The Dark Tide is a slow read but it portrays the time period of 1919 very well. If you are a Boston history buff, you will definitely enjoy this book!
EdieMI More than 1 year ago
I found this to be a fascinating story about an event that I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. I am not a history buff, but this grabbed my attention and I even checked it out to make sure that it was a true story and not a tale of fiction. Well written and informative.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story of a little remembered tragedy when in 1919 molasses flooded the waterfront area of the city. Very well written. Readers might also enjoy "A City So Grand" by the same author.
Keg-Runner More than 1 year ago
Fascinating! True-life drama every bit as intense as fiction. We think we live in frightening times today with the threat of terrorism, but we tend to forget or maybe we were never taught about this very troubling time in US history when anarchists terriorized the country. Not to mention the trial - as a big time corporation so readily allows the anarchists to take the blame rather than face a charge of negligence (sound familiar). Great little read for anyone who wants to learn a lot about the pre and post WWI era in the US and entertain (and impress) their friends with this true, but little-known piece of history.
HJW More than 1 year ago
A little known (to me) but important incident in Boston History. Stephen Puleo links this disaster to timely issues: Professional Competence and regulation; Corporate Greed and Responsibility; Class action lawsuits; and government corruption. Reads like a good novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a good book with historically correct references to the way people lived during the catastrophe.
DrBobI More than 1 year ago
A fascinating account of one of the most little-known events in our history. Puleo has done a masterful job of weaving together fact and human interest to tell a tale of human suffering and corporate skulduggery. The parallels to the issues of today are many and unsettling. Heroes and villains enough for any reader!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Had never heard of this incident and the intro even covers the possible whys of the flood's relegation to historic footnote status. Boston is a busy town in terms of history so it's just another episode. It's tidy tale with drama, tragedy, justice and injustice. Read it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a touching story about a very unusual event in Bostons history. It was well written and it was nice how real the characters were portrayed. I couldn't put the book down and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes to read about historical events.
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I had never hear of this in history or perhaps forgotten it but it was very interesting.
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