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
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.
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.
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