The torrent came without warning — and within minutes it was gone.
But in those moments, just past noon on Jan. 15, 1919 when a storage tank containing 2.5 million gallons of molasses ruptured in Boston’s North End, it unleashed unimaginable devastation from which there was no escape.
In what would become known as the “Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919,” the explosion of the massive container sent a “tidal wave of death and destruction stalking through North End Park and Commercial st.,” The Boston Globe reported at the time.
The viscous flood was propelled by its sheer weight, traveling as quickly as 35 mph and forming a wave that estimated in different accounts to be between 15 and 50 feet high. The sea of molasses demolished six buildings in its path and knocked down a support for the nearby elevated rail line. People, horses, trucks, and homes were swept away.
Twenty-one people were killed and about 150 injured.
Six of them were city workers who were eating their lunch when they were engulfed.
“Investigators said they never had a chance to escape so suddenly did disaster strike,” the Globe reported.
The Boston Post reported the day after the disaster that many of its victims suffocated, were smothered in the molasses that enveloped the area, or were crushed by the wreckage it caused:
There was no escape from the wave. Caught, human being and animal alike could not flee. Running in it was impossible. Snared in its flood was to be stifled. Once it smeared a head–human or animal–there was no coughing off the sticky mass. To attempt to wipe it with hands was to make it worse. Most of those who died, died from suffocation. It plugged nostrils almost air-tight.
Survivors recalled only a slight rumble before the onslaught, which past itself in five minutes or less. The recovery would go on much longer — with some bodies not being found for weeks or months.
“[The] dead, dying, suffocating, struggling and maimed mass of humanity and animals that it left in Commercial street and in the area it swept over were not all rescued or their bodies recovered for hours afterward,” the Post wrote on the 16th. “The sight that greeted the first of the rescuers on the scene is almost indescribable in words.”
According to the newspaper, “stretcher after stretcher” arrived at hospitals and relief centers, bearing burdens of “molasses-dripping humanity,” the treacle often disguising the gender and age of the person beneath.
“Nurses’ spotless-white uniforms were besmeared with blood and molasses with the arrival of the first ambulances full of patients,” the Post wrote.
And in the wait for identification, loved ones flocked to the hospitals, morgues, and emergency treatment centers.
The scene was “pitiful beyond description,” the Globe reported.
“Scores of anxious men and women hastened to these places to ascertain if any of their relatives were among the dead and injured, and many of those who found their fears true became hysterical, some demanding medical aid,” the newspaper wrote.
Those most affected by the tragedy were ordinary people, Stephen Puleo wrote in the comprehensive history of the event “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.”
“No prominent people were killed in the molasses flood, and the survivors did not go on to become famous; they were mostly immigrants and city workers who returned to their workday lives, recovered from injuries, and provided for their families,” he wrote in the 2003 book.
Below, a look at the 21 people who died in the tragedy.
The 10-year-old who lived on Charter Street was reportedly collecting firewood near the molasses tank while home from school for lunch when the explosion occurred. According to Puleo, the boy’s father, Giuseppe, was watching from their apartment window and saw the moment Pasquale disappeared in the viscous mass. He searched for hours for his son.
“Exhausted and disconsolate, he trudged up the dark stairs and stepped into the house,” Puleo reported in “Dark Tide.” “Maria was waiting for him, her eyes rimmed red from crying. Neither of them spoke — he had come home alone, and that said everything.”
The 10-year-old’s body, found in the ruins caused by the collapse of the tank on Commercial Street, wasn’t identified until mid-January, according to the Globe.
The body of the 37-year-old driver from Norwood wasn’t found until 11 days after the flood, according to Puleo. He worked for Balboni’s Boston and Norwood Auto Express, and he was reported missing in the immediate days following the disaster.
“Gallerani is said to have been sitting on his truck at the time of the collapse of the tank,” the Globe reported on Jan. 17, 1919. “No word of him has since been learned, but the wrecked truck bears mute testimony of the force of the elements which destroyed it.”
The body of the 32-year-old, who worked as an “expressman” or a wagon driver, was found four months after the tragedy, under Commercial Wharf, according to the Globe and “Dark Tide.”
According to Puleo, the 44-year-old worked as a laborer at the North End Paving Yard. The Globe reported in 1919 that he left behind a wife.
The 61-year-old was a resident of East Boston, according to the Globe. He worked as a teamster, which at the time, according to Puleo, referred to a man who drove a team of horses, typically transporting goods in a wagon.
The 65-year-old was crushed by a collapsed building, according to Puleo. She was reportedly in her “old homestead” at 6 Copps Hill Terrace, which extended along Commercial Street, with her daughter and two sons, Martin and Stephen, when “the first shock came” from the explosion.
“The tremendous rush of air created when the great sides of the giant molasses tank opened out created a vacuum of such force it pulled the house into Commercial st and it fell a heap of ruins beneath the Elevated structure, where the uprights were broken,” the Globe reported.
The 65-year-old was carried along to where her home fell, the roof collapsing and “crushing out her life.”
“She died before aid could reach her,” the Globe wrote.
Her son, Martin, was one of the “best known young men about Boston” at the time, according to the Post.
“It seemed as if the house had split in two when it hit the Elevated structure and I was in one side and my people in the other,” he told the Globe. “I couldn’t find my mother. I shouted for her and yelled for those who had come along the street to find her. But I couldn’t locate her. It seemed an hour while I was trying to find her. But soon someone told me that she had been found and that she was dead.”
The family of the 34-year-old argued that his death later in an insane asylum was caused by the trauma he sustained in the flood that killed his mother, but they were awarded no damages for his death, according to “Dark Tide.”
He had been eating lunch with his sister in their home when the explosion occurred, and both were “hurled” into the street, the Post reported.
According to Puleo, the 43-year-old worked as a paver at the North End Paving Yard.
The body of the 10-year-old was found early in the recovery process, “buried beneath a pile of molasses barrels near the base of the wrecked tank,” according to the Globe.
“She had been gathering wood in the yard when the accident happened,” the Globe reported the day after the flood. “Sad-hearted workers lifted her bruised little body onto a stretcher and silently bore it across North End Park to a waiting ambulance.”
Her brother, Antonio, was also caught up in the molasses and hospitalized. He told the Globe that they were returning home from school for lunch.
“Mary ran toward the tank,” he said, according to the newspaper. “I ran the other way, but the molasses was up around my knees and threw me down.”
The 58-year-old worked as a laborer in the North End Paving Yard, according to Puleo. He was born in the North End and had worked as a stone cutter for the City of Boston for 21 years, the Globe reported. The West End resident, who was a member of Cheverus Court, MCOF, was survived by his wife of 35 years and a 19-year-old daughter.
According to the Globe, the Charlestown resident, who died at a relief hospital, had to be identified by his clothing by his son. The 64-year-old blacksmith was working at the North End Paving Yard when the molasses flooded the area.
He was one of the first victims taken to the relief hospital, and, according to the Globe, he briefly regained consciousness and was given his last rights before he died. Born in Ireland, he’d worked for the city for 20 years and was a prominent member of St. Catherine’s Parish in Charlestown.
“Mr. Francis many years ago was one of the most widely-known horsemen in the country,” the Globe reported. “In his day he drove some of the fastest racers in the country, including John Shepard’s Mill Boy and Blondeen.”
He was survived by his wife, four daughters, and five sons: James A. Francis, a representative from the 23rd assembly district in New York; Patrick Francis, a newspaper man and special investigator; John Francis, a telegrapher; Peter Francis; and William Francis, who represented Boston’s fourth ward.
James H. Kinneally
The Globe reported following the flood that Kinneally was a “valued employee of the city” who had lived in South Boston for about 12 years. He worked as a laborer at the North End Paving Yard, according to Puleo, and his wife later testified in court that they’d been married for 30 years at the time of his death and had nine children together, five of whom were alive when she testified.
The 17-year-old from Charlestown was a driver for the Baxter & Oldfield Express Company and was delivering freight at the time of the explosion. His body was found under the “molasses-coated mass of wrecked auto trucks, express boxes and packages in the freight shed of the Bay State Electric Freight Railway,” according to the Globe.
The graduate of Warren Grammar School, who attended Charlestown High School for “a short time,” was survived by his parents, four brothers, and three sisters.
The 38-year-old firefighter, assigned to Engine 31, was crushed in the wreckage of the nearby firehouse, according to Puleo and the Globe. Members of the Boston Fire Department “chopped and dug” at the debris of the station’s quarters to rescue those who had been buried when the molasses flood caused part of the building to collapse.
“It was nearly four hours after the disaster that the work of these men was finished, and then it was when the body of George Layhe, third engineer on the fireboard, was taken from under heavy timbers, held down by the piano and pool table, still warm, but with life extinct,” the Globe reported.
Layhe was reportedly going to bed shortly before the disaster. He was found at the foot of the station’s sliding pole and left behind a wife and three children.
The 38-year-old was born in Fort Plain, New York, but moved to East Boston 19 years prior, where he became “widely known,” according to the Globe.
“He had an excellent record in the fire department,” the newspaper reported.
According to Puleo and the Globe, the 64-year-old was a foreman with the Paving Department and was killed when the building where he was eating lunch collapsed.
A resident of Roxbury for 25 years, Lennon was born in Ireland but came to the United States “as a young man [and] attended the public schools of Boston,” the Globe reported. He’d worked for the Highway Division of the Public Works Department for 25 years and was widely known throughout the city.
A member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, he was survived by four daughters and four sons.
Martin, 21, was born in Boston and served in the Navy for about a year. He’d been working as a storekeeper at the service’s Hingham camp until two months before the explosion, according to the Globe. At the time of his death, he was working as a driver for Blackstone Supply Company.
“He was unloading goods from a wagon when knocked down by the bursting of the tank nearby,” the newspaper reported.
The 76-year-old Dorchester man was working as a messenger for the Public Works Department, according to Puleo and the Globe.
“He had returned to work 20 minutes before the explosion and was thrown several feet against a pile of paving stones and suffered a fractured skull, both legs broken, contusions and internal injuries,” the Post reported.
The 46-year-old was working as a foreman for the Bay State Express when he died, according to “Dark Tide.”
The 43-year-old longshoreman was born in Ireland, according to the Globe, and served in the British Army for 10 years, spending seven years in India and serving in the Boer War. He moved to Charlestown in 1903 and began working along the waterfront.
“He and his son, Carthage Noonan, were returning home from South Boston and when on Commercial st were caught in the flood of molasses and wreckage,” the Globe reported.
Noonan died at the hospital, and his 14-year-old son was treated for injuries. He was survived by his wife, four other sons, and three daughters.
According to “Dark Tide,” Shaughnessy was an 18-year-old teamster.
When the unmarried and “widely known” South Boston resident was still missing two days after the disaster, he was believed to be a victim.
“His horse, covered with molasses, was found dead yesterday, near North End Park, and the wagon was found wrecked,” the Globe reported on Jan. 17. “No trace of the young man was found.”
Born in South Boston, he attended Bigelow School and previously worked as a chauffeur.
The day of the flood was his first day on the job working as a teamster for Johnson & Co. truckers.
Sieberlich was a 69-year-old blacksmith who worked in the North End Paving Yard, according to Puleo.
According to the Globe, he was born in Germany and became a naturalized citizen. A resident of Roxbury, he was also widely known in South Boston where he previously lived. He’d been working for the city for about 47 years.
“It was his custom to go into the office to rest after his noon meal each day,” the Globe reported.
Sieberlich died of his injuries at the Haymarket Square relief station. He was survived by a sister who lived in South Natick — his wife had died almost a year-to-the-day before him.