How newspapers at the time covered the Great Molasses Flood

“Ensnaring in its sticky flood more than 100 men, women and children; crushing buildings, teams, automobiles and street cars — everything in its path — the black reeking mass slapped against the side of buildings footing Copp’s Hill and then swished back toward the Harbor."

The Boston Daily Globe, Jan. 16, 1919
The Boston Daily Globe, Jan. 16, 1919. –Th Boston Globe

In looking at the massive font that screams across the top of The Boston Post from Jan. 16, 1919, one might think a war was being declared.

But no.

The day before is known in Boston for the Great Molasses Flood, a strikingly absurd, destructive, and fatal event.

Newspapers of the day, including The Boston Globe, The Boston Post, and others, ran articles on what happened; many other papers farther away ran the Associated Press wire story or a brief on the front page.

Here’s a look at the front pages of various newspapers the day after the disaster, and beyond:

The Boston Post

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Jan. 16, 1919

The Boston Post, Jan. 16, 1919 —The Boston Globe

“Ensnaring in its sticky flood more than 100 men, women and children; crushing buildings, teams, automobiles and street cars — everything in its path — the black reeking mass slapped against the side of buildings footing Copp’s Hill and then swished back toward the Harbor,” reads a portion of this article.

The paper also printed lists of those found dead, seriously injured, and injured at the time of publication.

The story begins with blaming the disaster on an “internal explosion,” according to research by W.L. Wedger, a chemist for the state police at the time.

Wedger finds “that in a great tank of molasses so heated there could be generated a mixture of air and gas that would be as explosive as the same amount of air and gasoline,” the paper reads. “That horses were blown about like chips, houses torn asunder, and the heavy section of the Elevated railroad structure smashed like an eggshell are other considerations linked with the conclusions of Mr. Wedger.”

The Boston Post, Jan. 16, 1919 —The Boston Globe

One firsthand account comes from police Patrolman Frank R. McManus, who happened to be about 100 feet from the molasses tank “when I felt some wet, sticky substance strike me about the shoulders,” he said, adding that he thought it was mud, but then saw the tank fall. McManus wasn’t injured, and the worst of it for him was a ruined uniform, the Post notes.

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For H.M. Dorley, a Boston and Worcester Street Railway Company freight agent who was a mere 10 to 15 feet away from the molasses tank, the disaster was something he saw coming years before, he told the Post.

Dorley described hearing a rumble.

“Instinctively I knew what it was,” he said. “Three years ago I prophesied that the molasses tank would burst someday. ‘Molasses tank gone!,’ I cried. The words were barely out when the avalanche came.”

Dorley and coworkers were trapped in their office as the molasses swept past until about an hour later when the flow started to slow down and they were able to evacaute.

 

Boston Evening Globe

Jan. 15, 1919

The Boston Evening Globe, Jan. 15, 1919 —The Boston Globe

The Globe’s coverage begins by reporting that 15 victims died the day of the flood, but dropped that number back to 11 the following morning.

The paper only was able to confirm the identities of three people at the time. Four male victims brought to the North Grove St. Morgue were unidentifiable because they were “so completely covered with molasses,” the paper said. There was also a “girl” in a freight office.

A bunch of injuries or fatalities came at the city’s Paving Department yard, the Globe reported. As the flood occurred in early afternoon, many city employees were eating lunch in one of the yard’s buildings.

“Practically every man in the structure was either killed or hurt,” the Globe reported.

The Boston Evening Globe, page 2, Jan. 15, 1919 —The Boston Globe

The Boston Daily Globe

Jan. 16, 1919 morning

The Boston Daily Globe, Jan. 16, 1919 —Th Boston Globe

“Death and devastation in wake of North End disaster,” reads one of the sub-headlines for the Globe.

The Globe also notes that the molasses and its tank were worth about $250,000 and the property damage was valued at about $500,000.

A diagram of the molasses flood, The Boston Daily Globe, Jan. 16, 1919 —The Boston Globe
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The Globe also featured a hand-drawn diagram of the site, the demolished buildings, and the proximity to the Charles River.

The Boston Daily Globe, Jan. 16, 1919 —The Boston Globe

Martin Clougherty, known around the city as an amateur boxer, a referee, and an officer at the Pen and Pencil Club, described to the Globe how he and his siblings escaped the home they lived in by Copps Hill Terrace and Commercial Street.

Clougherty awoke to a “rumble,” he said, which didn’t completely wake him up.

“The first impression I had that something unusual had happened was when I awoke in several feet of molasses,” he said. “It didn’t dawn on me that it was molasses I was in. I thought I was overboard.”

Clougherty was able to find his sister, but found out later his mother had died. Robert Green from Columbus Savings Bank helped Clougherty recover some money and bonds he had stored in a tin box, he said.

The Boston Evening Globe

Jan. 16, 1925

Boston Evening Globe, Jan. 16, 1925 —The Boston Globe

By 1925, the evening edition of the Globe reported that United States Industrial Alcohol Company was found responsible for the disaster — over lawsuits that had been brought against the company.

A $250,000 award was ordered by auditor Hugh W. Ogden. This included $6,000 to those representing 20 victims with $30,000 going to the city for damages. Ogden’s report was filed with local court. At the time just one of the lawsuits had been settled — $2,000 to Isaac Yetton, a receiving clerk with the Boston and Worcester Electric Freight Line, for his injuries.

The Boston Daily Globe

April 29, 1925

The Boston Daily Globe, April 25, 1925 —The Boston Globe

Just a few months later, the rest of the suits were settled. United States Industrial Alcohol Company was said to have paid out between $500,000 and $1 million in lawsuit settlements.

In the days after the disaster, newspapers around the country included coverage of the disaster, some with stories, some with photos:

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Jan. 16, 1919

Richmond Times Dispatch, Jan/ 16, 1919 —Library of Congress via screenshot

The Washington Times

Jan. 18, 1919

The Washington Times, Jan. 18, 1919 —Library of Congress via screenshot

The Bennington (Vermont) Evening Banner

Jan. 16, 1919

The Bennington Evening Banner, Jan. 16, 1919 —Library of Congress via screenshot

The Madison Daily Leader

Jan. 17, 1919

The Madison (South Dakota) Daily Leader, Jan. 17, 1919 —Library of Congress via screenshot