Curious Case of a Thief and the Great Molasses Flood
Twenty one people were killed on Commercial Street in the North End when a tank of molasses ruptured and exploded. An eight foot wave of the syrupy brown liquid moved down Commercial Street at a speed of 35mph. Wreckage of the collapsed tank visible in background, center, next to light colored warehouse. Elevated railway structure visible at far left and the North End Park bathing beach to the far right. A “before” view of the disaster can be seen in this image – BPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the heart of Boston, 1919, an event so outlandish unfolded that it would seem fictional if not for the tragic consequences it bore. This is not just the story of the Great Molasses Flood, a disaster that claimed 21 lives and injured 150 more, but also the tale of a man whose criminal intentions landed him in a rather sticky situation, quite literally.

The North End of Boston was bustling with life on January 15, 1919, when a tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst, unleashing a wave of sticky sweetness that would become one of the most bizarre disasters in American history. The molasses, used for rum production and other industrial purposes, flowed through the streets like a slow-moving tsunami, engulfing everything in its path. Buildings were swept off their foundations, people and animals were trapped, and the area was plunged into chaos.

As the city scrambled to mount a rescue operation and deal with the aftermath, one man saw an opportunity amidst the tragedy. While most of the city was focused on recovery efforts, he attempted to steal molasses from the disaster site. It’s hard to imagine what went through his mind. Perhaps he saw it as a chance to profit from the misfortune of others, or maybe the scarcity of sugar and molasses, exacerbated by World War I rationing, drove him to act out of desperation. Whatever his reasoning, his choice of loot was as unusual as the disaster itself.

The theft did not go unnoticed. In a time when the community was pulling together to recover from the shock and loss, his actions stood out starkly against the backdrop of solidarity and compassion. The Boston police, already stretched thin managing the crisis and its aftermath, were alerted to the man’s molasses marauding. His capture added a bizarre footnote to an already extraordinary event. Arrested amidst the sticky wreckage, the molasses thief became a symbol of the peculiar and the profane, his story intertwined with the larger narrative of the flood.

The Great Molasses Flood has been dissected by historians and scientists alike, who have sought to understand how such a tragedy could have occurred. Investigations revealed that the tank had been poorly constructed and inadequately maintained by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which owned it. The disaster led to a landmark legal case that changed the face of corporate accountability in the United States, setting precedents for stricter regulations and safety standards for industrial storage tanks.

But beyond the legal and scientific analyses lies a human story, marked by both tragedy and absurdity. The molasses thief, whose name has been lost to history, personifies the latter. His attempt to steal from the disaster site serves as a reminder of the unpredictable ways in which people react to extraordinary circumstances. Some rise to the occasion, showing bravery and compassion, while others, like our thief, reveal less admirable traits.

The Great Molasses Flood is remembered not only for the devastation it caused but also for the peculiarities that arose from it, including the story of the molasses thief. It’s a tale that adds color and complexity to the fabric of Boston’s history, a reminder of the city’s resilience and its capacity for renewal in the face of adversity. The flood’s legacy is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome, rebuild, and sometimes, to err in ways that are as bewildering as they are human.

As the years pass, the physical scars of the flood have faded, but the stories linger, capturing the imagination of those who hear them. The tale of the Great Molasses Flood and its unlikely thief continues to be a fascinating chapter in the annals of American history, a narrative rich with lessons about human nature, corporate responsibility, and the sheer unpredictability of life.

Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!