Podcast Episode 136: The Boston Molasses Disaster


In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston’s North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city’s history books.

We’ll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo.


In 1888 three women reported encountering a 15-foot flying serpent in the woods near Columbia, S.C.

In 1834 the American Journal of Science and Arts reported the capture of a pair of conjoined catfish near Fort Johnston, N.C.

Sources for our feature on the Boston Molasses Disaster:

Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, 2003.

Fred Durso Jr., “The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919,” NFPA Journal 105:3 (May/June 2011), 90-93.

Sean Potter, “Retrospect: January 15, 1919: Boston Molasses Flood,” Weatherwise 64:1 (January/February 2011), 10-11.

Kaylie Duffy, “Today in Engineering History: Molasses Tanker Explodes, Kills 21,” Product Design & Development, Jan. 15, 2015.

Steve Puleo, “Death by Molasses,” American History 35:6 (February 2001), 60-66.

Chuck Lyons, “A Sticky Tragedy,” History Today 59.1 (January 2009), 40-42.

Dick Sinnott, “21 Persons Drowned in Molasses Flood,” Reading [Pa.] Eagle, Jan. 15, 1959.

Edwards Park, “Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston,” Smithsonian 14:8 (November 1983), 213-230.

“12 Killed When Tank of Molasses Explodes,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 1919.

Ferris Jabr, “The Science of the Great Molasses Flood,” Scientific American, Aug. 1, 2013.

United Press International, “The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919,” Jan. 17, 1979.

Peter Schworm, “Nearly a Century Later, Structural Flaw in Molasses Tank Revealed,” Boston Globe, Jan. 14, 2015.

William J. Kole, “Slow as Molasses? Sweet but Deadly 1919 Disaster Explained,” Associated Press, Nov. 24, 2016.

Erin McCann, “Solving a Mystery Behind the Deadly ‘Tsunami of Molasses’ of 1919,” New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016. (The corn syrup video is midway down the page.)

Jason Daley, “The Sticky Science Behind the Deadly Boston Molasses Disaster,” Smithsonian, Nov. 28, 2016.

Jennifer Ouellette, “Incredible Physics Behind the Deadly 1919 Boston Molasses Flood,” New Scientist, Nov. 24, 2016.

The Boston Public Library has photos and newspaper headlines.

Listener mail:

Erik Bye’s song on the 15th Wisconsin Regiment:

Statistics Norway’s names database.

Wikipedia, “Old Norse” (accessed Jan. 5, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!