So the Great War was officially over but, like a big meteorite dropped into an ecologically diverse lake, it was still sending dangerous ripples in all directions as 1919 got going.
Pretty much every country in the world was trying to cope with major geopolitical, political, social, economic and cultural changes wrought by the conflict. While the major combatants, or their surviving components, wrestled with the momentous consequences of losing or winning the war, the rest of the planet was busy trying to sort out the mess created by more or less voluntary commitment to imperial wars, by direct exploitation by warring empires (as either proxy battlegrounds or resource pools) or by the sudden absence of imperial landlords. Even in Latin America, the region least directly affected by the First World War, economic upheaval and the spectre of US economic domination had fuelled political turmoil that was still playing out across the continent in 1919.
There were two major exceptions to this rule of thumb. One was Japan, which had suffered a little economic and political upheaval while prosecuting a very canny and profitable war, but was proceeding along lines of national ambition that were essentially unchanged since the late nineteenth century. The other was the United States, viewed by the rest of the world as having emerged from its short, victorious war fabulously rich, apparently very clever and generally admirable. The War had triggered tectonic shifts in that nation’s economic, political and cultural life, but on the whole the US was acting as if it had been a mere blip, a temporary diversion, and as if it was back to business as usual, on the road to a serene, separate prosperity based firmly and (almost) exclusively in the New World.
The US president and his advisors may have been busy putting the world to rights, and the press was carrying news of returning servicemen along with the first official reports on their performance in the field, but the US public mind was once again focused on its home patch – and on 15 January it had some very strange news to absorb. I had intended to spend today with the Estonian War of Independence, which was on the point of expelling Red Army forces from the country in mid-January, but although the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1915 had little to do with the First World War, it did shine a small light on its aftermath in the US… and it was too weird to leave alone.
The Purity Distilling Company of Massachusetts, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) since 1917, had been doing a roaring wartime trade in molasses, which were fomented to create ethanol, or grain alcohol. Ethanol was useful for various culinary, industrial and agricultural processes, including the manufacture of munitions, and Purity couldn’t get enough of the stuff once war broke out in Europe.
Molasses landed from Cuba were stored at the company’s Boston facility and fomented before rail transfer to a distillery in nearby Cambridge, and rocketing demand required construction of an enormous new storage tank close to the waterfront. The tank took its first shipment in December 1915, days after it had opened and before it had been fully tested for strength. Peace brought the molasses boom to an abrupt end, but the prospect of prohibition in the US offered an alternative market during the one-year period of grace allowed before the legislation became active, and USIA sought to exploit it by stocking up big time as prices fell.
Locally renowned as a leaky source of free supplies to passers by, and inclined to internal rumblings, the Boston tank was spectacularly full in mid-January 1919, containing some 8.7 million litres of molasses that weighed almost 11.8 million kilos. Whether because of leaks in the tank, a rapid rise in outside air temperature (which rose from -17C to 5C on 14 January), miscalculations about expansion during the fomentation process, or some or all of those factors in combination, the tank exploded just after 12.30pm on 15 January.
Preceded by a powerful shock wave that instantly reduced nearby wooden structures to splinters, a tsunami of molasses, reportedly either five or eight metres high and either 27 or 50 metres across, ripped out of the tank at a speed estimated at around 55kph. The surge devastated the dockyard area, buckling girders supporting the overhead railway, derailing a train, tearing brick structures from their foundations and obliterating street furniture. People in its path were blown away, smothered or hit by flying debris from the tank.
The wave caused damage amounting to several hundred million dollars in modern terms, killed 21 people and injured 150. Most of the dead drowned in molasses or were mortally wounded by debris, but a few died after being tossed into the harbour. Once the tsunami lost momentum a flood spread through the streets of Boston’s North End, burying them under up to a metre of sweet, sticky goo, while rescuers arrived on the scene to dig bodies and survivors out of the morass. The clean-up and rescue operation took weeks, and by the time it was finished visitors to the scene had spread a residue of molasses all over the city.
Investigators decided almost immediately that the tank had been too thin and held together with too few rivets, and US Industrial Alcohol was subject to a class action that reached court in August 1920. The company was eventually found guilty of neglect in 1925, after which it settled out of court, paying compensation to the city of Boston, the Elevated Railway Company and the families of victims, each of which received $7,000 (around $120,000 today).
In historical terms, the vedict had important consequences for the US construction industry, prompting the city of Boston to introduce new building regulations that required all major structures to undergo official inspection before opening, and that were rapidly copied elsewhere. Less obviously, and in a small way, the case said something about post-War attitudes to the rest of the world in the United States.
When the lawsuits against USIA came before their first hearing, in August 1920, the company claimed that anarchists had sabotaged the Boston storage tank to prevent use of the molasses for munitions. It cited rumours of Italian anarchist conspiracies reported in the press since the Armistice, threats received by telephone and the discovery of a bomb at another of its installations in 1916. Rubbished without much difficulty by prosecutors, the plea was a reminder that, while companies like USIA were selling business (and boozing) as usual for all they were worth, even they felt the shadow of the Great War and kept one eye on a world in revolutionary turmoil. USIA’s decision to go with the anarchist argument also suggests it had reason to believe the public – or at least the public in cosmopolitan, coastal Boston – shared a concern for the wider world that no amount of isolationist wishful thinking could completely suppress.
This sense of involvement in world affairs, though sporadic and far more prevalent near coasts and frontiers, was part of the First World War’s enduring legacy in the USA. It doesn’t get much space in a standard narrative that has the nation diving back into isolationism between the wars, yet it would have momentous, global consequences for the rest of the twentieth century, and it remains fundamental to the stark divisions exploited by modern politicians in the USA. There, I knew I’d find an excuse for this one…