Thursday, September 17, 2015
September 17, 2015: Given Days: The Great Molasses Flood
[As part of this summer’s beach reading, I had the chance to revisit and engage more deeply with Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (2008), one of the most compelling and effective recent historical novels. In this series, I’ll share a handful of histories that this fiction helps us better remember; share your nominees for great historical fictions, new or old, for a boundary-blurring crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Three telling details about the unique 1919 North End disaster, which plays a small but significant role in Lehane’s novel.
1) The Anarchists Did It—Or Not: When a tank containing more than 2 million gallons of molasses burst at the Purity Distilling Company on January 15, 1919, suspicion initially fell—as it did so frequently in this Red Scare era—on “anarchists.” Some of the alcohol produced by the factory was used to produce munitions, so the accusation wasn’t entirely without cause. But after nearly three years of investigations and hearings, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA) was held solely responsible for the disaster; one theory is that the company was trying to work faster in order to outrace Prohibition, as the 18th Amendment was ratified the day after the flood. In any case, the disaster serves as a telling reminder, in this pre-Depression moment, that corporations were at least as dangerous to American communities as Reds.
2) A New Class of Response: The reason for those three years of investigations was simple but very new as of 1919—local residents brought a class-action lawsuit against USIA. In our famously litigious 21st century moment, that response might seem like a given; but in 1919, the idea of a class-action suit was largely unfamiliar, as illustrated by this list of six game-changing such suits that dates back only to 1925. So when these North End residents brought their suit against USIA, when they pursued it to victory and received an unprecedented $600,000 in settlements from the company, they represented a potent, populist extension of the Progressive Era’s efforts to regulate and curb big corporations.
3) How We Remember: Adjacent to the site once occupied by the Purity tank, and now home to the city’s Langone Park and neighboring Puopolo Park, is a small plaque (placed by the Bostonian Society) that commemorates the flood. Yet I would venture that literally millions more Bostonians and tourists have encountered this history not through the plaque, nor through Lehane’s novel (bestseller that it was), but rather through one of the city’s ubiquitous Duck Boats (run by Boston Duck Tours). That dark brown boat, named Molly Molasses, comprises a pitch-perfect representation of the role that historic tourism plays in our collective memories, for good and for bad. But far be it from me to critique any attempt to better remember this unique, compelling, and exemplary historic disaster!
Last Given Day connection tomorrow,
PS. Historical fictions you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post, please!