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July 29, 2021 28 mins

The story and history behind Boston's most bizarre disaster.

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
You're listening to American Shadows, a production of I Heart
Radio and Grim and Mild from Aaron Mankey. Sometimes the
very thing we're looking for turns out to be right

(00:24):
in front of us. Other times we have to work
at it. We might find that lost item or learn
the answer to a difficult problem. It just requires a
bit of effort. In Byron Price published the book The Secret.
If you haven't heard of it, It's a puzzle book
containing twelve illustrations and twelve verses. The reader has to

(00:48):
line up verse and illustration to create a clue to
the puzzle, and that puzzle the location of twelve treasure
boxes buried across North America. But the your hunt doesn't
stop there. Inside each box is a key that can
be turned in for a precious gem valued around a
thousand dollars at least back in two The book spurred

(01:12):
treasure hunters across America to start solving the riddles and
finding the hidden keys. The only person who knew the
location of all twelve boxes was Byron Price himself. Unfortunately,
he was killed in a car accident in two thousand five.
Two of the boxes decorative and encased in plexiglass, were
found before his death. In three four, men found the

(01:35):
first box in Chicago, in a wooded corner of Grant Park,
just across from the Art Institute of Chicago. In two
thousand four, a group focused on the Greek Gardens in Cleveland, Ohio.
The long clues contained hints of stone steps, columns, plants,
and a reference to Socrates. It was no easy task.
The Greek Gardens are one of thirty themed gardens within

(01:57):
Rockefeller Park, and recently a third treasure hunter followed the
clues within another Great American city, Boston. The treasures specific
location Boston's lang Owned Park, waterfront property historically believed to
be where Paul Revere got into a boat and slipped
past the h MS Somerset to cross the harbor and

(02:19):
begin his famous ride. But there's another marker near lang
Owned Park, and it's sort of a secret too, you see,
not many people know the unusual story behind a tiny
plaque nearby, memorializing something odd, one of the most unusual
disasters in Boston's history. I'm Lauren Vogelbaum. Welcome to American Shadows.

(02:50):
It was and the United States was at war. It
was the Great War, now known as World War One
and the Purity distill income been along with its parent company,
the United States Industrial Alcohol Company or u s i A.
We're busy converting molasses into ethanol for planes, tanks, and
other military vehicles. Purity could hardly keep up with the demand.

(03:15):
Ships delivered their sweet sticky cargo to Commercial Street off
Boston Harbor every two to three days. More shipments meant
longer hours for employees like Isaac Gonzalez. During the spring
and summer of he worked practically NonStop. The fifty foot
tall steel tank had a behemoth circumference of ninety ft.

(03:38):
Climbing to the top to add molasses to the tank
with heavy hoses was hard physical labor, and with the
long hours, Isaac was exhausted. Adding to his stress, he
discovered that the tank had started to sprout a few leaks.
He knew the tank's walls were thin, just under a
third of an inch thick at the top that's a
little under half a centimeter. The bottom wasn't much better,

(04:01):
coming in at two thirds of an inch. And now
he might not have been an engineer, but Isaac could
see a problem brewing that much weight pressing on thin
walls prone to rust wasn't good. Throw in the facts
that the molasses built up gases, and the weather patterns
were ever changing, and well, it wasn't hard to see
what he was thinking. That hot summer, he spent his

(04:25):
nights tossing and turning in his cramped tenement home. She
repeatedly dreamed of running through the streets taking Paul Revere's
path to warn everyone the tank could come loose from
its foundations and was collapsing, and sure, dreaming about the
streets being flooded with molasses was strange, almost comical. He
had a point, though, If the tank burst, the thick,

(04:48):
heavy molasses could cause some serious damage. Every day Isaac
hoped there would be a lull and deliveries, but the
ships kept rolling into the harbor with thousands of gallons
of molasses us and every day he filled the tank
while trying to ignore the groans and creeks coming from
the structure, and that the leaks had grown in size

(05:08):
and number. He reported the leaks and noises to his supervisor.
The tank was culked twice, yet more leaks began to
spring up. Isaac remained persistent when his supervisor ignored his
requests for more substantial repairs than simple culk. He traveled
to Purity's headquarters in New York to speak to his

(05:30):
boss's manager, Arthur gel. In a time when there weren't
any labor protection laws and no union, Isaac was on
shaky ground, but still he went for proof. He brought
pieces of metal that had come off of the tank.
He explained how much damage the molasses could do if
the tank ruptured. His explanation and concerns were instantly met

(05:52):
with ridicule. Mr Gell accused Isaac of overreacting and exaggerating
for good measure. He added that if he complained again,
he'd fire him. Instead of telling management about the potential
safety hazards, Isaac probably would have been better off spinning
it is how much money they might lose in product.

(06:14):
In the middle of a sweltering night in July of
Isaac awoke, sweating from both the oppressive heat and another
nightmare about the tank. Returning to sleep proved elusive. He
dressed and headed to the waterfront area where the tank stood.
Something had to be done. He flashed his work badge

(06:34):
to the night watchman. In the cover of darkness, he
twisted open a valve and released molasses into the harbor,
relieving the gases building up inside the tank. The night
watchman stood a good distance away, but that didn't mean
he was alone. Though the kids who filched molasses usually
only came during the day, they weren't the only ones.

(06:55):
If someone saw him, they might report it to his boss.
The tank groaned and chugged. Isaac felt sure the watchman
would come to see what the noise was all about.
While the thick liquid poured into the harbor, Isaac thought
about the consequences if the molasses was spotted in the harbor,
or if he had released too much, he'd lose his job.

(07:15):
For now, though, he felt safer with some pressure off
the tank. He capped off the valve and left, bidding
the watchman a good night. With a deep sigh of relief,
he walked the empty streets back home. For the first
time in a long while, he slept, but the problem
wasn't solved. Day after day, Isaac watched the leaks get worse.

(07:40):
More neighborhood children came cups, buckets, and ladles in hand
to catch a tasty treat before he or one of
the other plant workers chased them off. The kids always returned,
though almost daily, Isaac chased away little Maria, her brother Tony,
and their friend Pasqualino. While purities management thought, Isaac chased
the kids that to prevent them from stealing molasses, Isaac

(08:03):
was more concerned about their safety. Isaac worried about the
tank exploding at night while people slept. They'd be unprepared,
but what might happen if the tank exploded while the
children were nearby. That thought caused even more sleepless nights,
along with some of the worst nightmares had ever had.

(08:30):
All that summer, Isaac repeated his nightly visits. He considered
it critical to open the valve on the tank to
let off the excess gas. Meanwhile, with the ever increasing
amount of molasses being loaded into the tank, the leaks
continued to worsen. Children began to bring pails instead of cups.
The smell of the molasses grew thick and heavy in

(08:52):
the summer heat, and with every new shipment, the tank
groaned more and more. Even the residents commented how the
tank seemed loud here than usual. Isaac grew hopeful that
something would be done. When a neighboring business complained to
Parity's management. To them, the number of leaks just didn't
seem normal, more safe. The sounds seemed too frequent, too loud.

(09:15):
Purity assured them all was fine, but reported the concerns
up the company ladder. Nonetheless, shortly afterward, Gel arrived with
a crew from the corporate office. Isaac's relief was short lived. However,
the crew hadn't come to install a second tank, or
repair the existing one, or even reinforce it. No to

(09:36):
Isaac's horror, they were there to repaint the tank from
silver to a rusty color to camouflage the leaks. He
knew he had to do something. He couldn't keep sneaking
in every night to relieve the pressure, nor could he complain.
It was clear that management would never do anything to
resolve the issue, so it's probably no surprise that Isaac

(09:57):
considered what options he had elsewhere. If Purity in the
United States Industrial Alcohol Company wouldn't take safety concerns seriously,
he wasn't about to be around when the inevitable happened.
Jobs were scarce, but it wasn't like Purity paid him
well enough to stay and hope for the best. He
didn't have a family, and he owned little more than

(10:18):
the clothes on his back. With nothing to lose, Isaac
joined the army in September of nineteen eighteen. He told
his boss he was quitting because he couldn't sit around
and be a part of what was going on. But
the Germans surrendered just two months later, which meant Isaac's
time in the army came to an abrupt halt. Servicemen
were already being shipped home after the way he had quit.

(10:41):
He couldn't return to Purity either, not that he wanted
to anyway. He wasn't the only one in a tight spot, though.
Without military vehicles to supply ethanol to Purity's revenue plummeted,
and they had a tank filled to near capacity with molasses. Normally,
they'd have switched gears from military fuel to making alcohol,

(11:03):
except Purity had a problem. With the Prohibition Amendment going
into effect on January one, time was running out as
for alternatives. There's only so much molasses they could sell
for baking cookies. Gell wasn't done yet, though he applied
for an extension. The government agreed, allowing Purity to sell

(11:25):
any shipments they had received before and sure, while that
sounds like the company would unload their current inventory. That's
not what happened. If they had, we wouldn't have a
story to tell. Gell. Had the tank culped and ordered
more molasses. Like Purity, brewers could make all the alcohol

(11:48):
they wanted as long as it was before January of
nineteen twenty. At the start of the year. They would
also have a grace period to sell off current stock.
Profit for them, bigger profit for Purity and the U
s i A. When January of nineteen nineteen rolled around,
the tank was filled to capacity, and though it might

(12:10):
be easy to guess what happened next, it was so
much worse than anyone even Isaac had imagined. A bitterly
cold day greeted ship Captain Frank van Gelder when he
steered into port on January twelve. His ship carried six
hundred thousand gallons of molasses destined for Purity Distilling. By

(12:32):
the early hours of the cargo had been transferred from
ship to tank. As the captain finished his job, Bostonians
started There's residents hung out, laundry Engine thirty one sat
idle while the firefighters prepared for the day. The elevated
trains wound through the tenements, where Maria and Pasqualinos knuck

(12:53):
off toward Commercial Street to collect molasses instead of the
firewood that had been sent for That's why, and the
groans and creeks started louder than anyone had heard before.
They chalked it up to the weather and the warm
shipment of molasses mixing with the cold. They didn't know
that the tank was filled to its two million gallon

(13:13):
capacity and now weighed over twenty six million pounds. For
two days, the tank ground and everyone went on just
like they always did, sparing the occasional glance at the
tower now and then. William White, one of Purity's employees,
expected an easy day no shipments. At noon, he headed

(13:35):
downtown to have a leisurely lunch with his wife, Pascualino.
Tony and Maria took advantage of White's absence and snuck
in to get a lunchtime treat of molasses. While on
recess from school, Tony left with his sister, but Pascoulino
stayed behind to get just a little more from the tank.
That's when the workers on top of the tank began screaming.

(13:57):
Tony turned to see a dark shadow that walk to
the sunlight. One that was headed right for him and
his sister, and it moved faster than he could run.
Everyone felt it down the street. Farmer with a wagon

(14:20):
full of hogs sat at the railroad station when the
earth shook and he heard a roar louder than any train.
He turned to see one of the trains on the
elevated tracks plunge onto the street below. The fireman at
Engine Company thirty one were discussing baseball when they heard
the roar. One of the men looked outside and shouted

(14:41):
to the others run. Rivets and shrapnel from the tank
flew in all directions. The metal sliced through trains, the
rivets became deadly projectiles. Those in the direct path were
either killed by the flying debris were crushed under the
weight of the molasses tsunami. Pasqualino's father looked out his

(15:01):
window and saw the giant waves sweep away his son.
The tank had burst the ft tall, a hundred and
sixty foot wide wave of molasses moving at thirty five
miles an hour, flooding Boston's North End. Local resident Martin
Clarity heard the commotion outside and his sister screaming something

(15:23):
about the tank. Next thing he knew had been swept
outside and carried down the street. He saw a hand
sticking up from the mess and pulled his sister to
her feet. Standing in sticky molasses waist high, they screamed
for their mother and their other brother, but there was
no answer. The fire engine was swept away. Houses and

(15:44):
freight cars were crushed under the weight. The wave took
everyone and everything in its path, men, women, children, horses.
Swimming proved impossible. Those who struggled drowned. The Boston Paper
later wrote, the shouts and screams of the dying and
injured rent the air. Those who tried to rescue victims

(16:07):
risked becoming trapped in the sticky pools themselves, much like
a tar pit. Those who were pulled out often died later.
Clearing water from the lungs was one thing, molasses was another.
The rescue mission turned into a recovery mission. Little Maria
was one of the casualties. Tony managed to survive, suffering

(16:29):
a fractured skull among other injuries. Pasqualino's body was recovered
four days later, crushed underneath the train. His father identified
his son by the red sweater his mother had put
on him. The morning of the flood, the firefighters remained
trapped under the collapsed firehouse. People attempted to rescue the horses,

(16:50):
but the sludge was too thick to pull them out,
and one by one they shot the horses in the
head to prevent them from dying a slow death by exphyxiation.
Boston's mayor called for an immediate investigation, stating that such
an accident should not have happened and those responsible would
face the consequences. Rumors started that the tank hadn't failed,

(17:12):
but that the explosion had been the work of Italian anarchists.
The tank was solid, purity distilling assured the mayor. Gel
arrived to assess the situation. The destruction and death shook him.
The instruction had gotten from the corporate office had been
to not say a single word about the issues with
the tank, nor to mention any of the prior complaints

(17:35):
to anyone. The police turned him away. Gel instructed the
plant's engineers to take over and told them to collect
any pieces of the tank. The police had gathered quietly.
Of course, he'd be back to work with them regarding
the tank's failures shortly, with a last look at the chaos,
he was glad to leave. He only hoped the smell

(17:58):
of the molasses faded from his hair and clothes before
his meeting back at corporate the next day. Gel returned
on the seventeenth with more engineers and the vice president
to strong arm Boston officials to surrender pieces of the tank.
Days later, the firefighters from Engine thirty one were rescued.
The hospital reeked of molasses covered the floors and walls.

(18:23):
Despite the mess, nurses and doctors worked tirelessly to save
as many of the victims as possible. Clean Up of
the two fifty foot disaster radius began, though it took months.
Twenty one people had died and another a hundred and
fifty were missing. One victim's body was found floating in
the harbor four months later. Over time, more deaths stemmed

(18:47):
from injuries and from medical issues from the molasses that
had collected in their lungs. Meanwhile, Purity and the United
States Industrial Alcohol Company began to push the theory that
the Italian community had been behind the explosion. As the
inquiry moved along, papers reported that Boston's Chief Justice was

(19:08):
chiding the city's building department for approving the USIA's plans
for the tank. The Chief Justice also let into Purity
and the U. S i A for failure to verify
the tank's safety, but most surprisingly, he blamed the citizens
of Boston for not funding a proper building department. In

(19:28):
the end, they had enough evidence to determine that there
had been negligence, but decided that the fault lay with
the people of Boston. Purity and the United States Industrial
Alcohol Company went unscathed. In true Bostonian spirit, the citizens rebelled.

(19:52):
They refused to accept the blame for an accident they
didn't cause, determined stand up for themselves. They filed class
action law suits against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company,
nineteen of them, and not surprisingly, the U. S i A.
Stuck to the theory that Italian terrorists had caused the explosion.

(20:13):
They played off the general public's fear and dislike of
Italian immigrants and pointed to the large population of them
in Boston's North End. Low Sure, but the U. S
i A went lower. The company used stall tactics to
delay paying the victims, hoping they'd run out of money
or otherwise dropped their suits. The Bostonians weren't swayed though,

(20:37):
and eventually the lawsuits combined into one large legal proceeding.
Their lawyers proved just as relentless, introducing over a thousand,
five hundred exhibits, a thousand witnesses, explosive experts, and former U.
S i A employees. One of those witnesses, Isaac Gonzalez.

(20:58):
He told the court about the pay job, the complaints
he had had about the tank sounds, and the leaks.
The court listened as he told them his fears, the nightmares,
how he repeatedly informed his superiors about his safety concerns,
and how they not only ignored him, but at bretned
to fire him. With that, the lawyers rested their case.

(21:20):
Then all they could do was wait. Suing and winning
against such large companies was David versus Goliath. Workers rights
in safety wasn't exactly a thing in most industries. In
two the odds were against them. In April that year,
Auditor Hi w Ogden weighed in, ruling in favor of

(21:43):
the people of Boston. His order sent shock waves across
the nation. Not only were the U. S i A
and Purity deemed negligent, but they were also ordered to
pay the victims in their families, some of six hundred
and twenty eight thousand dollars. That's a cool eight million today.
Those who know the city's history sometimes joke that on

(22:04):
a warm summer's day they can still smell the molasses
in Boston's North End, and a tour bus sports the
name Molly Molasses. But otherwise the story and the victims
have been largely forgotten. But that flood that few have
ever heard of helped reform labor and safety practices. The

(22:25):
disaster spurred requirements for licensed architects and civil engineers to
oversee building projects. Blueprints must be presented and signed off
on the disaster ended corporations do as you will mentality.
When it came to building codes, Boston's requirements became standard
practice nationwide. It also set the stage that corporations could

(22:47):
be held liable for unsafe structures. Sadly, it often takes
a disaster before we pay attention to the warning signs
that were right in front of us all along. It
seemed human nature is capable of solving problems and finding
lost or hidden things, but we sometimes struggle when it
comes to building things like empathy and humanity. There's more

(23:18):
to this story stick around after this brief sponsor break
to hear all about it. Originally, the land off the
banks of the Mississippi River where it joins the Minnesota
River was home to the Dakota Sioux tribes. Lush forests

(23:39):
and stunning waterfalls, creeks, and proximity to thirteen Lakes made
Minneapolis a great place for the tribes to live and hunt.
European colonists also found the area desirable and developed the
land near Saint Anthony Falls, pushing out the Native Americans
who refused assimilation. The colonists found the abundance of forest

(24:00):
profitable for the lumber trade. The rivers allowed ships to
transport boots, and what didn't go by water went by rail. Soon,
sawmills sprang up, along with iron works. With the waterfalls
as power, other mills flourished, including flour mills, and the
fastest growing flour mill was the Washburn Mill, which turned

(24:21):
out an impressive two thousand barrels a day. General Washburn
had built the mill in eighteen seventy four with two
hundred employees. The mill was the largest in the world
at the time. But mills weren't the safest places to work.
The fan belts snapped, breaking bones or causing severe lacerations.

(24:41):
Gears crushed hands and arms. Larger wheels and gears crushed
anything trapped between them. Fires and explosions were possible to
It might sound odd, but flour is highly flammable. Mill
workers came cheap, and most owners didn't feel compelled old
to spend extra money to keep them safe. Without safety

(25:04):
or worker protection laws and effect, the employees themselves had
to be vigilant. On May second of eighteen seventy eight,
a skeleton crew of fourteen took over the night shift.
Their job was more to maintain the machinery than make flour.
Among them was Dutch immigrant Ernest Grundman, who had worked
in the mills most of his life. He understood the risks,

(25:26):
having lost a promising baseball career after a mill accident
that took two of his fingers. Workers used lard to
grease the mill wheels and prevent them from overheating. The
section flues pulled flower dust from the air, reducing the
risk of sparks. Ernest was probably the closest when two
of the wheels ran dry, sending off sparks. The dust

(25:49):
inside the flues ignited at seven pm. Three massive explosions
shook not only the mill but the city itself. Walls
burst out ward and windows shattered. The blast was so
loud that residents in St. Paul reported hearing it. Fourteen workers,
including Ernest, died instantly. The explosion sent up a fireball

(26:13):
so large that two other mills were engulfed in flames,
killing four more workers. The heat became so intense that
rescuers and firemen couldn't get close enough to fight the flames.
As a result, the fire spread, taking five more mills,
each causing more explosions and massive fireballs. By the time

(26:34):
the firefighters got the blaze under control, most of the
mill district had been destroyed. All that remained of the
Washburn mill was a pile of limestone, rocks, and bits
of machinery. Rumors started that Minneapolis had been hit by
an earthquake. Other rumors suggested that a train car carrying
nitroglycerin had exploded near the district. An inquisition turned up

(26:57):
the real cause. Those overheated wheels sent off sparks that
caused flower dust to ignite. Two university professors confirmed this
through a series of controlled experiments. General Washburn arrived to
assess the damage, and, perhaps strangely, instead of sweeping the
disaster under the rug, he promptly compensated the victims families

(27:19):
and vowed to build a larger and safer mill. And
in eighteen eighty he made good on that promise. The
new mill had state of the art machinery, the stricter
safety procedures were implemented. He spent extra money on dust
traps and cast iron rollers that wouldn't cause sparks. It
was a costly endeavor, for sure, but it paid off.

(27:42):
With better equipment than safer workers, the mill produced twelve
thousand barrels of flour a day. His mill continued to
thrive long after others failed. He was so successful that
in night he merged his company with two dozen others,
creating a name that most of may Amricans today have
heard of, General Mills. American Shadows is hosted by Lauren Vogelbaum.

(28:14):
This episode was written by Michelle Muto, researched by Ali Steed,
and produced by Miranda Hawkins and Trevor Young, with executive
producers Aaron Mankey, Alex Williams, and Matt Frederick. To learn
more about the show, visit grim and Mild dot com.
From more podcasts from iHeart Radio, visit the iHeart Radio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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