By Amy Caldwell
The first thing that hooked me on the manuscript of Steve Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (published 10 years ago this month) was the molasses. How could it not? I’d heard a bit about the molasses flood before, which is to say that I knew there had been a deadly wave of molasses, and that it had taken place in the North End. But I’m not a native Bostonian. I was surprised, then, to discover that no one had ever written a full-length account of the disaster. It’s such a dramatic and quirky bit of history; it’s irresistible.
What surprised me even more, however, was the full story Steve uncovered. The flood itself was a terrible tragedy, and Steve has a great sense of drama; he knows how to build narrative tension. Dark Tide dives deep into the specifics of why the molasses flood was so fast and so powerful, bringing to life the many people and animals who died terribly when the tank burst. (The death of fireman George Layhe, pinned beneath the collapsed firehouse, until he finally ran out of the strength to keep his head above the molasses and drowned, stays with me still.)
But what Steve discovered about the cause of the flood and its ramifications was a larger story—the type of story that is still, unfortunately, with us. A company called the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA) distilled the molasses into industrial alcohol that was used to make munitions for World War I. It was, as they say, a cash cow. The molasses tank itself was placed in the midst of a poor and crowded residential neighborhood populated by recent immigrants. It was not built according to the specs that had originally been proposed, to cut costs. After it was built, it actually “wept” molasses through its seams, a fact which had been brought to the attention of USIA (and which the poor neighborhood children, who often collected the seeping molasses in buckets, knew well).
My favorite part of Dark Tide is actually Steve’s retelling of the class action suit against USIA. One the largest class action cases in US history at the time (1920), Steve makes vivid the character of the Colonel Hugh W. Ogden, who had been appointed by the Superior Court as an impartial legal expert to sort through the complexities of the case, and whose recommendations would likely determine its outcome. The political and social background of the era is key to fully understanding Ogden and the defense mounted by USIA, and Steve deftly sketches in the key events and fears of the era: anarchist bombings and cities teeming with new immigrants. The drama, as he shows us, is in the tension between evidence, social prejudices and inclinations, and the moral compass of an individual wielding not inconsiderable power. He tells it smartly, with restraint and clarity, so that a book that pulls you in with a tragic oddity ends with a reflection on our evolving ideas about justice.