A Q&A with Stephen Puleo
Don’t giggle and or give that look of disbelief, because this really happened. On this day, 2.3 million gallons of molasses—you read that correctly, the sweet stuff—flooded the streets in Boston’s North End in 1919, killing twenty-one people and injuring about 150. You’d think it would be water, but no, it was a fifteen-foot tide of brown treacle from an exploded steel tank that tore through the neighborhood. One hundred years later, we’re looking back at this surreal and tragic accident from Boston’s past. What better place to look than the authoritative book on the topic, Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Puleo to ask him about the anniversary edition of the book and what the hundredth anniversary of the disaster means to him.
Christian Coleman: Is Dark Tide still the only adult book ever written about the Great Boston Molasses Flood?
Stephen Puleo: I’m proud to say that Dark Tide is still the only adult non-fiction book about the Great Boston Molasses Flood. The book has been out for fifteen years and is still the definitive account of the flood—and I hope always will be.
CC: Did you come across any information or findings that took you by surprise when you were researching the flood?
SP: I was surprised by a couple of things. First, the flood received extensive coverage in all seven Boston newspapers of the day. It was on the front pages for a whole week, knocking off the front-page topics, like the impending Prohibition amendment and the Versailles peace talks to end WWI. Plus, there were many pages of coverage inside. Second, I was surprised, but pleased, that virtually every major subject America was dealing with in the early twentieth century—World War I and munitions, anarchists, immigration, and the relationship between the public and Big Business—quite literally touched this story in some way. All those themes weave their way through Dark Tide, because they all literally come into play as part of the story itself.
CC: You’ve toured across the country with the book. What are some of your favorite experiences from talking to audiences about this surreal and tragic part of Boston’s history?
SP: I have a huge list of great experiences, and it’s hard to pick just a few. I guess I’m just constantly amazed at the way this story has captured the imagination of readers. They embrace the story, the characters, the event itself. I’ve spoken to so many different groups about different aspects of the story: engineers about the tank’s construction; teachers about the big-history aspects of the flood; lawyers and judges about the massive court case that followed; book clubs that have made Dark Tide their choice; and community organizations (twenty-three cities and towns have selected Dark Tide as their community-wide read). Students across the country—from middle school to grad school—have contacted me for projects, papers, and presentations about the flood. I’ve run into people reading Dark Tide on the beach, on the subway, and on airplanes. I’m honored and humbled every time it happens.
CC: Many attendees at your author appearances ask if Dark Tide will be made into a movie. Which would you prefer: a Ken Burns-style documentary or full-length feature film?
SP: Full-length film, definitely. The History Channel and others have done the documentaries. This story is dramatic and compelling enough, with sympathetic real-life characters, and even a real-life villain, to warrant something bigger. The book has been optioned, so we’ll see. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
CC: Dark Tide was originally published in 2003. What does the hundredth anniversary of the disaster and the special edition of the book mean to you?
SP: I’m thrilled that fifteen years after publication, Dark Tide continues to resonate. I still get scores of emails from readers, many requests for presentations, and a variety of press inquiries about the book and the story. People from around the country see it in bookstores of all sizes. Also, many people have told me that they hadn’t read nonfiction for years before they picked up Dark Tide, and they loved the book. That means the most to me—that people decided to take a chance on history and were glad they did.
About Stephen Puleo
Stephen Puleo is an author, historian, teacher, public speaker, and communications professional. He has written six narrative nonfiction books and has a seventh on the way. His published works include A City So Grand, The Boston Italians, and Dark Tide. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor of articles and book reviews to publications and organizations that include American History magazine, Politico, the Boston Globe, and the Bill of Rights Institute.,Puleo has taught history at Suffolk University in Boston, and also has developed and taught numerous writing workshops for high school and college students, as well as for adults who aspire to be writers. Follow him on Twitter at @spuleoauthor and visit his website.