“World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg,” reads a headline of the satirical newspaper The Onion’s coverage of the sinking of the Titanic. Other articles on the page include “Stewards Kindly Ask Third Class Passengers to Drown,” and “Spaniards Ruled Out as Suspects in Ice-berg Placement.” A telegram purportedly sent from the rescue ship Carpathia says: “titanic struck by icy representation of nature’s supremacy stop insufficient lifeboats due to pompous certainty in man’s infallibility stop microcosm of larger society stop.” Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo’s account of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, covers nearly the same issues: the poor immigrants killed in the flood, whether Italian anarchists were to be blamed. And then, in the author’s note, Puleo writes nearly the same line as The Onion. The flood, he claims, “was a microcosm of America.”
Unlike The Onion’s writers, Puleo is not a comic, but a former newspaper journalist and frequent contributor to American History magazine, and is being entirely serious when he makes the claim, though the subject of his book might at first seem amusing. On January 15, 1919, a 50-foot tall molasses tank collapsed, spilling more than two million gallons of the sweet, sticky substance over Boston’s North End. The wave of molasses, which was fifteen feet high and moved roughly thirty-five miles per hour, leveled buildings, knocked down the elevated train trestle, and lifted houses off their foundations. In the end, the flood took the lives of twenty-one people in the largely immigrant community, and the law suit that ensued was the longest and costliest in Boston history, lasting more than three years and involving 920 witnesses.
The bizarreness of the disaster and the sheer enormity of the trial, however, are the only gripping parts of the book. Puleo exercises enormous restraint in relating the circumstances leading up to and following what seems to be one of the strangest events in Boston’s history. Aside from several too-clever-by-half turns of phrase (Puleo’s claim that the tank supervisor did not want any needless bureaucracy “gumming up the works”), the book is disappointingly sobering in its recollection of such a fantastical turn of events. I had expected the book to be more entertaining—something along the lines of the unsettling voyeuristic pleasure of watching “When Disaster Strikes” television specials—considering how comical the title sounds, until I realized that Dark Tide refers not only to the molasses but also to Italian anarchist activity, the cause the tank’s owner claimed was responsible for the collapse. As it turns out, Dark Tide is not so much about collapse of the tank as a point of historical whimsy, but more a record of the causes of what Puleo casts as a great tragedy.
The book seems torn between two sometimes disjointed streams of narrative. The first attempts to cast the flood as the aforementioned “microcosm of America.” This section has a few interesting tidbits about the history of the molasses industry in the United States, most notably John Adam’s statement that “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American Independence,” a quotation almost certainly intended to defend Puleo’s claim that “to understand the molasses flood is to understand America.” This section of the narrative therefore treats the issues surrounding the molasses industry fairly broadly. Puleo begins with a discussion of the development of the Triangle Trade of rum, slaves, and molasses between Africa, the West Indies, and New England, and eventually moves into the reason for the resurgence in molasses demand in the early twentieth century: the growth of the munitions industry. Industrial-grade molasses was commonly distilled into alcohol used in the manufacture of high explosives, and the Boston molasses tank had been built by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company in 1915 to allow increased alcohol production after the outbreak of the First World War.
Dark Tide reads very much like an American history textbook in this section, addressing the political and economic effects of the war, and exploring the resulting domestic tensions. The tank was built in Boston’s North End, it turns out, because “the poor, vilified, mostly illiterate, and politically toothless Italian immigrants who lived and worked in the shadow of the tank day and night had neither the inclination nor the political power to offer organized resistance.” In fact, the history of the Italian immigrant population in Boston dominates this portion of the book, which is unsurprising considering that Puleo cites his own master’s thesis, From Italy to Boston’s North End: Italian Immigration and Settlement, 1890-1910, in his bibliography. Italian immigrants, Puleo explains, formed the crux of antiwar sentiment in America at the time, and the North End became a hotbed of anarchist activity in the years preceding the molasses flood. There was considerable fear on the part of United States Industrial Alcohol that the molasses tank might be a possible target for these anarchists because it was a symbol of the war industry and the growth of big business. Puleo makes sizable detours into the history of the anarchist movement, with accounts of anarchist leader Luigi Galleani’s deportation, the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the bombing of the New York Stock Exchange in September, 1920. All these stories are meant to evoke a nation as wrought with internal pressures as the disintegrating molasses tank.
In stark opposition to this tedious history lesson, is a species of personal histories. Here, Puleo introduces us to a string of individuals whose lives are directly involved with the molasses flood. The account reads less as history than as a melodramatic novel. The characters, if somewhat one-dimensional, are gripping. Puleo paints Arthur P. Jell, the executive responsible for the tank’s construction, as an industrialist so greedy and heartless that when a worker comes with steel flakes raining off the tank he is more concerned that the man “had tracked cakes of mud from his work boots onto Jell’s office carpet” than that the tank is threatening to collapse. Martin Clougherty is a hard-working Irish tavern owner, trying to move his aging mother and mentally disabled brother out of the North End because “the five-story steel monstrosity that contained millions of gallons of molasses snuffed out the rest of the morning sun,” only to have his home destroyed when the molasses picks up it up and hurls it into the railroad trestle. Giuseppe Iantosca, an Italian railroad worker so poor that his six children have to “jam wads of newspaper into the holes in the soles” of their shoe, loses his seven-year-old son Pasquale, who is swept away by the flood while playing near the tank. Isaac Gonzales, the worker who had warned Jell of the tank’s impending collapse, runs through the Boston streets at night to check on the tank when nightmares awake him. By day, “the rumbling noises in the tank made the hairs on the back of his neck tingle.” Puleo describes the judge who presided over the civil suit, Hugh W. Ogden, as having “entered private law practice after his service in the World War determined to contribute to society, to make a difference, to help people. By basing his decision in the molasses case on the evidence alone…by seeking and finding the truth, he had succeeded.” Above all of these individuals, stood the leaky tank, as “molasses oozed down its walls and painted rust brown stains across its charcoal gray steel face.”
If these tales of personal suffering and heroism sound sensational, particularly when opposed to the faceless forces of industrialism and anarchy, it is largely because of Puleo’s research methodology. Since little has been written about the disaster except in short magazine articles, nearly all of the book’s information comes from the 25,000 pages of court transcripts from the civil suit that followed the disaster. The two streams of narrative follow the arguments pursued the two parties. The plaintiff, a group of property owners and relatives of the deceased, stressed the tank’s shoddy construction and United States Industrial Alcohol’s social irresponsibility in placing the tank in a crowded part of the city. The plaintiff’s attorneys focused on the suffering of the flood’s victims through vivid first person accounts, and emphasized Jell’s greediness and ineptitude. The defense, by contrast, relied exclusively on the theory that Italian anarchists had planted a bomb in the tank, and attempted attempting to demonstrate that given the political tensions in the neighborhood, the threat of anarchist-related terrorism was high. Though there is no certainty to be found in the cause of the tank’s collapse—the defense rightly points out that “there are just as many human eyes saw a man place dynamite there [in the tank], as human eyes saw the metal stretch and the pieces gradually give way”—Ogden rules in favor of the defense’s version of the story.
The reader most likely will as well. Though sappy at times, the personal accounts of the tragedy possess a verve missing from the more purely historical version. Puleo clearly sympathizes with the victims of the molasses flood; the defense attorneys are constantly “snapping” and “sniffing” at the witnesses. The sections of the book devoted to actually recounting the flood and the trial are the best moments in the book, particularly the snippets of newspaper articles and court transcripts Puleo includes. Though these sections probably occupy just as many pages as the historical background, they are more interesting and have better dramatic pacing. As a result, the disaster and trial scenes read quicker and seem outnumbered by the sections devoted subjects such as the election of Warren Harding.
Underneath the structural problems of this dichotomy, however, Puleo seems to be suffering from equivocation on a larger ideological issue. In addition to reflecting his research methodology, the two disjointed narratives seem to suggest an uncertainty about the appropriate way to write about tragedy. By hopping back and forth between personal narratives and generalizations about American history, Puleo self-consciously walks the line between indulging his readers’ desire to rubberneck at one of the most peculiar of wrecks in American history while attempting to honor and respect those involved. Puleo includes some entertaining over-the-top newspaper headlines from the time, and there is a bracing immediacy to their sensationalism that is missing from Dark Tide as a whole. But that may not entirely be Puleo’s fault. Perhaps it’s that when you learn about all the minutia of something so fantastical as a molasses flood, it no longer sounds like a historical absurdity, but instead, a tragedy. After all, how could the reality of a molasses flood possibly live up to one’s imagination of it?