The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 is one of the great weird news stories of all time. It was a tragedy (21 people killed), but also definitely weird.
What happened in brief: A tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst, causing a 40-foot tsunami of molasses to flood through Boston's North End.
Exactly why the tank burst and why the flood proved so deadly has always been a bit of a mystery. But now scientists have done their thing and have come up with a few answers. As reported in the New York Times (Nov 26, 2016), interviewing aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp:
"The historical record says that the initial wave of molasses moved at 35 miles per hour," Ms. Sharp said, "which sounds outrageously fast."
"At the time people thought there must have been an explosion in the tank, initially, to cause the molasses to move that fast," she added. But after the team ran the experiments, she said, it discovered that the molasses could, indeed, move at that speed.
"It's an interesting result," Ms. Sharp said, "and it's something that wasn't possible back then. Nobody had worked out those actual equations until decades after the accident."
If the tank had burst in warmer weather, it would have "flowed farther, but also thinner," Mr. Rubinstein said.
In the winter, however, after the initial burst — which lasted between 30 seconds and a few minutes, Ms. Sharp said — the cooler temperature of the outside air raised the viscosity of the molasses, essentially trapping people who had not been able to escape the wave.
In 1918, the U.S. War Industries Board ran ads in magazines and newspapers urging everyone to save paper. The reason: "Paper contains valuable chemicals necessary for war purposes. Economy in the use of paper will release a large quantity of these materials for making poisonous gas."
All patriots were urged to do their part to help "Gas the Fiendish Huns."
Every time you economize in paper, every time you do without a sheet of letter paper or a sheet of wrapping paper or paper bags — every sort of paper in fact, you are saving just so much more sulphur for our Government to put into war gases.
The more of this powerful gas we have at the battle front the more of our boys' lives we save and the quicker we will win the final victory.
In October 1916, police arrested Mrs. Nellie Hantz and charged her with committing over 100 burglaries in the Chicago area. Her MO was unusual. When her husband, Carl, left in the morning to attend classes at a school of chemistry, and her 14-year-old daughter was at school, Nellie would sneak out and burglarize homes. She made sure to be home before her husband returned. The press named her the "wife thief" as well as the "matinee thief."
She kept her loot and burglary tools hidden beneath the bedroom mattress, and her husband, upon her arrest, insisted he had no knowledge of her daytime activities. Nellie seconded this: "I've been prowling for eighteen months. I know you've been after me, but it took a long time to catch me, didn't it? I guess I was just born to be a crook. You'll have to lock me up. But it's too bad about Carl. He never suspected."
The burglary equipment police found beneath the mattress included "a revolver, a razor, a jimmy, an electric flash lamp, several files, and an ingenious set of keys, skeleton and otherwise, of her own manufacture."
Despite being caught, Nellie was unrepentant. She declared, "I love to rob places. I'd keep on being a burglar if I had a million, but I am afraid of the dark and I did all my robbing by daylight."
This 1919 news report of two railroad employees who drank from a barrel of alcohol, not aware that it was being used to preserve two human skeletons enroute to a medical school, sounds a lot like the "corpse in the cask" urban legend.
The legend, which dates back at least to the nineteenth century, played on the fear of accidental cannibalism. As explained by Jan Harold Brunvand in his Encyclopedia of Urban Legends:
In the legend, an English family discovers a barrelful of rum stored in the basement of an old house they recently purchased. Over the course of a year or two they consume the rum in drinks and cooking; then they cut the barrel in half to use it as a planter. Inside they find the body of a man who had been shipped home from the colonies long ago, preserved in spirits.
In one version of the tale, following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the body of Lord Nelson was preserved in a barrel of brandy, from which sailors sipped as it made its way back to England, inspiring the expression "tapping the admiral."
1916: The chain holding Yebea, the "wild woman from Borneo," snapped during a performance in St. Louis. Yebea instantly became less wild, apologizing to a woman who was accidentally struck by the chain: "I beg your pardon, dearie; I didn't mean to do it. I hope I didn't hurt you."
However, at the sight of the freed wild woman the audience panicked and fled, with people crying out warnings that Yebea had escaped and was running amok. A police officer investigated and found her resting in her boudoir.
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Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction books such as Elephants on Acid.
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