Readers, you know I have been following the story of celebrities brought to Ecuador to participate in the “Dirty Hand of Chevron” campaign for a while. Celebrities such as Mia Farrow actually traveled to Ecuador and had their photos taken with sticky black goo on their hands. Something about this story was jogging my memory—where had I read something like it before?
Recently I finally remembered: I was thinking of the Great Molasses Flood, which is known to Bostonians but maybe not to others. In 1919, an enormous molasses tank containing more than 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed on Commercial Street, in Boston’s North End. The collapse set off a wave of molasses 25 feet high, moving at 35 miles per hour through the city. According to the Boston Post:
Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.
Twenty-one people died, and 150 were injured. I am not making this up.
The people of the city were, as you would imagine, unhappy with the tank’s owner, the Purity Distilling Co. and its owner, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. Indeed, the case led to one of the first class actions in Massachusetts. The suit was ultimately settled, but while it was pending, the plaintiffs, in a strikingly modern move, sought to draw national media attention to their cause.
In our times, it seems that when you want this kind of media attention, you get Mia Farrow if you can. What did you do in 1919? In the early 20th century, wild west shows such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West were still popular, particularly in the more urban and sedate east. And so 95 years ago today, on April 1, 1920, the plaintiffs arranged for a visit by one of the stars from Buffalo Bill’s show, Annie Oakley. Oakley was, like Mia Farrow today, past her prime as a performer, but she was still popular nationwide. Well, long after the clean-up, there was still a sticky residue of molasses in many spots in the North End, and the city, perhaps to keep pressure on the USIA Co., wasn’t too quick to try to clean it up. So Oakley, on her visit, was able to put her hand into a molasses puddle, hold it up for one of the news photographers, and then do a sharp-shooting exhibition for the crowd, saying, according to reports: “I’ve been a straight shooter all my life. I wish the distillery’s bosses could be straight shooters too, and pay the good people of Boston what they’re owed.”
Unfortunately, I can’t find the iconic photo of Annie Oakley, rifle in one hand and molasses stain on the other, anywhere on line, though I can assure you that it’s in all history textbooks here. There is nothing new under the sun!