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Remembering Boston’s Great Molasses Flood

Via the Associated Press, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/15/685154620/a-deadly-tsunami-of-molasses-in-bostons-north-end

On Jan. 15, 1919, a tank of molasses stored in Boston’s North End, ruptured, sending a cascading wave of the thick, sugary syrup down the streets. This “Great Molasses Flood” killed 21 people, numerous animals, and injured 150.

The tank was built to be a holding vessel for molasses until it could be transported to a nearby distillery, where it was converted into industrial alcohol for World War I munitions.  Because the war was over, it was expected that the molasses would be shipped on to a distillery to produce rum.  As historian of the event Stephen Puleo explained in an interview with WBUR, the residents of the area–one of Boston’s busiest economic districts–knew the tank was structurally unsound before it ruptured:

There were signs that the tank was faltering, but the people of the North End had gotten used to its instability.

“There were often comments made by people around the vicinity that this tank would shudder and groan every time it was full, and it leaked from day one,” Puleo said. “It was very customary for children of the North End to go and collect molasses with pails.”

So on the day of the flood, despite leaks and groans, no one anticipated that the tank was about to burst, unleashing a wave of 2.3 million gallons of molasses that would move 35 miles an hour down Commercial Street.

While we don’t have any hard and fast answers as to why the tank failed, a number of theories and facts have come to light.  One of the first rumors to be circulated was that an anarchist’s bomb had broke the tank open, but no proof has ever been found to verify that rumor–which, admittedly, was largely fear-based and shows the effects of the First World War on people’s consciousness at the time.

As History.com reports, the tank itself

More recent investigations suggest several fundamental problems with the structure of the tank. Designed to hold 2.5 million gallons of liquid, it measured 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter. But its steel walls, which ranged from 0.67 inches at the bottom to 0.31 inches at the top, were too thin to support the weight of a full tank of molasses, found a 2014 analysis by Ronald Mayville, a senior structural engineer in the Massachusetts consulting firm of Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger.

Temperature also had an effect on the tank.  A new shipment of molasses had arrived days before, and that liquid was warmer than the air outside.  The weight of the molasses as it hardened further strained the walls of the tank.  Apparently, when the company received complaints that the tank was leaking, it painted the tank brown to disguise the leaks rather than repair them.  As it roiled down the street, the hot molasses congealed, trapping people, cars, trolleys, and everything else in its path.

The force of the wave was enough to buckle and destroy the elevated railway that ran through the North End at the time:

Via Wikipedia Wikicommons

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Boston recently used ground-penetrating radar to determine the location of the giant molasses tank that caused the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.  Today, colored flags marked the site of the tank as city officials and history buffs gathered at Langone Park in the North End to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Looking to learn more about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919?  Check out these books!

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919: Probably the best known (at least ’round these parts) book about the Great Molasses Flood, reporter Stephen Puleo brings readers into the world of Boston at the time, and makes the smallest details of the date come to live.  But, as he also points out, the molasses flood was more than an isolated event. Its story overlays America’s story during a tumultuous decade in our history. Tracing the era from the tank’s construction in 1915 through the multiyear lawsuit that followed the tragedy, Dark Tide uses the drama of the flood to examine the sweeping changes brought about by World War I, Prohibition, the Anarchist movement, the Red Scare, immigration, and the role of big business in society.  Puleo is a friend of the Peabody Library, so we love to promote his super-terrific text.

The Great Molasses Flood : Boston, 1919: Written for a younger audience, Deborah Kops’ book places the Molasses Flood in its historical context with fascinating results.  She discusses the influenza epidemic that embroiled the city, as well as the recently ended First World War.  As she notes, January 1919 was a hopeful time. Schools had reopened. So had the soda fountains, where kids went to buy Cokes. On New Year’s Eve tens of thousands of cheering, singing Bostonians gathered to ring in the new year. They jammed the city’s cafés and hotels and overflowed into the streets. Everyone seemed thrilled that life in this old port city was returning to normal.  But the molasses flood would change the mood and focus of the city, and have repercussions that would linger for decades to come.

A Head Full of GhostsPaul Tremblay’s book isn’t really about the molasses flood, which should be fairly evident from the book’s description, but it does incorporate it into the plot.  Marjorie Barrett, the focus of the book, is a story teller, who understands the power of narrative to shape our ways of thinking.  One of the first ways that we learn this is in her rendition of the molasses flood–a horribly visceral telling that names one of the real-life victims of the disaster, and portends the terrible events of the book that will unfold.  If you want to talk about the power of history to terrify even today, then don’t miss this pitch-perfect novel!

From Our Archives

Today, we are honored to bring you this post, which originally appeared here in 2015, but is sure to help you get in the literary holiday spirit!

We had elaborate plans for a post today….And then I found this recording of Neil Gaiman reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  And I realized I could never, ever, top that.  So here, for your listening pleasure, and as a salvation to your Monday (and Tuesday.  It’s grading period, sorry!), is Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Carol, with unending gratitude to the New York Public Library for making this happen, and offering it to the Internets.

PS: Anyone else wondering if the good Mr. Gaiman borrowed his top hat from our Blog’s mascot, Theophilus?

Looking for the Helpers…

I was spared from any great disasters when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels.

For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

(Fred Rogers, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.   6 September 2004)

The season that is currently upon us, beloved patrons, is one in which we are encouraged to put the needs of others before ourselves, to share what we have without thought of return–essentially, to be humane, as well as human, during a period of the year that is particularly difficult for us as a species.  We give gifts to those we love to show some tangible manifestation of our bond–a display of warmth during the deepening cold.  We hang lights to drive away the darkness of the encroaching winter.  We sing song to remember that we are not alone.  Regardless of your belief system, this is a time of year during which we are encouraged to look beyond ourselves and consider and perhaps even celebrate the ways in which we are bound up in each other.

Related image
Via Cleanfax

 

This year, a great many of our long-distance neighbors in California are facing the process of remembering, recovering, rebuilding after devastating wildfires destroyed their homes, their possession, and killed those they loved.  Indeed, we are breathing in the effects of those fires even here on the other side of the continent.  In the spirit of the season, and in keeping with our policy of providing you information on how to help others most effectively, we wanted to bring you some information about institutions and organizations that could use your kindness and consideration now more than ever.

As reported by the American Library Association, the Paradise California Library is still intact.  Additionally, the remaining five branches in the Butte county system are still operational and have become information centers, offering computers, Wi-Fi, and printers to help displaced residents contact insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other agencies.  Butte County Library Director Melanie Lightbody recognized just how critical libraries are to communities in crisis, explaining that “We are more than just a library but a symbol of hope to the community and a community center, which we will be once again.”  If you are in a position to give, Sara Jones, director of the Marin County (Calif.) Free Library, and the California Library Association has established a fundraiser for the fire-ravaged library system. has set up a fundraiser on Facebook to ensure the library system “will have sufficient financial resources to create and maintain a dynamic modern library system,” to replace the books that were destroyed in patrons’ homes, and to continue to assist in rebuilding efforts.

Image result for paradise california public library
The Paradise California Library, via Butte County CA

While we are too far away for donations of food, clothing, or other items to be helpful at this moment, money is a resource that can literally change lives.  To that end, here are some institutions that are doing good on the ground in California that could use your help:

Helping People:

  • A longstanding local institution, the California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund has offered aid to those affected by wildfires for the past 15 years. Grants have gone to rebuilding homes, providing financial and mental health assistance and helping those affected to get medical treatment.

 

  • The North Valley Community Foundation is a nonprofit organization in Chico that  is raising money to support organizations and institutions providing shelter for evacuees of the Camp Fire. Such locations include churches, fairgrounds and community centers, and all could use support in order to provide the most and best help to those who need it.

 

  • Likewise, the California Fire Foundation is on the ground distributing financial assistance to people who have lost everything in the fires. Through its emergency assistance program, firefighters distribute pre-paid gift cards to help those who need to purchase necessities like food, medicine and clothing.

 

  • The Red Cross is providing both shelter and emotional support for evacuees. You can visit RedCross.org, or text REDCROSS to 90999 to make an automatic $10 donation.

 

  • Additionally, The United Way of Northern California has set up a relief fund for victims. Go to the designated website to donate, or text “BUTTEFIRE” to 91999. The fund will provide emergency cash to victims and aid the United Way in its response to the fire. Businesses and organizations that want to contribute to the fund can call Jacob Peterson at (530) 241-7521 or (916) 218-5424; or email jpeterson@norcalunitedway.org.

 

  • Another organization called Baby2Baby is working to get high-need items to children affected by the ongoing Camp, Hill, and Woolsey fires in California. Help them supply diapers, wipes, blankets, and other basic baby essentials to families in need by purchasing from their registry.

 

Image result for charities to help california wildfire victims
Via Curbed SF

Helping Animals:

  • The Veterinary Catastrophic Need Fund pays some of the cost of veterinary medical treatments for animals injured in the Camp Fire at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. Injured and burned cats, horses, pigs, goats and other animals are receiving care. Call (530) 752-7024 or go to their website to contribute.

 

  • Additionally, at the request of Butte County, the Humane Society of the United States has set up a longer-term, temporary shelter in Richvale, California, to house and care for owned animals, whose families have been displaced by the wildfires. To donate to the Emergency Animal Rescue Fund, visit their website or call 866-720-2676.  You can also purchase items like food and toys through their Amazon wish list, which will be delivered right to the shelters in need.

 

  • For more information, visit Red Rover’s website to find out how you can help our four-legged friends during this time.
Image result for charities to help california wildfire victims pets
https://redrover.org/news/cafires/

As always, if this is not a time that is good for you to give, have no fear.  Although reports are stating that the fires are now completely contained, disasters on the scale with which those in California are being forced to deal will take years to overcome.  Your help and support are always encouraged, in whatever form you can provide it.

Thank you for your thoughts, your goodwill, and your assistance.  You make our community what it is, and there is plenty enough love among us to share with those who need it–this time of the year, and always!

The 2018 National Book Award Winners!

On Thursday, November 15, the National Book Award winners were announced in New York, in a ceremony hosted by Nick Offerman.  In addition, writer Luís Alberto Urrea presented the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Isabel Allende, saying in his presentation that  “Isabel is calling us to believe in words of love, words of witness.  You can’t build a wall to keep them out. You can’t lock them up. She has taught us that words have wings. They fly over barriers, and they sing all over the globe.”  Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly presented Doron Weber with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.  Weber is the vice president and program director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation,which runs a program for Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics, which supports projects that bridge science and the arts (check out the link–it’s a pretty amazing place!).

Then came the announcement of the Winners of National Book Awards in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature.  We are pleased to list the winners below, with links to their NOBLE catalog entries.  Come into the Library and check out these award-winning books for yourself!

Young People’s Literature

Congratulations to all the National Book Award Winners–we can’t wait to start reading!

We Have a Great American Read!

Over the summer, we discussed the PBS’ eight-part series, The Great American Read, which explored and celebrated the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey).    Today, we are pleased to share the results of this nationwide survey and study of literature.

The Great American Read

In order to obtain the most representative and encompassing list, PBS and the producers worked with the public opinion polling service “YouGov” to conduct a demographically and statistically representative survey asking Americans to name their most-loved novel. Approximately 7,200 people participated.  From that survey, a list was developed that included books from the 1600s to 2016, genres from thrillers to young adult novels, from sci-fi/fantasy and adventure to historical fiction.

And, on October 23, it was announced that, of five finalists, Americans had selected Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as America’s #1 best-loved novel in The Great American Read.  According to the Great American Read website:

One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than forty million copies worldwide, served as the basis for an enormously popular motion picture, and voted one of the best novels of the twentieth century by librarians across the country. A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father—a crusading local lawyer—risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.

To Kill a Mockingbird led The Great American Read voting from the first week, and kept the lead for the entire five months of voting, despite strong competition from the rest of our five finalists. It also topped the list of votes in every state except North Carolina (who went for Outlander) and Wyoming (who preferred Lord of The Rings). Such widespread support from readers across the country make To Kill a Mockingbird a worthy winner of The Great American Read.

Did you watch this series?  Did you vote?  Are you participating in reading the books on the Great American Read list?  If so, come in and let us know!  And, as ever, our hearts and our thanks are with Harper Lee, for giving us a book that brought together nearly all of the country.

Anna Burns Wins the Man Booker Prize!

We’d like to take a moment to congratulate Northern Irish author Anna Burns, who was awarded the 50th Annual Man Booker Prize on October 16 for her novel Milkman!  Burns becomes the first Northern Irish author to win the award, and the first female winner since 2013, when Eleanor Catton took the award with The Luminaries.

Anna Burns wins 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction with her novel ‘Milkman’, at Awards ceremony announcing winner of the UK’s most important literary prize, at The Guildhall, London.
Via https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/16/anna-burns-wins-man-booker-prize-for-incredibly-original-milkman

Burns drew on her memories of living through The Troubles in Northern Ireland to craft a story about middle sister in an unnamed city as she navigates her way through rumor, social pressures and politics in a tight-knit community. Burns shows the dangerous and complex outcome that can happen to a woman coming of age in a city at war.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, commented on the book:

None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.

Milkman also spoke to the concerns of today, Appiah reflected.  as quoted by The Guardian, he noted, “I think this novel will help people think about #MeToo … It is to be commended for giving us a deep and subtle and morally and intellectually challenging picture of what #MeToo is about.”

In addition to her prize money and public recognition, the Royal Mail is issuing a congratulatory postmark featuring the winner’s name, which will be applied to millions of items of stamped mail nationwide for six days from 17 October. It will read ‘Congratulations to Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize’.

We here at the Free For All would like to add our congratulations to Anna Burns.  Milkman will shortly be available in the US, and we cannot wait to get our hands on it!

Announcing the winner of the Alternative Nobel Award!

As we reported here in September, there will be no Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018.  Following a series of cover-ups, discrediting disclosures and allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, the board was taking a hiatus.  In its place, a New Academy organized to award an Alternative Nobel this year, with input from the public.

Today, we are delighted to announce that Guatemalan author Maryse Condé has been awarded the 2018 Alternative Nobel prize!

‘Very happy and proud’… Maryse Condé.
Via https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/12/alternative-nobel-literature-prize-maryse-conde-new-academy-prize

The author of some 20 novels, Condé is renown for providing a voice for those who have been silenced by politics, poverty, and history.  The chair of judges Ann Pålsson noted of her contribution to literature, “She describes the ravages of colonialism and the post-colonial chaos in a language which is both precise and overwhelming…The dead live in her stories closely to the living in a … world where gender, race and class are constantly turned over in new constellations.”

As reported by The Guardian, Condé said she was “very happy and proud” to win the award. “But please allow me to share it with my family, my friends and above all the people of Guadeloupe, who will be thrilled and touched seeing me receive this prize,” she said. “We are such a small country, only mentioned when there are hurricanes or earthquakes and things like that. Now we are so happy to be recognised for something else.”

Conde will win about £87,000 raised from crowdfunding and donations, and will receive the prize at a ceremony on 9 December, one day before the Nobel banquet.

It is our honor to congratulate Maryse Condé on her award, and thank her for a lifetime of stories, honest, and compassion.