Most disasters are a cascade: small failures and minor circumstances, one leading to another, blossom into a cataclysm. On January 16, 1919, a cascade of tremendous size was poised above Boston’s North End.
The weather was one factor: unusually warm for winter.
Purity Distilling Company fermented and distilled molasses to make rum and alcohol. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting sales of alcoholic beverages, was due to be passed the very next day. This may have prompted Purity to collect as much molasses as possible.
The enormous tank holding the molasses was about 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons. It was poorly built of thin steel painted brown to hide its leaks. Local families often collected some of the dripping molasses to sweeten their food. The unseasonably warm temperature quickly rose from 2° F (-16.7° C) to 40° F (4.4° C), expanding the liquid, and natural fermentation produced CO2 increasing tank pressure.
Just after noon, North End families felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a machine gun— the tank’s rivets popping out. The big tank exploded, sending a 25-foot wall of molasses roaring down the hill toward Commercial Street at about 35 miles an hour. In front of the molasses went a blast of air that blew some folks off their porches and tumbled others along the street like rag dolls. Homes and buildings were destroyed, smashed from their foundations. Horses pulling wagons were swept away. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were buckled, knocking a rail-car off the tracks.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Many were saved by Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets who rushed off their docked training vessel and plunged into the brown goo to rescue people. It’s difficult to know how many dogs, cats and horses died.
As you can imagine, the clean-up was awful. Firehoses from hydrants and harbor fireboats washed away as much as possible. Boston Harbor was brown for months. Sightseers tracked the goo back to homes, into hotels, onto pay-phones and onto doorknobs. Everything Bostonians touched was sticky for months.
Some say that on a hot summer day along the North End’s docks, the sickly sweet smell of molasses lingers. Bostonians can smile at the Great Molasses Flood now, but in January of 1919, that cascade of disasters was deadly serious.
Jan Adkins is an author, an illustrator, and a superb storyteller. Read about him on his Amazon page. He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Great Boston Molasses Flood: How Can a Tragedy Sound Funny?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Jan. 2018,
Henry VIII gets a lot of bad press notably for his seven wives and a regrettable habit of chopping off heads. But there were two Henrys: early and late. Early Henry was a humdinger.
He became king at age 17 in 1509, a big (over six feet) handsome lad. He was broadly educated and well-read in English, Latin, and French. He played the lute, organ, and harpsichord, composed music, and sang well. He loved a party, and he was a ferocious sportsman. Henry played excellent tennis, was a skilled wrestler, hunter, and jouster.
His love of jousting may have been his undoing. This was not a battle skill but a royal game: on huge horses, in heavy armor, opponents rode at each other with blunt lances to knock each other out of the saddle. But in 1536 Henry left his face-covering visor up during a joust, catching a lance on his forehead. His majesty went down under his horse. His legs were crushed and he lay unconscious for two hours, apparently a serious concussion.
Henry changed radically. The broken long bones in his legs healed poorly and developed infected ulcers, which had to be drained using red hot probes. Ouch. Walking became difficult and painful, and finally impossible. The smell from his infected legs was awful. He became angry, paranoid, and irrational. No longer active, he ate and ate, bloating from around 210 pounds (95 kg) to 400 pounds (181 kg). This was late Henry: obese, dangerous, and smelly. His altered mental state and his constant pain surely contributed to his marital difficulties and to steady employment for head-choppers.
A mental, physical wreck, Henry VIII died at age 55 in 1547. Court embalmers replaced his innards with sawdust, resin and herbs to preserve the body, but Henry was already rotting from the legs up. The royal corpse was placed in a sealed lead coffin. An enormous regal procession set off from Whitehall Castle to Windsor Castle. The funeral parade halted the first day at the old Syon Abbey. In the middle of the night, the lead coffin exploded!
Or did it? Some historians suggest that it simply broke because Henry was too fat and the roads were bad. Yet contemporary morticians insist that gasses of decomposition can blow open even a modern sealed coffin. The coffin was soldered shut and the parade hustled on to the burial at Windsor, an untidy end for a wonderful and terrible king.
In 1961 the United States was losing the Space Race with the USSR. Our best rockets were blowing up on the launch pads.
But on January 31, 1961, we were ready to send our first astronaut into space on a long, high arc. He was only three feet tall. His name was Number 65. (If the rocket blew up, a “named” animal would sound bad in the news . . ) When asked by radio, 65 would press sequences of buttons on the flight control panel, then receive a banana pellet reward.
The blast off from Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) wasn’t perfect. The Redstone rocket didn’t blow up, but the launch damaged the passenger pod’s hull. Also, the controls didn’t shut off on time and pushed the rocket much higher, much faster than planned. Ham traveled at 5,800 miles an hour, and reached a then-record high of 155 miles! This put his reentry landing far beyond the U.S. Navy ships sent to retrieve him. The pod splashed into the ocean, but water poured into the damaged pod. 65 was sinking! Two hours later a helicopter picked up the passenger pod just in time.
65 was a hero, so he was given a proper name: Ham. He appeared on the cover of magazines and newspapers as our first man—er, chimp— in space!
In only a few months human astronauts followed Ham’s lead. Alan Shepard and John Glenn rocketed into space and Ham was forgotten. He was given to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he lived for 17 years, alone. He was trained as an astronaut and didn’t get along with jungle animals. His keepers noticed that he often lay on his back and punched in imaginary button sequences, as if he were still flying the capsule. The old chimponaut became lonely and depressed.
Ham was sent to a special “show animal” camp where he could reconnect with his wild brothers and sisters. He was taken to Andrews Air Force Base for the trip. As he was walked across the concrete something wonderful happened. He passed between two lines of Air National Guard pilots, saluting Ham. Ham the brave Chimponaut finally got his honor parade.
Ham lived 3 happy years at the camp and died peacefully in 1983. You can see a plaque for Ham at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. It says:
He proved that mankind could live and work in space.
Adkins new book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents.
ML 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Chimponaut: A Hero Forgotten and Remembered." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/chimponaut:-a-hero-forgotten-and-remembered.
The real Dracula didn’t drink blood or sleep in a coffin. He was not a count but an honorable, well-educated warlord. And much, much scarier than the movie Dracula.
As a Knight of the Dragon Society his father, Vlad II, was called Dracul (“dragon”) . When Vlad III was born in 1431, he was called “little dragon,” Dracula. He was always loyal to his family, friends and to his people, but he was betrayed over and over, beginning with his father. Dracul gave Vlad and his brother Radu to the Turks as hostages—then attacked the Turks!
Wallachia (now part of Romania) was harried in the south by Turkish Moslems. In the north, Hungarian warlords schemed to take over. When the Turks killed his father, Dracula escaped to defend his country and his people.
His methods were rough. He punished offenses large and small by impaling. A long sharpened stake was pushed into the offender’s bottom, then raised upright. Death might come in an hour or in two days. He raised a forest of stakes with impaled offenders in a valley near his capital, Tirgoviste.
Messengers came from the Turks to demand tribute money. Dracula asked why they didn’t take off their turbans as a sign of respect. They said they never took off their turbans. Dracula made certain they didn’t. He had the turbans nailed onto the messengers’ skulls.
An enormous Turkish army attacked from the south. Dracula retreated wisely, seizing and impaling hundreds of the invaders’ stragglers. He made a fierce night attack on the sultan’s camp, killing thousands of Turks before he was beaten back. But when the Turks approached Tirgoviste they rode through a valley lined with 20,000 impaled corpses. The most recent victims were Turkish soldiers. The Turks were so scared that they turned back to home.
Dracula ruled for only seven years. His brother, Radu the Handsome had converted to Islam and swept into Wallachia with the Turks. Another betrayal. Dracula was defeated.
Was Dracula a fiend or a warrior sternly protecting his people from the invading Turks? We just don’t know. We can’t believe the grisly tales his enemies told about him. Best historical guess: Wallachians both loved and feared him. You can see that in an historic tale. Vlad Dracula placed a fabulous goblet at a fountain in Tirgoviste. Any citizen could drink from the golden vessel. It was never stolen. They were too afraid.
Jan Adkin's DK Biography: Thomas Edison tells the story of the famous inventor, from his childhood as an "addled" student, to his reign as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," where he developed the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and many other inventions still in use today. For more information on the book, click here.
The biggest bang in two thousand years was heard as far as sixteen hundred miles away. It happened in April of 1815, on the island of Sumbawa in the southwest Pacific Ocean, now part of Indonesia. Mount Tambora erupted in an immense volcanic explosion. Seventy-one thousand islanders were killed almost immediately. The big bang began a global cataclysm that sowed the broadest crop of human misery any single earthly event has yielded.
Tambora’s eruption hurled millions of tons of ash and sulfur high into the circulating jet-stream, cooling temperatures around the world. It delayed the monsoon rains that were supposed to sustain crops around the Indian Ocean. Floods followed drought along with a deadly surge in the water-borne disease, cholera: tens of millions died of it all along the Ocean’s shores and as far north as Moscow. As the shroud of ash spread north, China’s rice crop failed in cold weather: more millions died.
The volcano’s effects reached the higher latitudes of Europe in 1816. Crops were killed by hard frosts in spring and summer. The price of oats and wheat tripled, quadrupled. “Bread Riots” swept through the streets of British and European cities as starving farm families crowded the cities, looking for any kind of work.
In North America, hard frosts were recorded in every month of 1816. Late-sown seedling plants were killed as far south as Virginia, where retired President Thomas Jefferson’s crops were destroyed, plunging him into lifelong debt. Snow fell across New England on July 6, 1816, a foot deep in Quebec City, Canada. Steam railroad lines weren’t laid, yet, so grain couldn’t be brought from warmer southern fields. An exodus of failed northern farmers left family homes to populate those milder Midwest prairies. They called this year of famine and disappointment, “Eighteen Hundred and Froze-To-Death.”
While millions of the poor starved, wealthy classes of Europe were merely inconvenienced by Tambora’s weather. A privileged group joined the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron to “summer” in Switzerland. Storms and cold drove them indoors where they competed to write the best “ghost story.” Percy’s wife Mary Shelley won with Frankenstein. Byron’s personal doctor, John Polidori, also wrote a humdinger: The Vampyre, which was adapted by Bram Stoker decades later as Dracula.
Tambora’s chilling effects lasted only three years. Our own challenge of global warming is building more slowly but could be even more troublesome. Tambora’s big bang taught us that we all share cataclysms and weather, even a world away.
The 1815 Tambora volcano produced an estimated thirty six cubic miles of exploded rock and ash which showered down in varying depths over land as far away as eight hundred miles to the northwest. But it was the debris that the jet stream carried over Asia, Europe and North America that earned 1816 the title "year without a summer." NASA
This photograph depicts the summit caldera of the Mount Tambora volcano more than a hundred years after its massive explosion. A collapse was triggered by the emptying of the magma chamber beneath the volcano as the result of the 1815 eruption. The volcano removed the mountain's estimated thirteen thousand-foot high peak leaving a hollow area 3.7 miles in diameter and thirty-six hundred feet deep. By Tisquesusa via Wikimedia Commons
Adkins' latest book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents. Learn more about it here.
The author/illustrator is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council