London Beer Flood and other food disasters

On October 17, 1814 at the Meux family brewery in Tottenham Court, London, a massive vat of beer cracked open, spilling 3,500 barrels of beer and killing eight people. Smithsonian's Food & Think blog sums up the "London Beer Flood" and several other "Deadly Disasters Caused By Food." Here's another:
 4101 4945271178 901F0D49B0 ZBoston Molasses Disaster: In Boston’s North End, near the city’s financial district and working class Italian neighborhoods, there stood a molasses tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company. Built in 1915, the vat was capable of holding some 2.5 million gallons; however, by 1919, locals were complaining that it was leaking, and on the afternoon of January 15, it exploded. Flying metal knocked out the supports of nearby elevated train tracks and a 15-foot-high wave of molasses crashed through the streets at some 35 miles per hour, knocking down and enveloping people in its path. Parts of Boston were standing in two to three feet of molasses and the disaster left 21 dead and 150 injured.
"Four Deadly Disasters Caused by Food"

"Boston Molasses Disaster" (Boston Public Library on Flickr)



  1. Okay, 8 people were killed which is unfortunate.  But really, how can you really consider a beer flood a disaster?  Half of the men in America want to die this way.

    1. Because the 8 were rescued 3x and they kept jumping back in. By the 4th time the rescuers just said “Screw em!”.

    1. In certain older basements of the North End that haven’t been heavily redone this is still true. I haven’t ever smelled it out doors but many claim it still.

  2. “My brother and I used to say that drowning in beer was like heaven,
    eh? Now he’s not here, and I got two soakers… This isn’t heaven,
    this sucks!”  -Bob Mackenzie

  3. I am ecstatic to see the Boston Molasses Disaster getting more press. It is my favorite food-based industrial accident of all time.

  4. But how do we know that the supposed “victims” hadn’t already drank themselves to death, leaving their beer-soaked corpses for the city to clean up?  Explain that one.

  5. Awesome. I love it. This is the kind of disaster that simply doesn’t happen anymore. Like Jumbo the Elephant getting hit by a train in a little town in Ontario, or that famous photo of the train wreck at Paris’ Montparnasse station. 

    Someone hire a couple of interns, do the research and write a book. I want it. 

    1. “This is the kind of disaster that simply doesn’t happen anymore.”

      A few weeks ago, in Belgium, an ice cream store manager died from the explosion of a pressurized whipped cream tank (apparently a defect manometer problem — he just kept on filling the tank until it blew in his face). OK, maybe not a Great Food Disaster but still a relevant way of dying from food injury.

      1. A couple of years ago, Xeni posted a story (which I sent her) about a guy dying in a vat of chocolate. About a hundred commenters excoriated her for reporting on it. Beer and molassesplosions don’t raise an eyebrow.

        The moral of the story: one food death is a tragedy, multiple food deaths are high-larious.

          1. That’s a symbolic 100, but there should some comments in there. We still haven’t gotten all the imports fixed.

        1. I think George Carlin or Chevy Chase explained this once in an interview (it was some famous comedian) a man getting kicked in the crotch if funny in a mid distance to far away shot but in a close up people usually don’t laugh as much. I guess there’s an economy of scale to comedic effect.

          1. The Aristocrats would be utterly creepy and unfunny if it were one parent and one child, but Mom, Dad, Junior and Sis and it’s hysterical. Even better if you can work Fido and Fluffy into it.

      2. “This is the kind of disaster that simply doesn’t happen anymore.”

        A few weeks ago, in Belgium,

        And a couple of months ago, five people were killed in a moonshine explosion in the other Boston. Again, not quite ‘great’.

  6.  The new slogan, after the brewery reopened with stronger vats: “Tastes great, less killing”.

  7. The Boston Mollasses Disaster was covered on History Channel’s “Engineering Disasters” show a bunch of years ago.  The tank was designed by someone who had no clue what he was doing, just hotdog engineering by what seemed right.  It was horribly under strength.

  8. I remember seeing this on TV, the Boston disaster.  Apparently, one of the problems was the significant temperature change the tank experienced during that particular day.  The change was either local weather or the new addition of molasses, or both that caused the fermentation process to accelerate, thus causing the explosion.

    For sure it was not overfilled.

  9. Actually, this never happened. It was a fake release published by Anheuser Busch to scare consumers away from its competition. In fact, soon after AB started running advertisements in New England newspapers touting its own safety record and telling consumers not to buy beer from the company that was “allegedly” involved.

    Within six months the Purity Distilling Company had closed for good, and guess who bought its assets in bankruptcy auctions? You guessed in — Anheuser Busch.

    But I think what’s most amazing is that despite the evidence of AB’s involvement leaking in the 1950’s, this same story continues to be told.

      1. Here’s one of the ads. Notice the dress of the character. This was designed by AB to appeal to upper class citizens. At the time, the idea was if they could get the upper class to like their beverage, the lower class would follow — essentially equating Budweiser to the American dream.

        1. Your ad has nothing to do with the flood or any purchasing AB made. It does show that AB was interested in growing their domestic market  but that’s it.

    1. I second the [citation needed]; your ad doesn’t cut it.  21 people didn’t die from a fake PR event.

  10. I read that if there’s ever a High Fructose Corn Syrup flood all life on Earth would end within 10 years. The lucky ones will drown in the initial deluge.

  11. What? FOOD disasters? These are FOOD CONTAINMENT FAILURE disasters. If you want to stick to  that assumption, the list could go on to mention famine, that’s a “food” disaster. 

    One of the best food disasters I read was about a guy who convinced another guy he could can food. His name was Stephan Goldner, the purchaser was Sir John Franklin. 

    Short Version:

    Where I read it:

  12. You have a favorite food-based industrial accident?  Until today I didn’t know this could even be a category.  I sincerely want to see the rest of your favorites list…I think.

  13. Back in the 70s in my home-town of Phoenixville, PA some kids opened up the valves on a few parked rail tankers full of corn syrup. There was no apocalyptic flood, rather, the result was a large patch of ground super-saturated with corn syrup which tended to spontaneously combust occasionally over the next few years until they got tired of that and dug it all up again.

  14. Anybody here read Salman Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”?  In chapter one a 10.0 earthquake hits the town of Tequila, Jalisco in Mexico, all the vats holding the distilling and/or aging potable basically blast into shreds, and a river of tequila runs through Tequila.
    Coincidentally, in spanish the word ‘ahogado’ means either (1) drowned or (2) passed-out drunk.
    So whoever did not die ‘ahogado’ (1), died ‘ahogado’ (2).

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