Monthly Archives: May 2015

The London Beer Flood of 1814

The manor house at Toten, near the site where the beer flood began.

The manor house at Toten, near the site where the beer flood began.

Food related disasters happened with an unsettling frequency throughout history. These disasters come in one of two varieties. The first variety involve food that is somehow adulterated, whether on purpose or as a tragic mishap. One such incident occurred in Bradford, England, in 1858, when a mistake at a druggist led to a batch of peppermint lozenges being prepared with arsenic, leading to several deaths. The second variety of food related disaster involves massive amounts of a food product itself breaking out of its storage and releasing mayhem on unsuspecting passerby. Perhaps the strangest such happening occurred in 1919, when a massive flood of molasses swept through northern Boston, killing 21 people and injuring 150 more.

Today’s food disaster is of the latter type. The unsuspecting people of London were subjected to a flood of the alcoholic variety when a huge fermentation tank in a brewery burst, releasing its contents in a 15 foot high wave of beer that killed 8 people.


A wave of beer

The disaster took place at The Horse Shoe Brewery, at the corner of Great Russel Street and Tottenham Court Road. The tank responsible for the disaster was a 22 foot high wooden structure held together with iron rings. At full capacity, it held upwards of a 3500 of beer. On the afternoon of October 17, 1814, one of the iron rings snapped, and an hour later the rest of the tank ruptured, unleashing a wave of beer that collapsed the back wall of the brewery and ripped open other vats.

Soon, 320,000 gallons of beer flooded St. Giles Rookery, a densely populated slum. Passing through the slums, the 15 foot wave of alcohol picked up debris along the way and inundated George Street and New Street in a few minutes. It collapsed two houses, killing Marry Banfield and her daughter Hannah in one house and killing four mourners at an Irish wake being held for a 2 year old who had died the day before.

When the flood ended, a total of 8 people were found dead in the rubble. Naturally, the shell-shocked Londoners demanded answers.


An act of God

Popular myth has Londoners turning out in their hundreds, armed with pots and pans, to scoop up the free beer laying in pools all over the streets. Some died of alcohol poisoning in the party that followed. However, there do not appear to be any reports of such activitiy in the newspapers of the day. In reality, the crowds who turned out to view the destruction were respectful, keeping quiet so that rescuers could hear victims trapped in the rubble.

There is no mythology surrounding the inquiry that followed. The brewery was taken to court, but courts found that the disaster was an Act of God and that the tank owners were not liable for damages. The disaster cost the brewery around  £23,000. The company was able to reclaim the excise duty paid on the beer, and were granted  £7250 in compensation for the lost beer.

The Horse Shoe Brewery managed to survive the disastrous flood, continuing to do business until it was eventually demolished in 1922. After the London Beer Flood of 1814, wooden fermentation tanks were phased out and slowly replaced with lined concrete vats.



“The London Beer Flood of 1814.” Historic UK. May 24, 2015.

Tingle, Rory. “What really happened in the London Beer Flood 200 years ago?” October 17, 2014. The Independent. May 24, 2015.

A Sticky Tsunami–The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

The aftermath of the Boston Molasses Flood.

The aftermath of the Boston Molasses Flood.

The news cycle these days regularly reports on the dangers of food. From America’s soaring obesity rates, to the dangers of so-called “Franken-foods”, to recalls of contaminated food products, it seems that these days even the simple act of eating is a risky proposition.

Of course, the situation today is arguably far better than what people faced through most of human history. After all, our meals come to the grocery store already slaughtered–odds are, your dinner isn’t going to kill you before it gets to your plate, unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Today the worry is more related to the health of foods–especially the additives put into foods–rather than the difficulties in finding it.

But food products can be deadly long before they reach our plates. Some of the strangest disasters in history center around rogue food products bursting from shoddily constructed holding containers and wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting public. One such incident occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End of Boston, when a huge molasses storage tank exploded and unleashed a wave of sticky, sweet mayhem that is known to history as the Great Molasses Flood.


Death by molasses

When patrolman Frank McManus woke up on January 15, he could not have guessed that he would become part of one of the strangest incidents in history. Officer McManus was giving his daily report via a call box on Commercial street when a sound like gunfire ripped through the air, followed by a horrible grating noise. The startled officer turned to see a five-story high metal storage tank rip open, flinging steel fragments and rivets through the air. McManus relayed the stunning sight to his fellow officers at the precinct station, urging them to send all available rescue personnel.

Meanwhile, 2 million gallons of molasses tore down the streets of Boston’s North end at 35 miles an hour. The molasses–a thick, viscous, sticky substance–formed a massive front of destruction, shoving buildings off their foundation, swamping freight cars, and trapping man and beast alike within its gooey grasp. The wave tore down a city building where unsuspecting workers were sitting down for lunch. A section of tank wall fell onto a nearby firehouse, demolishing the building and burying three fire fighters in the ruins.

The viscous flood spread out over a large radius, miring everything in its path in its sticky embrace. All told, the disaster killed 21 people and injured another 150.  Half were crushed by debris or drowned in molasses that day, while the other half died from their injuries in the weeks to come. When the sweet tsunami ended, it left a stunned city and a coating of molasses two or three feet deep. Bostonians immediately began to clean up the mess, using sand and salt water sprayed from fire boats on the bay. While clean up efforts were underway, investigators attempted to answer the burning question on everyone’s mind: how could this happen?


Corporate negligence and shoddy construction

An elevated rail line damaged in the flood.

An elevated rail line damaged in the flood.

A long legal battle took place after the disaster, including a number of lawsuits. Several possible reasons for the flood emerged as the proceedings wore on, but one scenario has become generally accepted as an explanation. On July 13, 1919, the storage tank was filled to capacity. In the hot months that followed through the cold winter months leading up to that fateful January day, the molasses fermented, releasing carbon dioxide. United States Industrial Alcohol Co., the owner of the tank, was found to be at fault, as it had neglected maintenance on the tank, ignoring such problems as leaks and signs of structural instability.  Long story short, a combination of negligence and shoddy construction led to the deaths of 21 people on that oddly warm January day.

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 remains among the most bizarre disasters in history, due in no small part to the strange substance at the heart of the disaster. Molasses is hardly a deadly substance–in fact, it has gained a new-found reputation these days as a natural alternative to processed sugar, which is believed by many to be at the center of today’s obesity epidemic. But molasses has unique properties that made it deadly that January day. It is a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning that its viscosity is depending upon the forces applied to it. Ketchup is a good example of such a substance. Ketchup remains in the bottle until you squeeze it out, and then it settles into a gooey mass on your plate. In a similar way, the molasses was “squeezed” out of the tank by mounting pressure from carbon dioxide, making it surge out of its container. Then when the force was removed, the molasses settled into its normal state, trapping people and animals within.

Another quirk of molasses made it deadly during the flood. Simply put, molasses is far more viscous than water, making swimming almost impossible. A person attempting to swim in molasses would find themselves only pushing the molasses back and forth without actually moving themselves forward. They end up only getting themselves more trapped, like attempting to struggle their way out of quick sand. Even rescuers found themselves quickly trapped in a quagmire when trying to get to victims.

In the end, due to its properties molasses turned out to be the “perfect” material to cause a bizarre disaster. Boston, always strong, moved on from the disaster as it always has. For the next eighty years, a reminder hung in the air during summer months–the molasses had permeated the stones and soil, and when the summer heat was high, the scent of molasses would hang heavy in the air. These days, the scent is gone, and all that remains is a plaque commemorating one of the strangest disasters in history.


Jabr, Ferris. “The Science of the Great Molasses Flood.” July 17, 2013. Scientific American. May 17, 2015.

Park, Edwards. “Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged over Boston.” Smithsonian 14, number 8 (November 1983), pgs. 213-230. Retrieved from:

“12 Killed When Tank of Molasses Explodes.” The New York Times. January 16, 1919. Retrieved from:

A Deadly Substitution–The1858 Bradford Sweets Poisoning

A sample of arsenic "Arsen 1a" by Arsen_1.jpg: Original uploader was Tomihahndorf at de.wikipediaderivative work: Materialscientist (talk) - Arsen_1.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

A sample of arsenic
“Arsen 1a” by Arsen_1.jpg: Original uploader was Tomihahndorf at de.wikipediaderivative work: Materialscientist (talk) – Arsen_1.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Poison has long been a weapon in the arsenal of assassins and murderers the world over to exact their crimes on unsuspecting victims. Locusta is perhaps the most infamous poisoner in history, with her brazen crimes sanctioned by the emperors of Rome, she was able to ply her trade with impunity. She even opened a school to teach fellow would-be assassins the fine art of poisoning.

But not all poisonings in history were deliberate. One tragic case from 19th century England saw 20 children killed and more than 200 people injured when a batch of peppermint candies was accidentally tainted with arsenic. The incident, which led to changes in laws governing food preparation in England, came to be known as the Bradford Sweets Poisoning of 1858.

William Hardacre (sometimes spelled “Hardaker”), known to locals as Humbug Willie, sold peppermint candies from a stall in Green Market. His supplier was a spice dealer named Joseph Neal, who bought his supply of gypsum from a druggist by the name of Charles Hodgson.

Why would a candy maker need gypsum? An understanding of the economics of the day is needed to answer this question. Today you can easily go down to your local supermarket and buy a bag of sugar, but in the 19th century sugar was a rare commodity in England. Great Britain’s climate could not support sugar cane, which only grows in tropical regions, so the country’s sugar supply had to be imported from her overseas colonies. Further more, the sugar had to be refined once it reached England.

The laborious process of making sugar combined with its relative scarcity conspired to drive the price sky high. People made their fortunes on sugar, leading it to be nicknamed “white gold.” These high prices are at the heart of the tragedy in 1858, because to make sugar affordable to the masses, sellers cut it with substances called “daft,” which could be anything from limestone to gypsum.

Joseph Neal sent one of his assistants, John Archer, to Hodgson’s store to acquire the gypsum needed to produce a batch of peppermint candies on October 18. Two days later, James Appleton mixed the sweets. He soon fell ill for several days, believing he had a cold. Neal sold the candies to Humbug Willie the following Saturday.

Only a day later, police were summoned to the home of Mark Burran, who had given his sons Orlando and John a sweet apiece from Humbug Willie’s stall. The boys were seriously ill, and the no doubt distraught father must have believed the candies had something to do with it. A surgeon named John Bell attended the boys, but he was unable to save them. Both died by that evening. Bell suspected poisoning. Suspicions rose as police were flooded with reports of people falling ill all over Bradford, including several deaths. The victims had one thing in common–all had bought peppermint candies from Humbug Willie.

Investigators paid the sweet seller a visit, only to find he was ill as well. They sent a sample of the candies off to be tested. They also questioned Joseph Neal, who speculated that the daft used in the batch of candy may be to blame. Police then paid a visit to Hodgson, the druggist, and made a shocking discovery–the harmless daft normally used had been mistaken for a cask of arsenic. trioxide, which is also a white, powdery substance.  The 40 lb batch of candy contained 12 lbs of arsenic, meaning that up to a third of each candy was made up of the deadly poison. Such a dose was enough to kill two people.

While police rounded up the remaining tainted treats, Neal and the druggist were taken to court for their role in the tragedy. They were charged with manslaughter, but these charges were dropped to accidental negligence as the trial wore on. Finally, the indictments were dropped altogether.

The outcry over this incident did lead to positive changes in how food products were handled and prepared. Parliament passed the 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink Bill, changing regulations on food ingredients and how they were combined. The UK Pharmacy Act of 1868 came ten years after the tragedy, imposing stricter regulations on how druggists and pharmacists handled poisons and medicines.

But the change that did the most to end the practice of mixing sugar with daft came in 1874, when the sugar tax was abolished. Prices dropped in the wake of the decision, and it was no longer necessary to cut the sweet stuff with other, potentially deadly, substances to make it affordable.



Clayton, Emma. “Sweet sales’ sour conclusion.” December 4, 2008. The Telegraph and Argus. May 2, 2015.

“Dying for a Humbug, the Bradford Sweets Poisoning 1858.” Historic UK.

The Night Witches

A Polikarov PO-2, similar to the planes flown by the 588th, better known as the Night Witches. "Po-2" by Douzeff - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

A Polikarov PO-2, similar to the planes flown by the 588th, better known as the Night Witches. “Po-2” by Douzeff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

World War II was a titanic struggle of ideologies, one of the darkest times in human history. While most Americans are fairly well aware of America’s role in the massive conflict, few are as aware of the nature of the struggle between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. This is perhaps because, soon after the war ended, the iron curtain fell and the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union began.

The fight between the two totalitarian states was not merely a war–it was an existential struggle between ideologies, driven by mutual hatred and the massive egos of their iron-fisted rulers. This fight would eventually encompass soldiers and civilians alike, both men and women. This was especially true of Soviet Russia, who suffered horrifically during the Nazi invasion. The strain was so great that, unlike other combatants, the Soviets called upon women to fight on the front lines of the war. The most feared of these women warriors were the pilots of the 588th Bomber regiment, who became known among Nazi troops by a fearsome moniker–the Night Witches.


Russia’s Darkest Hour

In 1941, Hitler ordered his Wehrmacht to launch Operation Barbarossa, the full scale invasion of the Soviet Union. Technologically inferior and caught by surprise, the Red Army was shoved back on all fronts, suffering horrific losses.

The slaughter continued into 1942, when Radio Moscow made a strange and surprising announcement, calling for young female pilots from all over the Soviet empire to come do their part against the onslaught. Women from the far reaches of the Soviet Union made their way across vast distances, craving revenge against the German aggressor. Most of them were pilots from local flying clubs with no combat experience. These raw troops were as ill-equipped as any other Soviet unit. They given hand-me-down uniforms from male soldiers and expected to fly slow, rickety, wood and canvas biplanes–PO-2s, crop dusters outfitted with light machine guns and racks for bombs–against the most advanced army in the world.


Flight of the Night Witches

While on the surface this seemed a move of utmost desperation, there was a cunning reason to use PO-2 cropdusters as weapons–their top speed was slower than the stall speed of the German Messerschmidts, making them extremely difficult for fighter squadrons to shoot down. The planes could be fitted with noise dampeners to make their approach nearly silent, perfect for the night raids the Night Witches–so named because the sound of their wings resembled the sound of a witch’s broom to Wehrmacht soldiers–were expected to conduct against Nazi positions.

There was a distinct downside to the light planes, however–tracer rounds from anti-aircraft fire could easily light them on fire, meaning almost certain death to the pilots, who were provided no safety gear whatsoever. Despite these limitations, the pilots were expected to continually harass the Wehrmacht, flying an average of eight missions a night over four years of war. The women of the 588th flew in three groups; two using their light maneuverable planes to draw enemy fire, while the third dropped their bombs. When the raid concluded, the surviving flyers returned to base, refuel and rearm, and then return to battle.

The Night Witches in their work, the Luftwaffe promised an Iron Cross to any fighter pilot who managed to shoot down one of them. They gave no respite to their hated enemies throughout the remainder of the war, earning a place among the greatest warriors in history. It is a shame, then, that their contributions to the war have been largely overlooked outside of Russia.



Fitzgerald, Nora. “Night witches: Russian women pilots the Nazis feared.” July 1, 2011. The Telegraph. April 26, 2015.

Martin, Douglas. “Nadezhda Popova, WWII ‘Night Witch,’ Dies at 91.” July 14, 2013. The New York Times. April 26, 2015.

Noggle, Anne and White, Christine A. “A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II.” Texas A&M University Press, 2001. pgs 18-23