Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Given Day

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The Given Day

A Novel

by Dennis Lehane

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 720 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 720 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Diane La Rue

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Beyond the Book

Print Review

The Great Molasses Flood
Prohibition was about to become the law of the land in 1919, and the Purity Distilling Company wanted to make a last batch before their product became illegal. They had a huge tank situated in the North End of Boston, which was densely populated with Italian immigrants.

The company poured warm molasses into the tank on top of a half full tank of cold molasses. The chemical reaction formed by this caused gaseous vapors which reacted with the weakened walls of the tank, and an explosion occurred.

Witnesses described a tidal wave of over two million gallons of molasses that cascaded into the streets of the North End at an estimated 35 mph. An elevated train bridge and a firehouse were destroyed. Twenty-one people died, over 150 people were injured.




The odor of molasses lingered in the neighborhood for years, and some people claim that on a hot day, the smell is still there. The Purity Distilling Company blamed Italian anarchists, whom they said blew up the tower.

This disaster spawned several long-reaching consequences. One is that the people in the poor immigrant neighborhood of North End sued United States Industrial Alcohol Company for negligence. The resulting class action lawsuit, one of the first in Massachusetts, lasted six years and called over 3000 witnesses. The plaintiffs won a settlement of $650,000 - the amount, considered enormous at the time, led to stricter safety regulations at a time when business had little regulation from the government. The city of Boston required architects and engineers to draft drawings and sign off on them. This regulation soon became common practice across the country.

The incident also led to Italian immigrants becoming more politically active. Up to this point, the residents of the North End were most concerned with daily survival. After this incident, they became more involved and better informed citizens.

Interesting Link
Photos at Dennis Lehane's website.

Article by Diane La Rue

This article was originally published in November 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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