Four Deadly Disasters Caused by Food

There are things you can do to prepare for a hurricane, but what about the London Beer Flood or the Boston Molasses Disaster?

Blackstrap molasses
Blackstrap molasses Image courtesy of Flickr user FotoosVanRobin

People between North Carolina and Vermont are cleaning up after Irene, the storm that destructively tromped along the eastern seaboard this past weekend. Hurricanes in the northeast are pretty rare and can leave people at a loss for how to prepare for extraordinarily severe conditions. At the very least, there are standard pieces of advice you can use to more or less muddle through a nasty situation. But perhaps even rarer are freak events involving food that cause a lot of damage. Those with an appetite for tragic tales might enjoy the following:

London Beer Flood: In the late 18th century, the Meux family brewery attained celebrity status, at least on account of the spectacular size of the vats they used to craft porter—one had the capacity to hold some 20,000 barrels of beer. Unfortunately, the hoops holding one of the vats together had corroded, and on the evening of October 17, 1814, they completely gave out, loosing some 3,500 barrels of beer that knocked down the brewery walls and flooded Tottenham Court, killing eight.

The Great Mill Disaster: Built in 1874, the Washburn “A” Mill along sat along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota and at the time was the largest flour-making facility in the United States. “Was,” unfortunately, is the operative word. On the evening of May 2, 1878, the stones used to grind grain gave off sparks, igniting particles of flour dust in the air and causing a massive explosion. (Flour, a carbohydrate, is made mostly of sugar and burns very easily.) In all, 18 people were killed and the blast started other fires that destroyed six nearby mills.

Boston 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.

Basra Mass Poisoning: In the winter of 1971, shipment of grain arrived in Basra, Iraq; however, it was treated with a methylmercury fungicide and was intended only for use on seed. (If ingested, methylmercury can cause serious neurological damage, and in high doses, can be deadly.) The bags were accordingly marked poison—although only in English and Spanish—and the grains were dyed bright pink to indicate they were not for consumption. Nevertheless, bags of grain were stolen before they could be distributed to farmers, the dye washed off and the grain sold as food. (Another account says that the grain was freely given away and the recipients thought that washing off the dye would rid the grain of mercury, making it safe to eat.) Some 6,500 people were hospitalized, 459 of whom died.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.