A guide to Boston's historic secrets, mysteries and scandals

Monsters, curses, miracles, and molasses

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Created by FullMetalHistory - April 12th 2017

Boston is one of the oldest cities in the country, so it's had more than a few years to cultivate a reputation for being kind of outrageous. From the colonists who sparked the American Revolution to the immigrants who added their cultural flavor to Bean Town in the 19th century to the Harvard and MIT geniuses who work and play here today, Boston has always been quite the firey personality. Delve into some of the strange, weird, and unbelievable historical tidbits from Boston's past with this guide to the city's strangest secrets.

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Boston Molasses Flood Memorial

One of the worst disasters to hit Boston wasn't an earthquake or a tornado... it was a flood. Of molasses. In 1919, a tank of molasses (for fermentation into rum) collapsed at the Purity Distillery in Boston's North End. The tank contained 2,300,000 gallons of sticky sweet liquid, and a 25-foot tall wave was unleashed, rolling down the street at 35 MPH. A railroad car was tipped off its track. Buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. People, horses, dogs and debris were picked up and thrown several feet. All in all, 150 people were injured, and 21 people were killed in the molasses tidal wave. It took weeks to complete the immediate cleanup (they used sand to soak up the mess, and hosed everything down with water), and even longer to ensure that molasses tracked down streets and into subways was clear. The water in the harbor was brown for months, and some claimed that for years after, on a hot summer day, the smell of sweet, spiced molasses would hang in the air.

Old Corner Bookstore

Ok, so this is a Chipotle... but it's a secretly really cool Chipotle. The building that houses it is one of the oldest buildings in Boston and it has a legendary history. It was once home to Anne Hutchinson, who was famously expelled from Massachusetts in 1638 for heresy-- after that, the building became a bookstore and publisher that's credited for giving the world gems like "The Scarlet Letter", "Walden", and the Atlantic Monthly Magazine.

The Massachusetts State House may look like just another ornate government building, but it's got some oddities hidden inside. Take a tour and when you pop into the House of Representatives chamber, look up for the Sacred Cod. It's a nearly-five-foot long carving of a fish, and is meant to symbolize the importance of the fishing industry to the Commonwealth. There have been three Sacred Cods to date; the first was lost in a fire in 1747, the second went missing during the American Revolution, and the third is the one we see today. In 1933, it went missing, prompting a massive cod-hunt. Police dragged the Charles River and even searched an airplane that had landed in New Jersey until it was revealed that the editors of the Harvard Lampoon were behind the "cod-napping".

Harvard Bridge

There are several reasons why the Harvard Bridge is so special. For starters, it was the first structure ever measured in Smoots. In 1958, frat brothers at MIT decided to measure the bridge using their shortest pledge, Oliver Smoot, as a measuring stick (the bridge is 387.72 Smoots long, for the record). Oliver Smoot, hilariously enough, went on to become head of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and later president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Today, the bridge features slabs that measure one Smooth in length (rather than standard 6-foot slabs) and has painted markers at 10-Smoot intervals ("plus or minus one ear" to denote measurement uncertainty). Twice a year, the fraternity repaints the marks. The original plan was to leave off the 10-smoot marks and to prevent the frat from putting them back on, but once it was revealed that the police actually use Smoots in accident reports, the idea of leaving the Smoot marks on died off.

This is also the bridge where Harry Houdini performed one of his most famous stunts. He had a police officer handcuff his hands behind his back, attach the handcuffs to a collar around his neck, and then he jumped off the bridge. Of course, while he was underwater, he successfully freed himself from his shackles and swam to safety.

Boston, MA

A trip to Fenway Park is a pilgrimage for baseball geeks. As the oldest stadium in MLB history, it's seen quite a bit. It's one of the smallest stadiums too, and expansions have created some funky oddities that make visiting or playing there a unique experience... like the Green Monster, the left field wall with the manual scoreboard that's been painted green and had seats added to the top. There's also one special seat in the right field bleachers that's red, standing out from a sea of green. This chair commemorates the longest home run hit by a player at Fenway; Ted Williams was the one who blasted the 502-foot homer. It would have gone 10 or 20 feet further, had it not been stopped by a spectator's head. Red Sox fans are as diehard as they come, remaining fiercely loyal despite the former Curse of the Bambino (seriously, to go 86 years without a World Series is kind of brutal) so seeing a game here alongside fans who love their team so much is something to experience.

Warren Anatomical Museum

If you're looking for a truly odd and one-of-a-kind attraction in town, and you're not weak-stomached, head to the Warren Anatomical Museum. It's mostly a few glass cabinets on the 5th floor of the Harvard Medical School's Countway Library of Medicine, and it was started by Harvard professor John Collins Warren in 1847. It started with his personal collection of 160 unusual anatomical and pathological specimens that he used for demonstrations and to instruct his students. Cool objects on display include the inhaler used during the first public demonstration of ether-assisted surgery in 1846 and the skull of Phineas Gage.

Phineas Gage was a railroad construction foreman who had a massive iron rod blown into his head during an accident. Against all odds, he survived... but since the accident destroyed much of his brain's left frontal lobe, he experienced a dramatic change in his personality. The case provided a lot of insight into neuroscience and psychology, and looking at his skull, it's so hard to believe that anyone could survive such an accident, especially back in the early 19th century.

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Boston not only embraces its oddities, it basks in them. You won't find a city more devoted to its quirks, so come ready for an experience unlike any other... and maybe keep an eye out for rogue tidal waves of molasses.