The dawning of the Twentieth Century, and it is a world in chaos.
The burly drayman looked down at the dead horse. “The more he struggled, the more it sucked him under,” he said in an Irish accent. “In the end, the poor bastard drowned, breathed it right in.” The tiny, young woman next to him moaned as she stared at the creature submerged in molasses. They were standing on planking stretched over a sea of black in Boston’s North End. “He was yours?” she asked. “That he was. When the tank exploded, I was up there making a delivery.” He pointed to the third floor of a brick warehouse. “First, we heard a rat-ta-tat-tat, like a machine-gun. That was the rivets bursting free and flying like bullets. Then there was a blast that shook the very earth, and like a tidal wave, the molasses came barreling down and slammed into everything, the waterfront, the rail yard, the whole damn neighborhood. It swept up people like they was dolls, pushed freight cars, wagons, and motorcars along like toys.” He pointed at the elevated railroad tracks and exclaimed, “It even brought that trestle down. Lucky thing they stopped the trains before they fell too.” Piper Albrecht, the young woman listening, had been traveling on one of those trains on her way to help her aunt with a suffrage rally. The blonde twenty-seven-year-old was coming from New York City when a railroad worker standing on the tracks stopped the train before it traversed the washed-out trestle. “Someone said it was over two million gallons of liquid,” she said. “And flooded up two stories high, so all of these buildings collapsed.” The man pointed to homes, warehouses, and sheds reduced to kindling. Splintered wood poked out of the now shallow black lake. There were overturned freight cars and automobiles, and the train tracks overhead had a gaping hole where the timbers had washed out. Bed frames, chairs, and twisted steel littered the streets as well as the carcasses of dogs, cats, and horses. Ambulances and wagons were parked along the periphery as rescue workers in tall rubber boots sifted through the rubble. “Most of it has drained off into the Charles now,” he said, turning his flat cap in his hands. “How many people died?” He shrugged. “They’re still pulling out bodies.” Piper noticed the man’s overalls were soaked to the armpits with molasses. “You were down in it?” “Aye, tryin’ to help this poor old devil,” he said, looking at the horse. “I couldn’t do a goddamn thing for him.” Running her eyes over the devastation, Piper prayed Aunt Tilly hadn’t been down here. “You don’t happen to know where they are taking the bodies, do you?” The draymen’s thick eyebrows drew together. “Don’t tell me you’re looking for someone, darlin’?” Piper shrugged. “Oh, I’m just borrowing trouble. She didn’t show up for our appointment.” “Are ya sure ya wanna start at the morgue?” She bit her lip. In truth, Piper had exhausted every other possibility. “Yes, I’m sure.” “I’ll take ya,” he said and held out his arm. “This is tricky walkin’ and no place for a lady.” Piper picked up her skirt and took his arm. “Thank you.” They walked along the planking, balancing themselves over the quagmire, and stepped down at last onto clean pavement. They crossed the street, stopping in front of a brick building with three large columns out front. A sign overhead said, “Boston Hospital-Haymarket Relief Station.” After tipping his hat to a priest, the drayman said, “The injured are here. The makeshift morgue is there.” He pointed to a tall building next door. It looked abandoned. Piper nodded and held out her hand. “Mr.--” “Riley,” he replied. “Thank you, Mr. Riley. I’m Miss Albrecht.” “Best of luck to ya, Miss Albrecht. I hope ya find who you’re lookin’ for,” he said, “but not in there.” Piper smiled weakly, squared her shoulders, and walked to the morgue. The large lobby was empty except for a hand-painted sign on the floor propped up against a doorframe. It said, “Morgue” and had a red arrow pointing down the hall. The heels of her boots clattered loudly on the marble floor as she walked. It was in the first room on the right. There were rows of tables, some empty, but most of them held bodies covered by white sheets. The sickeningly sweet smell of molasses filled the room, mingled with human waste. Piper put her hankie to her nose and turned away, her stomach lurching. A tall man in a dark suit stood up from a desk and approached her. “May I be of assistance, madam?” Piper swallowed hard and looked up at him, wondering how he could stand the smell. “I am--” she stuttered, “I am concerned that my aunt was a victim of this accident. I want to be sure she is not here. Do I look at different bodies or how does this work, if you please?” He laced his fingers together and nodded sympathetically. “It’s quite simple. We have only found two women so far, and one of them has already been identified. The other is down here. Would you please follow me?” Piper walked behind him to the far end of the room where he stopped by a table holding a body under a white sheet. “I must inform you that identification may be a challenge. The victims are covered in a thick liquid, and their features may be difficult to discern.” “Very well.” “Are you ready, madam?” he asked. Piper’s heart was hammering in her chest, and she was struggling to keep the contents of her stomach in check. Seeing the look on her face, the attendant opened a drawer on the table and handed her a tin emesis basin. Taking it with her gloved hand, Piper nodded. “I’m ready.” The man reached over and turned back the sheet. Piper’s eyes grew wide. The corpse looked like it had been dipped in oil. Molasses covered every part of the body, the skin, the clothes, and it clung to the woman’s hair in long, sticky strands. She looked like a black Medusa. The molasses had even soaked the white sheet below her. “We did an examination and determined that she did not drown in the substance but died from a head injury. One of the rivets from the tank pierced her skull.” The attendant lifted several sticky tangles of hair, showing the head wound. It was too much. Piper turned and retched into the basin. Reluctantly, she dragged her eyes back to the corpse. “Can you identify her, madam?” the man asked. “No, not really.” “Perhaps this will help.” The man picked up a leather bag hanging from the table. “She had this strapped over her chest. It’s filled with papers. They are, of course, now soaked.” Although it was covered in molasses, Piper recognized the distinctive shape of the bag. She had given Aunt Tilly that satchel for fliers. “Yes,” Piper murmured in a shaky voice. “This is my aunt.” “I’m very sorry,” the attendant replied. “Would you be so kind as to step over here and sign a form?” “Very well.” Although she was unsteady, Piper followed him to the desk. “Your name?” he asked, taking out a form. “Miss Piper Albrecht.” “Name of the deceased?” he asked. “Natalia Abelman.” “Birthdate?” “April 12th,” she paused, “1875.” “Was she married?” “Yes, I will inform her husband.” “Address?” Piper rubbed her forehead, trying to remember. “573 Kingston Ave., New York, New York.” “Please sign here,” the attendant said. When Piper signed, he asked, “May I call a cab for you, Miss Albrecht?” “No, thank you.” Piper felt dizzy and sick to her stomach again. She couldn’t wait to get outside. Stunned, she staggered to a bench under a tree and sank down. Can it be true? Dear God, was that really her on that table? Tears streamed down her cheeks. Everything had happened so fast that day that Piper’s head was spinning. It all started that afternoon when her train had come to a screeching halt near Boston’s waterfront. A conductor announced that a railroad employee had climbed onto the tracks, warning them about a washed-out trestle ahead, the result of an explosion. The train reversed and backed all the way into the previous station where the passengers were told to evacuate immediately. Frantic about her aunt, Piper checked her bag at the depot and rushed to the Garden Tea Room where they were to meet for luncheon. Aunt Tilly was not there. Next, she went to Young’s Hotel where her aunt was staying. The front desk clerk said she had not seen her since early that morning. Piper wondered if she might be at the auditorium where she was speaking that evening. She found the building locked. By this time, every street corner had a boy holding a paper calling, “Extra, extra! Molasses tank explodes in the North End!” Growing more anxious, she took a streetcar across town to The Boston Women’s Suffrage Headquarters. The last time they had seen Tilly was early that morning. She was on her way out to distribute fliers. “Was she on the North End?” Piper asked. “Dear God, I hope not,” the older woman replied. “We told her we had others who could pass out leaflets, but you know her. She could never sit in an office.” It was then that Piper decided to visit the site of the disaster. She could hardly believe Aunt Tilly was gone. All that remained of the vibrant, beautiful woman was that grotesque black cadaver inside the morgue. Since she was eleven, Aunt Tilly had been guiding her, caring for her, and mentoring her. She had schooled her, polished her, taught her manners, and gave her a career. They had traveled the United States together, fought as suffragists together, experiencing humiliating defeats as well as great victories. Most important of all, when she was a child, Aunt Tilly was the only person who had truly loved her. Now she was gone. Piper couldn’t imagine life without her. Aunt Tilly was the only mother she’d ever had. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she took out her hanky. It was time to decide. Would she take her aunt’s place at the speaking engagement or return home? She wanted desperately to go back to New York City, hide in her flat, and let the misery flood her, but who would speak today? Someone should take her place. She could practically hear Aunt Tilly begging her to take her place. Yet how could she endure the endless questions and the sympathetic hugs, and what a poor replacement she would be for that dynamic woman. Piper took a deep breath. She knew what she had to do. There would be time for grief. She had the rest of her life. This afternoon, she would do one last thing for her aunt. * * * Piper rested her head on the window of the train, grateful the rally was over. At last, she was on her way home. She was bone tired but couldn’t sleep. If it had been daylight, she could have watched the landscape, but it was dark, and she was alone with her thoughts in the train compartment. She sighed. Somehow she had delivered the speech, and it had been a success. Although she had traveled and worked with Aunt Tilly for many years and was well-versed in the cause, suffrage had never been Piper’s calling. Nevertheless, she had managed to enlist the support of over one hundred women and collected a great deal of money. Making that happen had been the easy part. Dealing with personal questions was the challenge. “I know how difficult this must be for you, Miss Albrecht,” one woman asked at the conclusion of the speech. “We do offer our sincere condolences and are distraught over the passing of Mrs. Abelman. The woman was a legend. Can you tell us anything at all?” “I’m sorry,” Piper replied. “I won’t be discussing that this afternoon, but thank you for your kind words.” It was impossible to avoid questions at the reception though. She answered the inquiries mechanically and as quickly as possible, always returning the conversation to suffrage. She had done it gracefully, but it had not been easy. “We are so close to achieving the vote, Miss Albrecht,” a young woman said at the reception. “How do you feel about your aunt missing the victory?” “Ah, but she won’t miss it,” Piper replied. “She will be watching and rejoicing with Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton.” She told the guests what they wanted to hear, but in reality, Piper was angry and felt as if her aunt had indeed been cheated. She clenched her fists and stared out the window of the train. It was so unfair. Aunt Tilly had devoted her entire life to achieving the vote for women, and now she would miss it. Hot tears ran down her cheeks. She wiped her nose and took a deep breath. Death always makes us take inventory, Piper thought. She must remember what she had, not what she had lost. I am surrounded by people I love, and I must look to the future never forgetting the past. Drying her eyes, Piper opened a drawstring bag, taking out a picture. It was a faded photograph of herself at age eleven outside her home on Coney Island. She carried it as a reminder of how far she had come. Smiling, she looked at the skinny little girl in the picture. She had frizzy, blonde hair that looked like a bird’s nest and was dressed in a dirty jumper. Her pet monkey, McKinley, sat on her shoulder. Piper rested her head on the train window. Yes, she had come a long way.