100th Episode Special: The Dublin Whiskey Fire: Why 13 People Died

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For our 100th episode, we’re talking about the awful fire that happened in Dublin, Ireland in 1875. It resulted in 13 people dying, but none of them from the fire! Every person reportedly died from alcohol poisoning! In this episode, we talk about the fire and then play a special version of the quick quiz with Comedian Dan Wilbur!

Wilmington coup

For the Jim Beam distillery, 4th of July Weekend in 2019 wasn’t one to celebrate. On the evening of July 3rd, a lightning strike hit one of their Frankfort, Kentucky warehouses and started an uncontrollable blaze. Between wood and flammable alcohol, the fire spread quickly. Fire units from 4 different nearby counties responded and the fire was so hot that the plastic lights on the firetrucks melted. 

They made the decision to let the fire burn itself out. They contained it, but they wanted the distilled spirits to burn down because one of the major results of this fire was contaminated runoff. As the barrels burned, they leaked ethanol into Glenn Creek, which then led to the Kentucky River and the larger Ohio River. So firefighters wanted to minimize the amount of Bourbon entering the river. Even so, environmental experts found a large fish kill-off in the 62 miles of river where the bourbon runoff traveled. Jim Beam paid $600,000 in fines for the damage to the environment.

As far as the Whiskey, the warehouse was a total loss. 45,000 barrels were destroyed – that’s approximately 6 million bottles of bourbon. “Take one down, pass it around, five million, nine hundred-thousand, nine-hundred ninety-nine bottles of bourbon on the wall” Now, to put that into context, it was about 1% of Jim Beam’s total Bourbon being stored. They have 126 warehouses in Kentucky with 3.3 million barrels, so the fire didn’t affect supply at all. And Jim Beam ages their barrels for 4 years – these barrels hadn’t yet broken the 1-year mark, so it wasn’t a huge loss in that regard. 

It seems like other than a small financial loss, the biggest impact was to the fish in the ecosystem. But in Dublin, Ireland, a fire that raged in The Liberties district in 1875 took 13 lives. And none of them were due to the fire itself. I’ll tell you about that after a quick break.

There’s a long history of distillery fires in Kentucky. One of the worst ones was the Heaven Hill Fire in 1996. It was said to have destroyed 2% of the world’s total amount of Whiskey overnight. But no one died as a result. The fire we’re going to talk about now ended up with the death of 13 Irishmen. Let’s go back to 1875.

The inner-city area known as The Liberties is the oldest part of Dublin, Ireland. It’s so old it can trace its origins all the way back to the Vikings. On Ardee Street in The Liberties neighborhood stood Laurence Malone’s Pub and Bonded Storehouse. A bonded storehouse was a place where barrels of whiskey from various distilleries were stored and a Whiskey Bonder would make private label blends and small batch bottles from those barrels. Malone’s storehouse held 5,000 barrels of whiskey. Half-a-million liters. He was the largest and most successful Whiskey Bonder in Dublin.

Around 4:35pm on June 18, 1875, someone from Malone’s checked on the storehouse and all was well. But sometime between then and 8:30pm, a fire started. No one knows exactly how it began, but again – high-test alcohol plus wood equals quick-spreading fire. By 9:30pm, the fire was raging so hot that barrels were exploding, throwing flaming  alcohol into the air and out the windows of the storehouse. It was a combination of immature spirits, whiskey, brandy and wine. It was basically like gasoline flowing out the doors and windows of the building, burning with a blue flame as it ran.

The fire brigade was a tiny group of 23 men, led by Fire Captain Robert Ingram. He had worked as a fireman in both New York and London and was the very first Superintendent of the relatively new fire brigade. They had only organized 13 years prior and most Dublin citizens didn’t support the idea of of centralized fire brigade for the city. Some Dubliners didn’t like the idea of poor citizens who didn’t pay into the system getting the benefit of a fire service for free.

Even though the fire brigade was a group of 23, only 15 could be rounded up to fight the blaze at Malone’s. It wasn’t enough. The police showed up and immediately called for 150 more police officers and 200 military men. By this time, two buildings were burning – both Malone’s storehouse and the adjoining Reid’s Punch House Pub – shooting flames high into the air – 30 feet above the roof- as burning whiskey continued spilling into the streets, glowing blue with flame. A total of $6 million dollars of Whiskey in today’s money.

The river of burning Whiskey was rushing down the street 6” deep. It destroyed entire houses as it flowed down Cork Street, Ardee Street, Chamber and Mill Streets. The firemen couldn’t fight it with water – that would just help spread the burning whiskey, which would float on top of the water. They started tearing apart the street and trying to dam the flow with gravel and rocks. It didn’t work. Finally, Captain Ingram ordered the men to bring wagons of horse manure – something they had in plentiful supply. They mixed horse manure with supplies from the nearby tannery and ashes to finally stop the flow of burning whiskey. They stopped it just in time to save the Convent as the fire spread toward Coombe. The scene in The Liberties was chaos. Animals were panicking, crying and running everywhere in the streets. And the citizens of Dublin had crowded around at the spectacle of a blue glowing river of alcohol in the night.

By the end of the entire debacle, 13 people died. But strangely, NONE of them died from fire. None died from smoke inhalation. Every single death was attributed to alcohol poisoning. A total of 24 hospitalizations and 13 dead – All from drinking too much.

As the river was flowing through the neighborhood, people were grabbing bowls and drinking it. Men took off their hats and filled them up to get a sip. Some even were reported to remove their boots to fill them up with free whiskey! And much of that whiskey was immature un-aged pure alcohol. Much stronger than what they were used to drinking.

Peter Paul McSwiney, the Lord Mayor, thanked the fire brigade and police for evacuating the buildings so quickly, but lamented the loss of life due to alcohol poisoning. He said that the deaths of those who drank the fire whiskey would have happened in “any city where there was a tendency to indulge immoderately in drink.” He said “In the present case, the unfortunate victims apparently could not restrain themselves, as I understand, from the burning fluid.”

There is a happy ending, though. This fire was the catalyst to add certain fire protection measures to storehouses. And it helped Captain Ingram finally convince the public of the importance of a large, centralized fire brigade. They had proven their value in saving not only countless lives, but a large part of the city. Had it not been for their efforts, it definitely would have been worse.

The newspapers were afraid of the story making Irishmen look like uncontrollable drunks and played it down. Whiskey manufacturers didn’t talk about it because they didn’t want people to think that drinking their whiskey was deadly. So – while it plays into the derogatory stereotype of the Irish, it definitely happened. The Internet Says it’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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