Cocoanut Grove fire

Cocoanut Grove fire

The Cocoanut Grove was Boston's premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 40s. On November 28, 1942, occurred the scene of what remains the deadliest nightclub fire, killing 492 people (which in itself was 32 more than the building's authorized capacity) and injuring hundreds more. It was also the second-worst single-building fire in American history; only the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago had a higher death toll, of 602. The enormity of the tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II in newspaper headlines. In both cases, most of those who lost their lives would have survived, had the existing safety codes been enforced. The tragedy led to a reform of codes and safety standards across the country.


The Club

The club, a former speakeasy, was located at 17 Piedmont Street, currently a parking lot in what is now Boston's Bay Village neighborhood. Originally a garage and warehouse complex, the building had been converted to a one-and-a-half-story meandering complex of dining rooms, bars and lounges offering its patrons dining and dancing in a South Seas-like "tropical paradise" created by artificial palm trees, rattan and bamboo, heavy draperies and swanky satin canopies suspended from the ceilings, and a roof that could be rolled back in summer for dancing under the stars.[1] The building had acquired a reputation as being a criminal hangout, and this image was enhanced by the murder of its former owner, gangland boss and bootlegger Charles "King" Solomon, also known as "Boston Charlie", who was gunned down in the men's room of Roxbury's Cotton Club nightclub nearly a decade before, just after the end of Prohibition.[2]

Its Owner

The then current owner, Barnet "Barney" Welansky, boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin. He was known to be a tough boss who ran a tight ship: hiring teenagers to work as busboys for low wages and street thugs who doubled as waiters and bouncers, he locked exits, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit to prevent customers from leaving without paying.[3] Ironically, on the night of the fire he was recovering from a heart attack in a private room at Massachusetts General Hospital, where most of the victims would be sent.

November 28, 1942

Thirteen days earlier, six firemen had been killed and 43 injured in the collapse of a building.[1] Earlier that day, Boston College football fans had seen their Sugarbowl-bound team, undefeated and ranked number one in the nation, lose its place to their unranked rival, Holy Cross, in a crushing defeat of 55-12. Humiliated, the college canceled its victory party reservations at the nightclub; had it been held, it surely would have resulted in the deaths of even more people.

It is estimated that on that Saturday more than a thousand - the exact count will never be known - Thanksgiving weekend revelers, wartime servicemen and their sweethearts, football fans and others were crammed into a space rated for a maximum of 460 people. Exterior Christmas lights were banned due to blackout regulations, but the club made up for this in its decor. The club had recently been expanded with the new Broadway Lounge, which opened onto the adjacent Broadway. Decorated in a South Seas tropical style, the restaurant, bars, and lounges inside were outfitted with palm trees made of flammable paper, cloth draperies covering the ceiling, flammable furniture, and other flimsy decorations, some of which obscured exit signs.

The Fire

Official reports state the fire started at about 10:15 p.m. in the dark, intimate Melody Lounge downstairs. A young pianist and singer, Goody Goodelle, was performing on a revolving stage, surrounded by artificial palm trees. It was believed that a young man, possibly a soldier, had removed a light bulb in order to give himself privacy while kissing his date.[1] Stanley Tomaszewski—a 16-year-old busboy—was instructed to put the light back on by retightening the bulb. As he attempted to tighten the light bulb back into its socket, the bulb fell out of his hand. In the dimly-lit lounge, Tomaszewski, unable to see the socket, lit a match for a moment to illuminate the area, found the socket, blew out the match, and replaced the bulb. Almost immediately, patrons saw something ignite in the canopy of artificial palm fronds draped above the tables (although the official report doubts the connection between the match and the resulting fire[4]).

Despite waiters' efforts to douse the fire by throwing water on it, it quickly spread along the fronds of the palm tree, igniting nearby decorations on the walls and ceiling. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons who were stumbling up the stairs. A fireball burst across the central dance floor just as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced through the adjacent Caricature Bar, then down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge. Within five minutes, flames had spread to the main clubroom and the entire nightclub was ablaze.

As is common in panic situations, many patrons attempted to exit through the main entrance, the same way they had come in. However, the building's main entrance was a single revolving door, immediately rendered useless as the panicked crowd scrambled for safety. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it to the extent that firefighters had to dismantle it in order to get inside. Later, after fire laws had tightened, it became illegal to have just one revolving door as a main entrance without being flanked by outward opening doors with panic bars attached.

As night deepened, the temperature dropped. Water on cobblestones turned to ice. Hoses froze to the ground. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. From nearby bars, soldiers and sailors raced to assist. On the street, firefighters lugged out bodies and were treated for burned hands. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had ingested fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones.

Other avenues of escape were similarly useless: side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying their bills. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was instead boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials later testified that, had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Many young soldiers perished in the disaster, as well as a married couple whose wedding had taken place earlier that day.

After the fire, and during the cleanup of the building, the firefighters sent to complete the task found several bodies, still sitting in their seats, with their drinks still in their hands, overcome so quickly by fire, and toxic smoke, they didn't have time to move.

Victims and escapes

Boston newspapers were filled with lists of the dead and stories of narrow escapes and deaths. It was erroneously reported that Hollywood movie star Buck Jones had made it safely outside but died two days later in the hospital. In fact, Jones had fallen where he sat in the prime Terrace area directly across from the bandstand, which was behind a wrought-iron railing that acted as a trap. Stories claimed that Jones had gone back in to rescue people. In truth, he had been incapacitated at his seat and lingered in the hospital for some hours before dying.[5]

Jack Lesberg, bass player for the Cocoanut Grove house band, was luckier; he escaped the fire and went on to play music with Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, and many others until shortly before his death in 2005.[6] His escape was described by fellow bassist Charles Mingus in an unpublished section of Mingus' autobiography Beneath the Underdog. According to Mingus' telling, Lesberg used his double bass to "make a door" inside the club that aided in his escape.

Bartender Daniel Weiss and entertainer Goody Goodelle both survived in the Melody Lounge by dousing a cloth napkin with a pitcher of water and breathing through it. Weiss was able to escape by crawling through the kitchen and other subfloor areas, while Goodelle and several other employees were able to escape by crawling through a barred window in the kitchen. Five survived by taking refuge in a walk-in refrigerator.

Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson went back in no fewer than four times in search of his date who, unbeknownst to him, had safely escaped. Johnson suffered extensive third-degree burns over 55% of his body but survived the disaster, becoming the most severely burned person ever to survive their injuries at the time. After 21 months in a hospital and several hundred operations, he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri. Fourteen years later he burned to death in a fiery automobile crash.[7]


In 1993, the Bay Village Neighborhood Association built a memorial into the brick ground on Piedmont Street, where the club formerly stood.

Barney Welansky, whose connections had allowed the nightclub to operate while in violation of the loose standards of the day, was convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter (19 victims were randomly selected to represent the dead). Welansky was sentenced to 12–15 years in prison. He served nearly four years before being quietly pardoned by Massachusetts Governor Maurice Tobin, who had been mayor of Boston at the time of the fire. In December 1946, ravaged with cancer, Welansky was released from Norfolk Prison, telling reporters, "I wish I'd died with the others in the fire." Nine weeks later, he was dead.[1]

Busboy Stanley Tomaszewski, who survived the fire and later testified at the inquiry, was exonerated, as he was not responsible for the flammable decorations or the life safety code violations, but was still ostracized for much of his life because of the fire.

In the year that followed the fire, Massachusetts and other states enacted laws for public establishments banning flammable decorations and inward-swinging exit doors, requiring exit signs to be visible at all times (meaning that the exit signs had to have independent sources of electricity, and be easily readable in even the thickest smoke), requiring that revolving doors used for egress must either be flanked by at least one normal, outward-swinging door, or retrofitted to permit the individual doors to fold flat to permit free-flowing traffic in a panic situation, and further requiring that no emergency exits be chained or bolted shut in such a way as to bar access to the doors during a panic or emergency situation. Commissions were established by several states that would levy heavy fines or even shut down establishments for infractions of any of these laws. These later became the basis for several federal fire laws and code restrictions placed on nightclubs, theaters, banks, public buildings, and restaurants across the nation. It also led to the formation of several national organizations dedicated to fire safety. Perhaps the largest exercise of these laws was the 1990 fire at the Happy Land Social Club in New York, which killed 87 people, and revised several laws placed after the Cocoanut Grove.

During the 1990s, former Boston Fire Fighter and researcher Charles Kenney discovered and concluded that the presence of a highly flammable gas propellant in the refrigeration systems – methyl chloride – greatly contributed to the flashover and quick spread of the fire (there was a shortage of freon in 1942 due to the war effort).[8]

Advances in burn and psychiatric care

Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital took dozens of burn and smoke inhalation victims, and the event led to new ways of caring for both. Surgeons Francis Daniels Moore and Oliver Cope at Massachusetts General Hospital pioneered fluid resuscitation techniques for the burn victims, whose wounds were treated with soft gauze covered with petroleum jelly instead of tannic acid.[9] The event was the first major use of the Hospital's new blood bank, one of the area's first. Erich Lindemann, a Boston psychiatrist, studied the families and relatives of the dead and published what has become a classic paper, Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief,[10] read at the Centenary Meeting of The American Psychiatric Association in May 1944 and published in September of the same year. At the same time Lindemann was laying the foundation for the study of grief and dysfunctional grieving, Alexandra Adler was working with more than 500 survivors of the fire and conducting some of the earliest research on post-traumatic stress disorder.[11]

Embedded in the sidewalk at the location of the fire is a memorial to those who lost their lives. The plaque states: "The Cocoanut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people that died in the Cocoanut Grove Fire on November 28 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. 'Phoenix out of the Ashes.'"


  1. ^ a b c d Thomas, Jack (1992-11-22). "The Cocoanut Grove Inferno". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2011-10-28. 
  2. ^ "Cabaret gunmen kill 'King' Solomon," The New York Times, Jan. 25, 1933, p. 36.
  3. ^ "Sealed Grove 'Exit' Found, Quiz Head of License Board", The Boston American, Dec. 12, 1942. p.1
  4. ^ Reilly, William Arthur (1943-11-19), Report concerning the Cocoanut Grove fire, November 28, 1942, Boston Fire Department,, retrieved 2010-12-02 
  5. ^ "Buck Jones is dead of injuries in fire" (reprint). United Press. 1942-11-30. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  6. ^ "Bassist Jack Lesberg dead at 85". Associated Press. 2005-10-06. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  7. ^ "Recalling Cocoanut Grove". The Boston Globe. 1992-05-25. Retrieved 2011-10-25. 
  8. ^ Kenney, Charles, "Did A "Mystery Gas" Fuel The Cocoanut Grove Fire?" Firehouse, May, 1999
  9. ^ Joseph C. Aub, Henry K. Beecher, Bradford Cannon, Stanley Cobb, Oliver Cope, N. W. Faxon, Champ Lyons, Tracy Mallory and Richard Schatzki And Their Staff Associates (Massachusetts General Hospital Staff doctors). Management of the Cocoanut Grove Burns at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1943.
  10. ^ Lindemann, Erich (June 1994). "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief". American Journal of Psychiatry (American Psychiatric Association) 151 (2): 155–160. PMID 8192191. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  11. ^ Vande Kemp, Hendrika (Spring 2003). "Alexandra Adler, 1901-2001" (reprint). The Feminist Psychologist (Society for the Psychology of Women) 30 (2). Retrieved 2010-12-02. 

Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 42°21′1″N 71°4′3″W / 42.35028°N 71.0675°W / 42.35028; -71.0675

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