Cocoanut Grove fire
The Cocoanut Grove was Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

's premier nightclub
A nightclub is an entertainment venue which usually operates late into the night...

 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
Iroquois Theater Fire
The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred on December 30, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. It is the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history...

 in Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

 had a higher death toll, of 602. The enormity of the tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 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
A speakeasy, also called a blind pig or blind tiger, is an establishment that illegally sells alcoholic beverages. Such establishments came into prominence in the United States during the period known as Prohibition...

, was located at 17 Piedmont Street, currently a parking lot in what is now Boston's Bay Village
Bay Village, Boston, Massachusetts
Bay Village is the second smallest and arguably least-known officially-recognized neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. As of 2010, its population was approximately 1,312 residents living in 837 housing units, most of which are small brick rowhouses....

 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. 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
Prohibition of alcohol, often referred to simply as prohibition, is the practice of prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, import, export, sale, and consumption of alcohol and alcoholic beverages. The term can also apply to the periods in the histories of the countries during which the...


Its Owner

The then current owner, Barnet "Barney" Welansky, boasted of his ties to the Mafia
American Mafia
The American Mafia , is an Italian-American criminal society. Much like the Sicilian Mafia, the American Mafia has no formal name and is a secret criminal society. Its members usually refer to it as Cosa Nostra or by its English translation "our thing"...

 and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin
Maurice J. Tobin
Maurice Joseph Tobin was a Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, the 56th Governor of the U.S. state of Massachusetts, and U.S. Secretary of Labor....

. 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. Ironically, on the night of the fire he was recovering from a heart attack in a private room at Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital is a teaching hospital and biomedical research facility in the West End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts...

, 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. Earlier that day, Boston College
Boston College
Boston College is a private Jesuit research university located in the village of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA. The main campus is bisected by the border between the cities of Boston and Newton. It has 9,200 full-time undergraduates and 4,000 graduate students. Its name reflects its early...

American football
American football is a sport played between two teams of eleven with the objective of scoring points by advancing the ball into the opposing team's end zone. Known in the United States simply as football, it may also be referred to informally as gridiron football. The ball can be advanced by...

 fans had seen their Sugarbowl-bound team
Boston College Eagles football
The Boston College Eagles football team is the collegiate football program of Boston College. The team is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, a Division I Bowl Subdivision league governed by the NCAA. Within the ACC, the Eagles are one of six teams in the Atlantic Division...

, undefeated and ranked number one in the nation, lose its place to their unranked rival, Holy Cross
Holy Cross Crusaders football
The Holy Cross Crusaders football team is the collegiate football program of the College of the Holy Cross. The team is a member of the Patriot League, an NCAA Division I conference that participates in the second-level Football Championship Subdivision, more commonly known as FCS or the...

, 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
-Loss of lighting or communication:* Power outage, an accidental loss of electric power* Rolling blackout, an intentional loss of electric power* Blackout , the practice of minimizing outdoor lighting for protection from attack...

 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 sign
Exit sign
An exit sign is a device in a public facility denoting the location of the emergency exit , guiding people to the closest exit in case of fire or other emergency. Most relevant codes require exit signs to be permanently lit...


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
Incandescent light bulb
The incandescent light bulb, incandescent lamp or incandescent light globe makes light by heating a metal filament wire to a high temperature until it glows. The hot filament is protected from air by a glass bulb that is filled with inert gas or evacuated. In a halogen lamp, a chemical process...

 in order to give himself privacy while kissing his date. Stanley Tomaszewski—a 16-year-old busboy
Busser, busboy and busgirl are terms used in the United States for someone who works in the restaurant and catering industry clearing tables, taking dirty dishes to the dishwasher, setting tables and otherwise assisting the waiting staff....

—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).

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
Revolving door
A revolving door typically consists of three or four doors that hang on a center shaft and rotate around a vertical axis within a cylindrical enclosure. Revolving doors are energy efficient as they prevent drafts, thus preventing increases in the heating or cooling required for the building...

, 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
Buck Jones
Buck Jones was an American motion picture star of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, best known for his work starring in many popular western movies...

 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.

Jack Lesberg
Jack Lesberg
Jack Lesberg was a jazz double-bassist.He performed with many famous jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Benny Goodman....

, bass player for the Cocoanut Grove house band, was luckier; he escaped the fire and went on to play music with Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong , nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana....

, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Lois Vaughan was an American jazz singer, described by Scott Yanow as having "one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century."...

, Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim...

, and many others until shortly before his death in 2005. His escape was described by fellow bassist Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus Jr. was an American jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and civil rights activist.Mingus's compositions retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third stream, free jazz, and classical music...

 in an unpublished section of Mingus' autobiography Beneath the Underdog. According to Mingus' telling, Lesberg used his double bass
Double bass
The double bass, also called the string bass, upright bass, standup bass or contrabass, is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra, with strings usually tuned to E1, A1, D2 and G2...

 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
United States Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission and a federal regulatory agency...

 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
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

. Fourteen years later he burned to death in a fiery automobile crash.


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
Manslaughter is a legal term for the killing of a human being, in a manner considered by law as less culpable than murder. The distinction between murder and manslaughter is said to have first been made by the Ancient Athenian lawmaker Dracon in the 7th century BC.The law generally differentiates...

 (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.

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
Life safety code
Administered, copyrighted, and published by the National Fire Protection Association , the Life Safety Code, known as NFPA 101 is the registered trademark of an American consensus standard which, like many NFPA documents, is systematically revised on a three year cycle.The standard, despite its...

 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).

Advances in burn and psychiatric care

Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital is a teaching hospital and biomedical research facility in the West End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts...

 and Boston City Hospital
Boston Medical Center
Boston Medical Center is a non-profit 639 licensed-bed medical center in Boston, Massachusetts. It was created by the formal merger of Boston City Hospital which was the first municipal hospital in the United States and Boston University Medical Center Hospital in July 1996 which was sponsored...

 took dozens of burn and smoke inhalation victims, and the event led to new ways of caring for both. Surgeons Francis Daniels Moore
Francis Daniels Moore
Francis Daniels Moore was an American surgeon who was a pioneer in numerous experimental surgical treatments...

 and Oliver Cope
Oliver Cope
Oliver Cope , was an American surgeon known for his work in parathyroid surgery, burns treatment and breast cancer treatment. He is also remembered for describing the Churchill-Cope reflex.- Biography :...

 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
Tannic acid
Tannic acid is a specific commercial form of tannin, a type of polyphenol. Its weak acidity is due to the numerous phenol groups in the structure...

. The event was the first major use of the Hospital's new blood bank
Blood bank
A blood bank is a cache or bank of blood or blood components, gathered as a result of blood donation, stored and preserved for later use in blood transfusion. The term "blood bank" typically refers to a division of a hospital laboratory where the storage of blood product occurs and where proper...

, one of the area's first.
Erich Lindemann
Erich Lindemann
Erich Lindemann was an American author and psychiatrist, specializing in bereavement. He worked at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston as the Chief of Psychiatry and is noted for his extensive study on the effects of traumatic events on survivors and families after the Coconut Grove Night...

, 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, read at the Centenary Meeting of The American Psychiatric Association
American Psychiatric Association
The American Psychiatric Association is the main professional organization of psychiatrists and trainee psychiatrists in the United States, and the most influential worldwide. Its some 38,000 members are mainly American but some are international...

 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
Alexandra Adler
Alexandra Adler was a neurologist and the daughter of psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. She has been described as one of the "leading systematizers and interpreters" of Adlerian psychology. In 1937, Adler and Tracy Jackson Putnam conducted a study on a brain of a multiple sclerosis victim...

 was working with more than 500 survivors of the fire and conducting some of the earliest research on post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Posttraumaticstress disorder is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma. This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one's own or someone else's physical, sexual, or psychological integrity,...


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.'"

Further reading

  • White, E.J., Famous American Disasters, Creative Television Associates, Boston, MA, 1992.
  • Benzaquin, Paul, Holocaust! The shocking story of the Boston Cocoanut Grove fire (1959) No ISBN available, but Library of Congress Control Number is 59014396.
  • Schorow, Stephanie, The Cocoanut Grove Fire (2005) ISBN 978-1-889833-88-0.
  • Keyes, Edward, Cocoanut Grove (1984) ISBN 978-0-689-11406-9.
  • Esposito, John, Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy And Its Aftermath (2005) ISBN 978-0-306-81423-5.
  • Am J Surg. 1993 Dec;166(6):581-91. The 1942 fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Saffle JR.

External links

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