Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The most devastating nightclub fire in history resulted in more rigorous enforcement of fire-safety standards, establishment of new fire regulations and building codes, implementation of novel medical treatments, and innovative psychological practices.

Summary of Event

On the Saturday evening after Thanksgiving, November 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, located at 17 Piedmont Street near the theater district in Boston, was in full swing. Hundreds of people were out for a good time, celebrating weddings and anniversaries, enjoying military leave (World War II was at its height), and replaying the football upset of Holy Cross over Boston College. Among the guests were local residents, politicians, tourists, and Western movie actor Buck Jones Jones, Buck . The nightclub was “the place to be.” Cocoanut Grove Fires [kw]Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly (Nov. 28, 1942)[Fire in Bostons Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly] [kw]Boston’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly, Fire in (Nov. 28, 1942)[Bostons Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly, Fire in] [kw]Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly, Fire in Boston’s (Nov. 28, 1942) [kw]Nightclub Proves Deadly, Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove (Nov. 28, 1942) Cocoanut Grove Fires [g]North America;Nov. 28, 1942: Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly[00680] [g]United States;Nov. 28, 1942: Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly[00680] [c]Disasters;Nov. 28, 1942: Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly[00680] [c]Entertainment;Nov. 28, 1942: Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Proves Deadly[00680] Welansky, Barney Welansky, Jimmy Alpert, Mickey Tomaszewski, Stanley Jones, Buck Bennett, Jack Solomon, Charles Tobin, Maurice Joseph

The Cocoanut Grove opened during the Prohibition era as a legal entertainment establishment. Local entertainer Mickey Alpert and two partners renovated an old one-and-a-half-story garage into a seemingly tropical paradise. However, just before opening night, in October, 1927, Jack Bennett was arrested, and the club lost its financial sponsor. The nightclub limped along until 1931, when bootlegger Charles Solomon became its owner. In 1933, Solomon was murdered, and ownership of the Cocoanut Grove Lounge passed to his lawyer, Barney Welansky, who had political ties to Boston mayor Maurice Joseph Tobin.

By 1942, Welansky had expanded the club into a labyrinth that included the Melody Lounge, the Caricature Bar and dining room, and a new cocktail lounge popularly known as the Broadway Street Lounge. Within these areas, he continued the practice, begun by Solomon, of keeping most exits locked to prevent people from sneaking out without paying. The Cocoanut Grove, which by then provided food, liquor, music, singing, and dancing, was a popular oasis during the early months of World War II.

At 10:15 p.m., fire broke out downstairs in the Melody Lounge. A sixteen-year-old busboy, Stanley Tomaszewski, lit a match, replaced a lightbulb that a guest had removed from an artificial palm tree, and then extinguished the flame. It was not immediately apparent that during this process the paper tree caught fire. At first the guests were not alarmed; in fact, some people found the first attempts to extinguish the flame to be rather amusing. Within seconds, however, the tiny fire spread across the blue satin ceiling and tore through the lounge, creating panic and chaos as it filled the facility with fire, smoke, and fumes.

As the guests on the main floor frolicked and anticipated hearing Alpert’s band start its second show with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” flames licked across the Melody Lounge ceiling, rained down on shocked guests, burst up the stairwell, and exploded up into the foyer. As the fire advanced, several quick-thinking guests made their way through the dark, narrow corridor and out the main gate before the single revolving door stuck, caused a human traffic jam, and trapped the following customers. Other people in the Melody Lounge dashed to the Shawmut Street exit, only to find themselves trapped behind a locked door.

The fire snaked its way through the floors and thrashed its way through draperies, leatherette panels, decorations, and other combustibles. It trapped the dining-room guests in horrific flames and smoke. The power went out. The conflagration continued to the back of the nightclub and reached the new cocktail lounge, which had opened just eight days earlier. This new area had fire-department certification but lacked occupancy approval from the city building inspector. Those in this lounge found their egress impeded by a door that opened inward; many of them were doomed.

Just as the lounge fire ignited, the fire alarm sounded in the nearby theater district for a car fire. As the firemen extinguished the automobile flames, they heard the screams of Cocoanut Grove fire victims. The rescuers’ proximity and quick response from additional units saved many lives, but the blocked exists and thick smoke prevented immediate building access.

Firemen, policemen, servicemen, civilians, and medical personnel were pressed into duty. City, nearby town, state, and federal service branches were recruited. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were mobilized, too. A week prior to the fire, on November 22, many of these officials had participated in a Boston disaster emergency exercise that prepared them for responding to the Cocoanut Grove fire.

Initially, the majority of the victims were sent to Boston City Hospital Boston City Hospital ; later victims were diverted to Massachusetts General Hospital and other area hospitals. The stress on Boston City Hospital was inordinate; for well more than an hour, victims arrived there nearly every eleven seconds. Since this was wartime, hospitals were well-stocked, but provisions dwindled quickly, so Civil Defense authorities agreed to loan defense supplies to the beleaguered medical centers. While triage was the only possible course of action, recently developed burn-therapy techniques were employed wherever possible. These techniques included morphine and intravenous fluids for shock, new topical approaches to handling burns, respiratory observation and management, and trial use of penicillin for infection.

In less than fifteen minutes, the Cocoanut Grove fire killed or injured hundreds of people. Some of the occupants were burned; others were trampled; many more were asphyxiated from toxic fumes. The final toll was 492 dead and 170 injured. One of the casualties was Buck Jones. Disorder erupted after the fire, and by 1:35 a.m., martial law was declared. Coverage of the disaster usurped war news for several days. Reports included stories of people who escaped and accounts of suffering.

The terrible loss in the Cocoanut Grove fire may be attributed to many factors, including overcrowding (more than 1,000 customers were crammed into a space approved for only 460), unlawful occupancy of the new lounge, blocked and hidden exits, boarded-up plate-glass windows, flammable decorations, wiring by an unlicensed electrician, lack of signage, no emergency lighting or sprinkler system, and failure to evacuate immediately. The official cause of the fire was listed as “unknown origin.”

On the night of the Cocoanut Grove fire, corporate owner Barney Welansky had been hospitalized for twelve days; he remained there until December 11. His brother Jimmy Welansky was acting as temporary manager when the disaster occurred. Both Welanskys and eight other men were indicted by a grand jury for neglect. Jimmy Welansky and seven of the men were acquitted. Since he was responsible for the club, and no significant changes had occurred during his absence, Barney Welansky was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in Norfolk Prison. In 1946, after serving less than four years, Welansky was diagnosed with cancer and given a pardon by the former mayor of Boston, Governor Maurice Tobin. The only other conviction in the case was a two-year sentence against the building contractor for abuse of building laws.

Significance

With the exception of a sidewalk plaque that memorializes the event, there are no physical remains of the Cocoanut Grove Lounge, but the effects of the worst nightclub fire in American history were significant. The incident stimulated change and enforcement of local, state, and national fire regulations and building codes for nightclubs and similar establishments. Among the changes were requirements for improved exit and emergency lighting, occupancy permits with posted seating capacities, and doors with panic bars adjacent to revolving gates. Many jurisdictions banned flammable decorations. As a result of the fire, use of sprinkler systems became more prevalent.

New medical research provided opportunities to care for injuries with more advanced treatments. Among the enhancements were improved burn treatments, use of fluids and antibiotics for burn victims, and better respiratory care. Occupational, physical, and psychological therapies were found to be important in recovery as well. Use and study of these new techniques facilitated the later establishment of the Shriners Burn Institute Shiner’s Burn Institute[Shiners Burn Institute] at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The guilty verdict in Barney Welansky’s trial, Commonwealth v. Welansky, Commonwealth v. Welansky (1943) was another significant landmark. It has become a precedent in other legal cases involving involuntary manslaughter through reckless conduct, and it helped to establish that ignoring one’s affirmative duty can be grounds for conviction of manslaughter. The case is still cited regularly in criminal cases dealing with similar issues. Cocoanut Grove Fires

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benzaquin, Paul. Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove: Holocaust! Boston: Branden Press, 1967. Overview of the night of the Cocoanut Grove Fire, with personal accounts and ramifications. Black-and-white photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornell, James. “Fires.” The Great International Disaster Book. New York: Scribner, 1976. Summarizes and reviews the events leading to and following the fire and highlights the findings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esposito, John. Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove and Its Aftermath. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2005. Details the events of the fateful night, provides historical perspective, and explores the outcome. Black-and-white photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, Casey Cavanah. “Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove: Five Who Were There Remember the Night.” NFPA Journal (May/June 1991): 74-86. Covers the fire, the employees, the customers, emergency response, and medical advances.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keyes, Edward. Cocoanut Grove. New York: Atheneum, 1984. Provides in-depth description of the nightclub fire, rescue assistance, trial proceedings, and narratives of some of the survivors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schorow, Stephanie. The Cocoanut Grove Fire. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 2005. Concise but thorough summary of the history of the building and the club.

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