November 28, 1942 Cocoanut Grove

492 lost their lives in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, a building with a rated capacity of 460

If go behind the Hotel Radisson in Boston, over by the parking garage, you’ll find 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood. The address is a parking lot now.  74 years ago, it was the most popular nightclub in Boston.
Rumors of criminal connections followed the Cocoanut Grove for years. The former owner, gangster and bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon, was gunned down ten years earlier in the men’s room of Roxbury’s Cotton Club. “Barney” Welansky, the current owner, liked to brag about his ties with the Mob and with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Welansky was in Mass General Hospital that night, recovering from a heart attack. He would soon have a lot of company.
The club had been a speakeasy during prohibition. Originally a garage and warehouse, Cocoanut Grove was converted into a 1½ story complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges, offering patrons dining and dancing in a “tropical paradise” of artificial palm trees, satin bunting and paper palm fronds, complete with a roof which could be rolled back when weather permitted for dancing under the stars.
Welansky was a tough boss, who seemed maniacally determined not to be beaten out of a tab or a cover charge. He locked exit doors, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit. Nobody was going to leave Cocoanut Grove without paying up.
Boston College had just ended an undefeated season, losing their slot in the Sugar Bowl in a stunning loss to Holy Cross, 55–12.  Over a thousand football fans, military service members and Thanksgiving weekend revelers crowded into the nightclub that night.  The rated capacity was 460.
Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, Goody Goodelle played piano on a revolving stage, surrounded by paper palms. Someone, perhaps a soldier on leave with his sweetheart, had removed a light bulb to have a little privacy. 16 year old bus boy Stanley Tomaszewski climbed up to replace the bulb, lighting a match so he could see what he was doing.
The decorations ignited immediately, fire racing so fast along the satin canopy, that wooden strips hanging it from the ceiling remained unscathed.
Waiters attempted to douse the fire with water, but it spread far too quickly. Lounge patrons were overcome so rapidly by toxic smoke, that some were later found dead in their seats, drinks still in their hands.
Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of people trying to escape. The orchestra was just beginning its evening show as a fireball leapt across the dance floor, spreading quickly through the Caricature Bar, and down a hallway to the Broadway Lounge. Inside of five minutes, flames had spread into the main hall and the entire nightclub was ablaze.cocoanut_grove_night_club_fire
Today, fire codes require revolving doors to be flanked by doors on either side, but that wasn’t the case in 1942. Desperate to escape, patrons packed the single revolving door, their bodies jamming it so tightly that firefighters later had to dismantle the entire frame.
The bodies of club guests piled up at locked exits, as other doors, opening inward, quickly became useless in the crush of bodies. Firefighters later testified that 300 could have been saved, if only those doors had opened to the outside.
The most striking story of survival that night was that of Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson, who returned to the nightclub no fewer than four times in search of his date, Estelle Balkan. He didn’t know that she had safely escaped, and each time Johnson returned with another unconscious smoke victim in his arms. Johnson himself was on fire his last time out, when he collapsed onto the sidewalk, still ablaze.
Three other burn victims were taken to Mass General that night, with burns over 30% of their bodies. Johnson alone survived the ordeal, despite suffering third degree burns over 55% of his body. He would suffer almost two years of painful medical treatments, including no fewer than 30,000 skin grafts in the first year alone.
I earn my living in the Commercial Furniture business.  I can tell you from experience that Cocoanut Grove effects Boston fire code regulations to this day. 492 died in the conflagration, the deadliest nightclub fire in American history. Barney Welansky was tried and convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter, and sentenced to 12-15 years. Maurice Tobin, by then Governor, released him after four, his body ravaged with cancer. Welansky died 9 weeks later. Stanley Tomaszewski was exonerated.  It wasn’t he who had placed all those flammable decorations, but he was treated like a Jonah for the rest of his life.
Clifford Johnson would be 21 months in the hospital, after which he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri, the first of his era to survive such severe burns. Ironically, Johnson would be killed in a car wreck in 1956, pinned beneath an overturned Jeep, and burned to death.

Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Five years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point, I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. At this point, I’ve written about 450. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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