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.

November 27, 1868 George Armstrong Custer

Like many of his fellow “goats”, George Armstrong Custer would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’. Dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, he would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

At 25, Custer was one of the youngest Major Generals in the Union army, when Robert E. Lee met George Gordon Meade at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
He wasn’t the youngest. That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker, who at 20 was the only General Officer in history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day. In fact, it was in opposition to Pickett’s Charge that Custer makes his biggest contribution to the Union war effort, though I believe his role is overlooked.
The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. On the third day, that would change.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. Their superior mobility allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that otherwise would have been impossible.

For his first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving him effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼ mile distant from the Federal line. Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.

The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest that the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back. But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line?  The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.

Let the battle be described by one of its participants: “As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.

east-cavalry-fieldStuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day, but of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them were from Custer’s brigade.

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, then Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles that would end, for him, eight years later on a hill in the eastern Montana territory.

“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have ended, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear, at the same time as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign had been Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States of America to go its own way. On that third day at Gettysburg, the Civil War could have come to a very different ending.

November 26, 1703, The Great Storm of 1703

“Whatever the danger was within doors”,’twas worse without; the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the Tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within”

The storm came in from the southwest on Wednesday evening, November 24, and stayed until December 2. On Friday the 26th, barometers read as low as 950 millibars in some areas, a reading so low as not to have been seen in living memory. Before it was over, the southern part of Great Britain would see one of the most destructive storms in history.

Queen Anne sought shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace, while the lead roof blew off Westminster Abbey. Over 2,000 chimneys and 17,000 trees were toppled to the ground in London.  In the Thames, hundreds of ships of all sizes were piled up like toys.

At the Cathedral City at Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was asleep with his wife next to him, when a toppling chimney killed them both in their bed.

Close to a third of the entire British Navy were drowned during the storm, as ships were driven as much as 15 miles inland. Many ships disappeared forever.  Others washed up on the shores of Denmark and Norway.

The most miraculous tale of survival was that of Thomas Atkins, a sailor aboard the HMS Mary. As Mary broke up, Atkins watched as Rear Admiral Beaumont climbed aboard a piece of its quarter deck, only to be washed away as Atkins himself was lifted high on a wave and deposited on the decks of another ship, the HMS Stirling Castle. Atkins was soon in the water again as Stirling Castle sank, when he was again thrown by a wave, this time landing in a small boat. He alone would survive of the 269 men aboard the Mary.

Hundreds of sailors found themselves stranded on Goodwin Sands, a ten mile long sand bar, six miles off the coast of Kent. In a race against the incoming tide, Thomas Powell organized the rescue of some 200 of them. They could have saved more, had the good citizens onshore stopped looting shipwrecks long enough to lend a hand.

With “Robinson Crusoe” still sixteen years in his future, Daniel Defoe was at this time a minor poet and pamphleteer. Defoe was freshly out of prison in 1703, having served his sentence for criticizing the religious intolerance of High Church Anglicans. Hearing the collapse of brick chimneys, the Defoes and their six children sought refuge in their gardens, but were soon driven inside to “trust the will of Providence”. “Whatever the danger was within doors”, he said, “”twas worse without;  the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within.”

great-storm-of-1703
It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone.

The 75,000 words which followed are recognized by many as the first work of modern journalism, forming Daniel Defoe’s first book length work, “The Storm”.

Storms of great severity are not unheard of in southern England. In 1362, part of the Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down, and severe gales were recorded in 1897, 1908 and 1943.  The gales of 1953 and 1987 left more damage than any storm of the last century. At the time, the storm of 1703 was seen as the Wrath of God, visited upon Great Britain for the “crying sins of this nation”. The storm would remain the subject of sermons for the next 150 years.

It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone. Estimates range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed.  The final tally will never be known.

November 25, 1841 Amistad

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government

By 1839, the international slave trade was illegal in most countries, though slavery itself was not. In April of that year five or six hundred Africans were illegally purchased by a Portuguese slave trader, and shipped to Havana aboard the brig Tecora.

Fifty three members of the Mendi tribe, from the modern day country of Sierra Leone, were sold to Joseph Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who planned to use them on their Cuban sugar plantation. The Mendians were given Spanish names and designated “black ladinos,” fraudulently documenting that they had always lived as slaves in Cuba. In June, Ruiz and Montez placed the Africans on board the schooner la Amistad, (“Friendship”), and set sail down the Cuban coast to Puerto del Principe.

On the fourth night at sea, Africans broke free of their chains and seized control of the ship. They killed two of their captors, losing two of their own in the struggle, while two others escaped in a boat. The cabin boy, who really was a black ladino, was spared and used as translator.

The Mendians forced the two remaining crew to return them to Africa, which they pretended to do by day. But they were betrayed, the two slavers would steer the ship north by night, when the position of the sun couldn’t be seen. Amistad was apprehended off Long Island by a U.S. Coastal Survey brig and taken to New London, Connecticut where the Africans were put in prison. Connecticut was still a slave state at that time.

The Spanish Ambassador demanded that Ruiz’ and Montez’ “property” be returned and the matter settled under Spanish law. President Martin van Buren agreed, but the matter had already fallen under the jurisdiction of the courts.

The district court trial which followed in Hartford determined that the Mendians’ papers were forged, and they should be returned to Africa. The cabin boy was ruled to be a slave and ordered returned to the Cubans, however he fled to New York with the help of abolitionists. He would live out the rest of his life as a free man.

Fearing a loss of pro-slavery support, President van Buren ordered government lawyers to appeal the case up to the United States Supreme Court.  The government case depended on the anti-piracy provision of a treaty then in effect between Spain and the United States,

A former President and son of a Founding Father, John Quincy Adams, argued the case, in a trial beginning on George Washington’s birthday, in 1841.

SCOTUS upheld the decision of the lower court 8-1, ruling that the Africans had been detained illegally and ordering them returned to their home. John Tyler, a pro slavery Whig, was President by this time. He refused to provide a ship or fund the repatriation, so abolitionists and missionaries did so, returning 35 surviving Mendians to Africa on November 25, 1841.

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.

Bill Clinton, Eric Holder and Janet Reno should have remembered that 152 years later, before kidnapping six year old Elian Gonzalez at gunpoint, and sending him back to Cuba over the body of the mother who died bringing him to freedom.