Cocoanut Grove on fire! (11-28-42)

The Pittsburgh Press (December 1, 1942)

Curb clamped on all Boston night resorts

Governor suggests closing clubs, pending grand jury probe

Death trap in the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire at Boston which took 449 lives Saturday night was this swinging door entrance. Many of the victims were crushed and smothered to death in this tiny, 10-foot-wide vestibule.

Busboy’s match lights holocaust and 449 persons receive fatal injuries in the Boston nightclub fire of last Saturday. Stanley Tomaszewski, 16, who inadvertently started the conflagration, here tells his story to Boston Police Commissioner Joseph P. Timilty.

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
All Boston nightclubs, taverns, restaurants and hotels were ordered today to discontinue dancing, music and other entertainment pending a probable grand jury investigation of the Cocoanut Grove fire which took at least 449 lives.

The Boston Licensing Board was to meet later in the day to consider a suggestion by Governor Leverett Saltonstall that all such establishments be closed until they had been reinspected as regards fire hazards.

The board’s action came while dual inquests were in progress to fix possible criminal negligence in connection with the disaster.

Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell, directing state and county prosecutors, said “the investigation has already started” and indicated it would take the form of grand jury proceedings.

Fourth nightclub fire

The Licensing Board’s action followed charges by Boston City Councilman William A. Carey that during the past year, there were four costly nightclub fires, including one in East Boston last month which claimed the lives of six firemen.

Mr. Carey said:

We could well have a holiday in these so-called nightclubs and cafés while building and fire inspectors make a checkup of their conditions in the interest of public safety.

During a conference with the licensing board, Governor Saltonstall advised members to close such establishments pending a reinspection, and said that if there was any doubt as to the board’s authority, to:

…go ahead and let the question of authority come later.

Exit door order

Meanwhile, it was revealed that City Building Commissioner James H. Mooney had issued an order Jan. 8 that doors in all public places must open outward.

At that time, he ordered an immediate inspection of “churches, schools, moving picture houses, theaters, auditoriums, nightclubs, dance halls, taverns, cafés and commercial buildings with many offices.” In all these places, he ruled, exits should be equipped with doors that open “in the direction of exit” and no doors should be locked while persons were inside.

However, at Fire Commissioner William A. Reilly’s current inquest, police photographer Morgan C. Murphy today identified 20 pictures of the fire scene that he had taken, some showing a door on the Piedmont St. side with wood ripped away from a casing in such a fashion as to indicate it had been forced. Officials sought to introduce this as evidence that the door was locked at the time of the fire.

Eyewitness testimony

Another witness, who saw the fire actually start, gave a graphic description of the conflagration. He was Maurice Levy of Roxbury, Signal Corps Reserve man studying at Boston Trade School. His wife and two companions perished.

Mr. Levy said:

We got to the Cocoanut Grove at 9:15 Saturday night. We want downstairs to the Melody Lounge, walked completely around the bar of the lounge and came to the corner over on the left-hand side.

It seemed that a light was bothering a person sitting next to me. There was a palm tree to my right, with a light behind the palm tree. He [the other person] got up and loosened the bulb.

The waiter served our drinks, went back to the bar, then returned and said something about the bartender asking that the bulb be put back.

He [the waiter] got up, groped around and couldn’t find the bulb. It was very dark. He lit a match. Then he put the match behind the tree. That set fire to the tree and, by the time the waiter got down, there was a complete fire.

The fire didn’t spread through the tree, but hit the ceiling and went in all directions across the ceiling. Cpl. Harold Goldenberg [the other man in Mr. Levy’s party] tried to put it out with his hands. My wife and I ran up the stairs to the first floor where we came in.

Separated from wife

He said the ceiling of the lounge was completely covered by draperies about nine feet from the floor and that the fire raced through the draperies.

He said:

The fire spread ahead of me. I cut across the crowd. In the rush, my wife was pushed away.

He said he finally managed to get out of the building on the Piedmont St. side.

While the inquest was in progress, authorities disclosed that three years ago, a person of importance with the nightclub was warned that the building was a tinderbox with very bad exits.

Letter made public

The warning was in a letter made public by Assistant District Attorney Frederick T. Doyle prior to a conference of state and county prosecutors who were called together by Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell to “avoid duplication of efforts” in the investigation of Saturday’s fire disaster.

Mr. Doyle said the recipient of the letter, written Jan. 27, 1939, by Boston advertising executive Ernest J. Goulston, was “a person of some importance” at the nightclub. Part of the letter read:

There are several things you ought to give particular attention to. Your exits are very bad. You have a tinderbox construction. It should be in absolute conformity with the building rules.

Newspapers in action

Mr. Doyle said he did not now have any knowledge of what prompted the letter or whether the warning was heeded.

Meanwhile, Boston newspapers warned editorially against any effort at “whitewash” or “to cover up or protect somebody.”

A public inquiry underway before Fire Commissioner William A. Reilly had already developed testimony suggesting that Boston’s lax building and fire prevention ordinances, rather than an individual or individuals, were mainly responsible for the disaster.

Death toll now 449

Shortly before noon, the Boston Public Safety Committee announced that a thorough check had revealed 21 duplications, reducing the official death list to 449. The committee said only five victims remained unidentified. The recheck showed that 172 remained hospitalized, with 20 in critical condition.

The committee earlier had announced a higher total of deaths, but a definitive check of the list resulted in the elimination of several duplications.

Among the dead was Charles “Buck” Jones, star of Western movies, who died of his burns late yesterday afternoon.

Fix responsibility

Boston newspapers were forthright in their comment.

The Globe said:

Nothing could have made what happened at the Cocoanut Grove more bitter than a well-grounded suspicion that someone is trying to cover up or protect somebody else.

The Post said:

Whitewash of this horrifying tragedy will not be tolerated by an aroused public.

The Christian Science Monitor said:

Nothing should divert an investigation which will fix responsibility insofar as possible and carry through to the provision of adequate safeguards.

The Herald said:

Nothing happened at the Cocoanut Grove which could not have been and should not have been foreseen and prevented.

Decorations thought safe

The public hearing before Commissioner Reilly resulted mainly in a repetition of the tales of horror, confusion, and panic previously told by participants and witnesses. But it had also disclosed that an inspector of the Boston Fire Department had considered the decorations sufficiently fire-resistant to be safe and a building inspector had approved its construction, and the fact that it only had four exits.

Testimony developed that, in addition to being inadequate, the Cocoanut Grove’s exits were not marked.

Robert S. Moulton, secretary of the National Fire Protection Association, characterized Boston’s building and fire prevention ordinances as “chaotic” and charged that they were further weakened by “incompetent enforcement, political influence, and careless management.” He said the tragedy was “clearly due to gross violations of several fundamental principles of fire safety.”

Safety director at club

The hearing developed that John J. Walsh, executive director of the Public Safety Committee, in charge of counting and caring for the bodies, had been in the club when the fire broke out.

He was entertaining 12 guests and, upon seeing flames at the other side of the dining room, calmly led his party to safety.

Mr. Walsh told the board:

I got to the Cocoanut Grove at 7. I was sitting at a side table, midway on the floor. The room was crowded.

Takes exit opposite fire

We had finished dinner and were about ready to leave when I saw what appeared to be a puff of smoke and flame over the entrance on the opposite side of the building from where we were sitting.

Mr. Walsh said he quickly got his party together and led them toward the exit opposite where he saw the fire.

He related:

When I turned and looked again at that spot [where he first saw the smoke], it was a roaring mass of flames.

Step over bodies

I led the way and we had to pick our way over the bodies of people who were already lying on the floor where they had been trampled. I think it took us about a minute and a half to cross the room, and by that time, the entire room was a roaring mass of flames.

The crowd came from the rear and surged forward toward the stage. Not many realized there was a door in the direction that we were going. Everyone was screaming and yelling as we stumbled our way across the bodies.

Mr. Walsh said he and two men in the party forced the door.

As soon as I put my feet on the sidewalk, I pulled out at least 20 to 25 people.

Bartender John W. Bradley, who was on duty in the Melody Lounge where the fire started, wept continually as he testified in a tremulous voice. His face and ears were heavily bandaged.

Bradley testified:

I was behind the bar when somebody pulled out a light. I told Stanley to go over to the corner and make the customer put on the light.

Yells ‘take it easy’

Bradley continued:

I went back to my work. All of a sudden, somebody screamed “Fire!” I jumped from behind the bar. One of the palm trees was burning. Then a flash came. I tried to throw water on it. But the whole ceiling was ablaze. I hollered to everybody to take it easy.

The palm tree, Mr. Bradley said, was in a corner of the lounge near the kitchen and there was an immediate panic with everybody “hollering and screaming.”

He testified:

Somehow, I managed to get across the room and into the kitchen. Some of the cooks rushed in with fire extinguishers, and I went back in to help, but the smoke hit me in the face. I stood there shouting “Come out this door!” but nobody heard me.

Bartender’s hair on fire

At this point, Mr. Bradley broke down. Tears streamed down his face and his voice choked as he told how he finally managed to clamber out a kitchen window into an alleyway. There, he said, he beat out the flames in his hair with his bare hands.

Henry W. Bimbler, a waiter in the main dining room, testified that there was a lengthy delay in getting people out through the kitchen door because a dishwasher refused to give up the keys.

He said:

Flames were coming up the stairs from the Melody Lounge. I ran to the kitchen and shouted “Fire.” There were no flames on the kitchen stairs. I went up again and everything was in flames.

Shoves girls into icebox

I went down again and shoved nine girls into an icebox. I told them to stay there until we got a door open. I asked a dishwasher to give me the keys to the door but he told me, “I can’t give you the keys until the boss says so.” Four or five of us then pried the door open.

Leo S. Givonetti, acting as captain at the main entrance, said the main dining room was packed to capacity and that he had been turning away customers for an hour and a half before the fire.

The headwaiter was at the phone and I remember hearing a scream in the lobby. I thought there was a fight and ran into the lobby to call the police. As I got there, I saw flames coming from the coat room over the Melody Lounge. The headwaiter told me to run like hell and open the exit door on the opposite side near the bandstand. Everyone was panicky.

Mr. Givonetti said the exit door was red and was not covered. He said the crowd was so panicky that he and the headwaiter were pushed out into the street.

Headwaiter returns, dies

I tried to get back in to help, but couldn’t. The headwaiter did and lost his life.

Lt. Miles V. Murphy of a rescue company said flames and black smoke were pouring from an entrance and:

…as I got into the door, the bodies were piled high at the door leading to the lounge. I had to crawl over their bodies to get in there.

The busboy, Tomaszewski, told the board substantially the same story he had related to police earlier.

He said:

I was stationed in the Melody Lounge. I was told to go over and put on a light in the corner near the kitchen. I got up on a chair to put it on. I didn’t know where it was, so I lit a match.

Shakes, steps on match

The boy said he then stepped down, shook the match and dropped it on the floor, where he stepped on it. Just then, he said, he heard someone cry fire and he looked up and saw the flames.

I tried to pull it out, but the flames came so fast I couldn’t do anything. Bradley [the bartender] came over and threw a glass of water at the flames.

The boy said the flames drove him to the kitchen, from where he led some people to safety.

After escaping from the club, the boy wandered around looking for a fellow busboy and went home at 4:30 a.m. The next day, he continued the search and, while seeking information at police headquarters, told his story to officers.

Buck Jones, cowboy hero, dies of nightclub burns

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
Charles “Buck” Jones, cowboy movie star and idol of millions of American boys. was dead today, a victim of the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire disaster.

Attending physicians said they “had abandoned all hope of Jones’ recovery immediately after examining his burns.” He died alone yesterday afternoon in Massachusetts General Hospital from what doctors described as “smoke inhalation and burned lungs, and from third and second-degree burns on the face and neck.” His wife was reported speeding to his bedside when death came.

A checkup showed that of about two dozen guests at the testimonial dinner for the 50-year-old actor, 13 were known dead, seven – mostly women – were recorded as missing and presumably dead, and the others were in hospitals with burns or injuries that may prove fatal.

Jones’ manager near death

In another ward of the crowded hospital, Jones’ Boston representative, Martin Sheridan, lay in critical condition. Mr. Sheridan’s wife, who also attended the Jones party at the Cocoanut Grove, was dead.

An early report listed Scott R. Dunlap, one of Hollywood’s leading producers of Westerns and Jones’ personal manager, among the dead, but City Hospital reported that Mr. Dunlap was still alive, although near death.

Jones became a cowboy star because he couldn’t become an Army aviator. Born Charles Gebhart in Vincennes, Indiana, he went to Red Rock, Oklahoma, as a small boy, there his father bought a small cattle ranch and when Charles reached his late teens, he got a job on the famous Wild West show, Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch, as a cowhand at $30 a month and chuck.

Joins U.S. Cavalry

Regularly every month, he would lose his payback to George Miller at poker. He decided that joining the Army might improve his poker playing, so he signed up in the Cavalry and was promptly sent to the Philippines. He was back home again in 1912, after a Moro’s bullet in one hip all but made a cripple of him.

Assigned to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, he became disgusted because they wouldn’t let him fly without a commission, so he went back to punching cows. World War I came along and he went back in the Army, in the remount service, breaking broncs to be sent to the British and the French. When the war ended, he became a rodeo rider.

While riding in New York’s Madison Square Garden, he met Miss Odille Osborne, a horsewoman. They married in the arena during a performance in Lima, Ohio.

Dunlap offers movie job

One day, standing on a street corner in Los Angeles, penniless Buck was approached by a man who asked him if he wanted a job. The man was Scott Dunlap, pioneer producer of Westerns.

That’s how Jones rode in his first Western picture. He insists this horse opera was titled A Tale of Two Cities, and that in some fantastic way, it was based on Charles Dickens’ stirring novel on the French Revolution – transferred to California!

In the picture, Jones had a closeup of himself rolling a cigarette with one hand while mounted. It was sensational: he was a star overnight. From then on, he made Western after Western, and a few dramatic pictures, including one hit, Just Pals, in which he played opposite Helen Ferguson. The late Carole Lombard was his leading lady when she was 16.

Eight pictures a year

The coming of sound slowed him up, but only temporarily, and in recent years, Jones was making a regular schedule of eight Westerns a year.

Ironically, Jones had visited another hospital to cheer a sick child only a few hours before he suffered the burns that cost his life.

Other Jones party guests who perished in the panic and flames were:

  • Edward I. Ansin, president of the Interstate Theaters Corp., which operates a New England movie chain;
  • Philip Seletsky, chief film booker for the M&P Theaters of Boston;
  • Charles Stearns, manager of United Artists Corp.;
  • Fred Paul Sharby and his son Fred Jr., Keene, New Hampshire, showmen;
  • Eugene Goss of Cambridge, one-time associate of Cecil B. DeMille;
  • Harry Asher of Boston, president of Producers Releasing Corp.;
  • Moses Grassgreen of Universal Pictures,
  • Bernard Levin of Columbia Pictures.


Sooner or later…

By Florence Fisher Parry

In the middle of the night, a broken voice on the telephone asked me, from Richmond, Virginia, to find his sister, one of my employees. He had just learned that his daughter and her husband had been killed in the Boston café fire.

A typical young couple, the parents of a beautiful 6-month-old baby, he a captain in the Army, she a sweet young Southern girl, met in reunion to dance together and sit opposite each other and talk, close, to music, as all young things in love are like to do!

All over the country people are getting just such summons to speed east to find the charred remains of their young, loved ones. Four hundred and seventy bodies already counted, and most of them young, and many terribly in love and gallantly trying to be gay before the war parted them.

A busboy lit a match to screw in an electric light globe thoughtlessly removed by a prankish guest… and in a few minutes a catastrophe too horrible to dwell upon… a careless movement of the hand, a hair’s breadth, and tragedy stalking thousands of lives!..

Finite sight

Now we keep thinking of this. It is near, it is real, its horror sickens and appalls us. Yet for three years now we have been hearing of horrors compared with which this disaster in Boston is nothing. Every day in the paper, every hour on the radio, we listen to dispatches out of Russia telling of the death of thousands, thousands. We hear of the Jews and the Poles murdered; of the Greeks and the Chinese starved.

But somehow all this doesn’t spring to life. Its impact is dulled by a dreamy incapacity to accept it. It is still outside us. Only when it comes home does it become real. Even when we hear of the death of our own boys in far lands, or at seam we still can’t seem to encompass it. It has to be one of ours before we accept it realistically. And even so, it is a nightmare it is still touched with dreaminess and insubstantiality.

Yet let a disaster like this terrible Boston fire occur, and it sears into our minds: more than 400 dead! It seems more catastrophic than 40,000 in Russia or China or the South Seas.

But oh, if only accidents this this would serve to impress how vain it is to circumvent what is to be! We flay ourselves because our sons are now “in danger.” Oh, would that they were here, near, dancing in the arms of their dear ones, we waiting here at home happy once more! That’s how all the mothers of those Army and Navy men felt, their boys on leave, able to go to a gay nice nightclub up in Boston and be young and carefree for a while.

And then something like this Boston tragedy occurs, and we know that safety, danger, life, death, are not ours to cajole.

Why yes, there will be casualties in this war, they have just begun to come rolling in now. But we have had casualties at home, shameful and unnecessary casualties. Millions killed who need not have been killed. Thousands of auto deaths each year; thousands of deaths by alcoholic excess thousands of deaths in childbirth caused by neglect; thousands of deaths by tuberculosis because of carelessness and ignorance; thousands of deaths from social diseases; thousands of children dead who need not have been, had care been taken – or offered.

If only out of this war could come a new appreciation of the value of life! This slaughter, already running into the millions, is no less wasteful than that which we countenance in peacetime. Indeed, the cost of us in lives is now arbitrary, unavoidable. There is nothing we can do about it; it is in the hands of the military.

But we can avoid just such catastrophes as that which has put all Boston into mourning.

Trained for it

The interesting thing about the disaster is that the men in uniform there, the officers particularly were the ones to keep their heads and effect rescues. That was, of course, because of their discipline, this holocaust was but a duplicate of that for which they had been trained.

They had come to shore from corvettes, submarines, bombers, destroyers; from murderous tanks, from hand-to-hand fighting.

Even the horrors of that nightclub disaster were not greater, not as great, as those through which they were prepared to pass in battle with the enemy. Had the guests all been men in uniform, I doubt whether, even trapped, they would have lost their dignity and calm. There would have been fewer deaths, not because these trained men would have been braver, but because they knew the meaning of sudden death under horrific conditions.

Suppose, at each sinking of a ship, each blasting of a position, panic such as raged in the Boston nightclub were to seize our men in the Armed Forces?

I get a picture of these Navy officers, these Army men, there with their wives and sweethearts as the fire burst upon them. I get a picture of this young captain and his wife, whose bodies were found together, untouched by mark of hysterical violence.

He had learned how to take death. He had imparted his calm to his wife.

This war is teaching our men lessons, some of which they will carry with them all their lives through.

One will stand them in good stead: they will be able to take death.

It is a great asset, it should make life a braver, nobler thing.

Editorial: Check to the limit

Every great fire or similar tragedy has been followed by a wave of official inspections. So with the awful Boston fire.

Cynical people are inclined to talk about “locking the door after the horse is stolen.” Perhaps so. Such belated investigations cannot save lives already lost. But we are certain they save lives which might be lost in future potential tragedies.

Naturally, Boston authorities are busily investigating circumstances of the nightclub fire which cost approximately 500 lives. The facts thus far deduced are damning. Here was a club with nearly a thousand patrons – and only two main entrances, both of them through revolving doors. There was a third small door from a cocktail lounge and a small service exit.

Of the two revolving doors – one was fastened but was supposed to releaser through a “panic clutch” intended to work if enough pressure were applied. Apparently, the force applied by one of the most hysterical pressures in history wasn’t enough to release it.

Pittsburgh City Council yesterday ordered the Departments of Safety and Public Health to inspect all nightclubs in this city.

Some folks will say this was a grandstand play.

Which is silly.

All of us, unfortunately, are hindsighted. We act on the basis of facts we should have appreciated previously.

How often – we ask – have the readers of this paper scanned some story about an auto accident, about the little girl who played with matches, or the baby who pulled the scalding water off the kitchen stove? How often have we read about the family with the unsafe gas heater or the one that left an unmarked poison bottle on the bathroom shelf?

Or the little girl who ran across the street without looking?

Okay, we’re all guilty. None of us locks the barn door till the horse escapes.

Pittsburgh City Council yesterday ordered inspection of all nightclubs.

Boston’s officials ordered an ordinance against the use of decorations that might easily burn.

Aftersight – yes. But foresight against other tragedies that might come.

Every nightclub, every place where sporting events are held, every place of public meeting should be inspected. If the exists – as was the case in the Boston tragedy – are not adequate, make the owners conform to safe practices. If they won’t conform, make them quit business.

We believe there are a number of places in Pittsburgh which are potential deathtraps.

Sure, this may be afterthought, but it might be forethought as regards future tragedies.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 2, 1942)

Grand jury begins inquiry of Boston nightclub fire

Toll set at 490, with 30 more suffering pneumonia; alcoholic fumes may have caused blast, theorizers on holocaust suggest

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
A Suffolk County grand jury convened today to hear testimony and possibly hand down manslaughter or criminal negligence indictments resulting from the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub holocaust in which at least 490 persons lost their lives.

As a statewide investigation of the disaster continued, the Boston Public Safety Committee announced the corrected death figures after a thorough check. The committee said that 174 of those injured Saturday night were still hospitalized.

Other new developments:

  1. A survey indicated that Boston’s nightclub “blackout” was costing owners about $125,000 per night, and that some 5,000 entertainers, waiters, and other employees were out of work.

  2. An announcement by the Boston Licensing Board that all first-class hotels in the city would be inspected and that any cocktail rooms or lounges found unsafe would be closed.

  3. A hint that the grand jury investigation might be broadened to determine the actual ownership of all Boston nightspots.

  4. Revival of the theory that a short circuit may have started the fire. Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell received information that wiring in the Cocoanut Grove’s main dining room between the actual and false ceilings was done by a young shipyard worker in his spare time.

Theodore Eldracher, a city building inspector, told Fire Commissioner William A. Reilly’s board of inquiry that alterations were still going on at the time fire swept the Cocoanut Grove. The alterations were begun Sept. 25 in the new cocktail lounge.

Fire door uncovered

He said:

There was a door at the end of the passage leading into the main dining room. It was going to be a fire door eventually, but there was no metal covering on it at the time.

Morrill Guerin, a Brookline waiter, testified he was in the downstairs kitchen when a couple of waiters burst in from the Melody Lounge looking for fire extinguishers.

He said:

I showed them where the extinguishers were and then I went up to the main dining room where people were running around screaming. There was such a crowd there that I hurried downstairs and escaped through the back service entrance.

Andrew Louzan, 17-year-old tap dancer, said he was in one of the dressing rooms when the fire started. When he saw the crowd milling around, he returned to warn 12 girl entertainers and then climbed through a window to a roof and escaped down a ladder.

Inspection clause cited

Mr. Bushnell earlier indicated that at least some of his contemplated prosecutions would be under Chapter 143, Section 36, of the Massachusetts General Laws which specifies that all official inspections of:

…theaters and special or public halls shall cover all details relating to the condition of the building as regards the safety of life and property.

The Cocoanut Grove was both a theater and a public hall for the purpose of the law, he said, though Boston municipal ordinances specify that theaters are places where admissions are charged, which is said to have permitted nightclubs like the Cocoanut Grove to get by with much less in the way of fire prevention than theaters.

Night life dampened

The Boston Licensing Board suspended the victualers’ licenses of all nightclubs and restaurants offering entertainment, 52 in all, pending a thorough inspection of their premises and decorations. They’ll probably remain closed several days with the resultant damper on night life.

Those closed included the Mayfair and Club 43, neighbors of the Cocoanut Grove, and the Latin Quarter, Beachcomber and Village Barn.

The board had first suspended the entertainment licenses of 682 restaurants, including the nightclubs, 293 taverns, and 35 hotels after Governor Leverett Saltonstall had warned that it would incur a grave responsibility if there was another tragedy in a public place comparable with that of the Cocoanut Grove.

Lid clamped at 9 p.m.

Then, at 9 p.m., it went further by suspending the victualling licenses of the nightclubs and specific restaurants, thereby closing them all together.

Fifty-two members of the armed services, including two WAVES, were lost, a survey showed today. The injured included 36 other soldiers, sailors and Marines.

Army men killed numbered 17. The Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard lost 35 men.

Names of additional dead were announced last night. They were:

  • Ens. Edward Maher, USNR, no address;
  • Lt. Ward M. Palmer, USNR, no address;
  • Ethel Powell, 35 West 65th St., New York;
  • Francis X. Gale, Dorchester;
  • Mary Zenkin, 38, of Boston.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 3, 1942)

Poison fume theory studied in cabaret fire

138 remaining in hospitals have developed lung ailments

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
The possibility that poisonous fumes emanated from burning decorations and caused many of the 491 deaths in the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire was advanced today by medical experts, chemists and pathologists.

The latest victim was Lt. William Langheimer, of Winchester, Massachusetts, Army officer who was one of the 78 persons under treatment for burns and pneumonia.

Indications that gaseous fume swept the club immediate after the first broke out Saturday night developed after it was disclosed that a number of the 138 still in hospitals had developed lung ailments.

Something deadly in smoke

Medical examiners said there was something deadly in the smoke from the fire, possibly fumes from smoldering fireproofing paint that “gassed the victims as soldiers were gassed in the last war.”

Dr. Timothy Leary, medical examiner of Suffolk County, said:

There is no question there was something poisonous in that smoke besides carbon monoxide and flame. It is possible that the cases came from the fireproofing paint or furnishings in the club.

Dr. Leary disclosed that a thorough investigation was being made by medical authorities. Autopsies have already been made on scores of bodies and the evidence is being double-checked, he said.

Jury to get findings

When the evidence is finally completed, it will be submitted to a grand jury together with other information obtained during inquiries in the last two days by state authorities.

One official said that the state investigators had already obtained evidence that “was enough for presentation” to the jury that convened yesterday., State Attorney General Robert R. Bushnell hinted at “indictments for manslaughter” against an undetermined number of persons, possibly some public officials.

One inquiry developed five pertinent factors. Testimony indicated that: The club was of tinderbox construction; some doors were apparently locked; the club was overcrowded; the club’s decorations were last known to have been fireproofed four years ago; some question of whether electric wiring was installed by an expert.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 4, 1942)

Boston club laxity shown

Place wired without permit, worker testifies

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
Nearly 200 more witnesses will be called at the Cocoanut Grove inquest to substantiate fresh evidence of official laxity in connection with the holocaust that claimed 492 lives, it was disclosed today.

Latest evidence of irregularities came in the testimony of a Boston Navy Yard worker who said city inspectors knew wiring was being installed at the club without a permit, license or professional skill.

Another revelation was that Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell had viewed a bundle of checks for meals served free to persons of political importance.

Benjamin Elfman, a Boston Navy Yard worker, indicated the electrical work was done by a yard machinist – Raymond Baer – who once ran a burlesque theater switchboard for Barnett Welansky, the club’s owner.

Mr. Elfman said Mr. Baer called him in to put in wiring, but he refused to do it without a permit. Mr. Baer, he said, didn’t object to doing the work without a permit.

Investigators were also seeking to learn where materials for new work at the club were obtained. Contracts and specifications were seized for examination. As far as could be determined, no permission for the work was given by the War Labor Board which, under wartime regulations, permits only $200 worth of new construction or remodeling on such projects.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 7, 1942)


Let’s be fair

By Florence Fisher Parry

Let’s be fair. Let’s not persecute one group and let all the others go. We’re in a war to stop such practices. But can we? It’s human nature to pounce upon the specially accused.

The Boston nightclub fire was a horrible disaster, a shameful, preventable thing. Investigation is strictly in order and there isn’t a nightclub in the land so safe but is under suspicion and open to investigation and immediate closedown if found to be a public hazard. In all our major cities, popular nightclubs have been closed for necessary safety improvements. In Pittsburgh, several of our resorts, enjoying holiday business, have had to make costly changes and “improvements.” Concrete floor, fireproof buildings, etc., have been found not to be enough. They have had to put steel doors between their kitchens and dance floor, tear up stairways and floors, open new exits, and otherwise submit to new blueprints for safety.

They have been further penalized by minor impositions which have discriminated against their business.

Had this fire occurred in a motion picture theater, a store, an office building, a hotel, a crowded drugstore – indeed in any of a hundred different public places whose fire hazards are just as great as those presented by that nightclub in Boston, I question whether such places of business would have been subjected to the INSTANT investigation to which the nightclubs all over America have been exposed.


For a long time, the public has had it “in” for the nightclubs; the very name has carried an unhealthy savor. And with that blanket fervor in which we bunch our prejudices, ALL places of after-dark entertainment – with the exception of the theaters and the movies – have suffered stigma.

The match that lit the artificial palm tree in the Boston Cocoanut Grove, caused no wilder fire than the wave of hysteria that has hit at the nightclubs of America. They ALL were condemned, almost before the investigation began. And in a record time – so quickly were they pounced upon by the law – hundreds were closed, forbidden to reopen until the most exacting physical chances were made.

We commend the investigators. They have acted with record speed and efficiency. But we question whether they would have been fired with the same zeal, and their findings acted upon with the same dispatch, if the business under investigation had been, say, some store, or even the motion picture business, which has taken on in recent years the dignity of a major industry and is well-represented by powerful men quite able to project its interests.

I am not a frequenter of nightclubs. I am almost ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen a “floor show” for years. I don’t believe I would recognize, on sight, the proprietor of any nightclub in Pittsburgh or New York or anywhere. I used to know the Shanley brothers in New York, nice Irishmen with fine upstanding families.

But whenever I have gone to one of these night places, I have been struck by the high quality of their entertainment, the elaborate and costly shows provided, and the many really talented young show folks and musicians who seem to me to be making a gallant effort to get along in the show business.

I have loved to watch the happy couples on the dance floor; and when the smoke and congestion and noise have begun to get me down a little, I have been willing enough to lay it to the fact that my years are simply outgrowing such innocent and harmless recreations.

Other offenders

But it has always seemed to me unfair that our nightclubs have never seemed to be able to outlive the stigma imposed upon them way back in the bootleg days. They’re still no better than speakeasies in the minds of too many would-be reformers. And the Boston fire has served to give unbridled rein to this all to prevalent prejudice.

ARE nightclubs indeed anymore more of a fire hazard than any other kind of place where people foregather for ANY purpose? I know of estimable lodge rooms, yes, churches, which are firetraps. I can walk through the best of stores, big and little, and indulge the grisly speculation of what would happen if their Christmas decorations would catch on fire. I’ve slept in good hotels in the full knowledge that a well-started fire could trap me utterly. Many stores boast their crowded basements. What about the elevator shafts and stairways of office buildings? Have investigations of restaurants disclosed ideal fire protection? I think not. Go into any crowded restaurant these busy shopping days and speculate upon what would happen in a fire panic. In any theater, “legitimate” or variety or motion picture, there is no way fully to protect the audience if it panics. I don’t care HOW many exits there are.

Let’s be fair. The Boston Cocoanut Grove fire, like the Chicago Iroquois Theater fire, has focused investigation upon only ONE fire hazard. But why shall we be specific and confine our attack and reform to the nightclubs?

Why close up only these offenders?

Look around you, and be fair!

Fire toll now 494

Boston, Massachusetts –
The official death toll of the Cocoanut Grove fire rose to 494 today as investigators disclosed that about 200 more witnesses will be heard before the case is ready for submission to the Suffolk County grand jury. The latest victim was Miss Joan St. Pierre of Belmont, who died at City Hospital.

Buck Jones funeral to be held today

Hollywood, California (UP) –
Filmland pays homage to one of its most authentic Western stars today at the funeral of Charles “Buck” Jones, who died of burns in Boston’s tragic Cocoanut Grove fire.

Delegations representing many organizations, including the office of Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz, the Al Malaikah Temple of Shriners, Henry S. Orme Masonic Lodge, the Jesters and Jones’ Studio, Monogram, will attend the High Episcopal services in a Washington Boulevard chapel.

Jones, 50, who grew up in the great outdoors which backgrounded the films making him famous, had averaged eight pictures a year for 20 years.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 11, 1942)

Nightclub fire toll officially put at 487

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
The Cocoanut Grove holocaust took 487 lives, according to revised official figures released today by the Boston Public Safety Committee

Duplications discovered during a week-long checkup by the committee reduced the death list to the new figure from the earlier “official” total of 495.

The committee’s final check showed that 171 persons were injured. Of this number, more than 100 are still hospitalized with some in critical condition.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 26, 1942)

Indictments expected soon in Boston fire

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
The first indictments in connection with the investigation of the Cocoanut Grove holocaust which took 488 lives Nov. 28 may be expected early next week, authorities indicated today.

District Attorney William J. Foley said that although the Suffolk County Grand Jury was continuing its hearings today, there would be no judge on the bench to receive indictments before Monday.

Today’s witnesses included Fire Commissioner William A. Reilly, Police Captain Joseph Buccigross (who was in the nightclub when the fire started), City Building Commissioner James H. Mooney, and nine other persons.

The Evening Star (December 31, 1942)

Eleven are indicted in probe of Boston fire, killing 489

Charges kept secret, but grand jury hits officials’ ‘laxity’

Boston, Massachusetts (AP) –
A grand jury today returned 11 secret indictments in connection with the Cocoanut Grove Night Club fire Nov. 28, in which 489 panic-stricken persons lost their lives in a horror of flame, smoke and gas.

Simultaneously, the 20-man Suffolk County grand jury issued a series of findings and recommendations, declaring there had been:

…laxity, incompetence, failure to fulfill prescribed duties effectively and also lack of complete knowledge of duties" among members of various departments charged with the protection of public safety.

In a lashing statement, the jury said it intended to record its conclusions:

…even though such evidence may fall short of establishing the willfulness or corruption required to make neglect of duty a criminal offense.

The jury said:

We have found shifting of responsibility and a tendency by various officials in different important departments who relied too much on their subordinates without exercising a sufficient and proper check on such subordinates.

We have found no complete coordination between the buildings department, fire department, police department, and licensing board, with respect to various types of inspection intended to be made to insure public safety in addition to protecting the public health, morals, et cetera.

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The Pittsburgh Press (January 4, 1943)

Nine plead innocent in Boston club fire

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
Nine of 10 defendants pleaded innocent today when arranged in Superior Court on manslaughter, conspiracy or negligence charges growing out of the Cocoanut Grove fire which took 489 lives.

The only defendant who failed to appear was Police Captain Joseph Buccigross, who is charged with neglect of duty and corruptly failing to enforce fire laws. It was announced in court that he was confined to his home by illness. Special arrangements will be made for his arrangement.

In continuing the cases until Jan. 12 for the filing of special pleas, Superior Judge Frank J. Donahue released the defendants in the same bail as when they were arrested Thursday. It totaled $88,500.

The Pittsburgh Press (January 10, 1943)

Hurt in nightclub fire, man jumps to his death

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) – (Jan. 9)
The death toll of the Cocoanut Grove holocaust rose to 490 today when Francis Gatturni, 31, of Roslindale, one of those injured, committed suicide by leaping from a window at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The Pittsburgh Press (April 10, 1943)

Jury handed fate of 3 in Boston fire

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
The manslaughter case against three men blamed for the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire that cost 491 lives went to the jury at 1 p.m. today after a month-long trial.

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The Pittsburgh Press (April 15, 1943)

Nightclub owner is given 15 years

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
Barnett Welansky, owner of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison today for manslaughter in connection with the fire at his club last Nov. 28 which cost 491 lives.

Judge Joseph Hurley imposed the prison sentence on each of 19 counts, but ordered that they all be served concurrently – the first day in solitary confinement and the rest at hard labor. The possible maximum sentence would have been 20 years in prison.

The 46-year-old defendant, a Boston lawyer, stared ahead as sentence was pronounced.

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so this decision was taken at the lower court level right? So… in case he goes for higher courts… would he be in prison or the sentence dropped till the issue is resolved in the higher courts?


The Pittsburgh Press (July 23, 1943)

Contractor is convicted in Boston nightclub fire

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
Samuel Rudnick, a contractor, was convicted of conspiracy today in connection with the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire last November which cost 492 lives. Three other Boston men were acquitted.

Those acquitted of conspiring to evade the building laws were James Welansky, brother of Barnett Welansky who is serving a 12- to 18-year prison term for manslaughter; Theodore Eldracher, city building inspector, and Rudnick’s helper, David Gilbert.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 4, 1943)

Seared victim of Cocoanut Grove Fire holds hope for life after 8 months

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
One of medical history’s most amazing fights for life was revealed today by physicians who for eight months have worked tirelessly at the bedside of a young Coast Guardsman burned almost beyond recognition in the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub holocaust.

Third-degree burns covered 65% of Clifford Johnson’s body when the 21-year-old Sumner, Missouri, sailor was dragged last Nov. 28 from the nightclub fire that cost 492 lives.

In a third-degree burn, the skin and possibly some of the tissue beneath has been destroyed. No other person in that fire who suffered more than 20% burns survived.

Since that night, Johnson, the only victim still hospitalized, has lain on his stomach. Three things have apparently kept him alive during those pain-wracked months – nutritional treatment, blood plasma and about $20,000 worth of the finest medical case obtainable.

Perhaps the first was the most important. Dr. Charles C. Lund of Brookline said that the nutritional treatment was a more important factor than sulfa drugs and the triple dye treatments.

From 168 pounds, Johnson dropped to 112 as the protein in his body drained from a normal of 6.5.% to 3.2%. to combat this, he was intravenously fed 6,500 calories daily as compared with the 3,500 calories required each day by a laborer. His daily caloric intake equaled about three pounds of meat.

The Navy and the Coast Guard gave nearly 100 transfusions from their blood banks into the youthful seaman’s veins – perhaps more than ever has been used by any one person in such a concentrated period.

Three physicians. Including Dr. Newton C. Browder, and six nurses have been in almost constant attendance at City Hospital. It was Dr. Browder who persuaded the Coast guard that Johnson should remain in that institution until his recovery was complete.

The American Red Cross donated almost $5,000 for nursing care. Burn specialists throughout the United States visited him to study this very rare case in medical history.

The National Research Council at Washington and the City Hospital’s Thorndike Memorial Laboratory have gathered information from his case that may revolutionize burn treatment.

Skin grafts on Johnson’s back are healing. He has passed through the most painful period and now wants to live. Doctors believe he will.

But these same physicians say it will be several months before he walks again and that by the time he is well, his medical care will have cost more than $50,000.