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

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.

The Pittsburgh Press (September 14, 1943)

After 290 days –
Victim of nightclub fire beginning to walk again

‘Isn’t that something?’ Coast Guardsman asks after he takes a few steps

Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
Falteringly, 22-year-old Clifford Johnson of Sumner, Missouri, walked unassisted today for the first time since he was burned almost beyond recognition in the cocoanut Grove Nightclub holocaust 290 days ago.

“Isn’t that something?” he asked his nurses with a grin as, like a baby learning to walk, he took a few steps across the Boston City Hospital room where he has lain – most of the time on his stomach – since the fire that cost 492 lives.

Although the young coast Guardsman is winning one of medical history’s most amazing fights for life, it will probably be four more months before he can go back to his parents and a sister on their Missouri farm.

On Aug. 4, newspapers throughout the country published the story of Johnson’s plucky battle for life. It was a fight in which some $20,000 was spent on nutritional treatment, blood plasma, sulfa drugs and skin grafting in an effort to patch up a body, 65% of which was covered with third-degree burns.

To Johnson came a flood of letters, many from mothers with sons in the service or from servicemen themselves, offering sympathy and encouragement.

Apparently, the letters were just the tonic the shy sailor needed. A six-footer, he has regained 16 of the 56 pounds he lost as a result of the accident and now weighs 124.

Johnson still has to sleep on his stomach, but in his waking hours is able to relieve the monotony by typing with one hand on a portable typewriter.

Dr. Newton Brower, who belittles his own large part in Johnson’s recovery, praised Dr. Charles C. Lund and the staff of the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory. He said Johnson already had had 17,000 pinpoint skin grafts on his head, back, arms and legs, and that more were yet to come.

Etymology, origin and meaning of holocaust by etymonline

Oct 13, 2021 — Originally a Bible word for “burnt offerings,” given wider figurative sense of “massacre, destruction of a large number of persons” from 1670s

It’s a Much older word.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 3, 1943)

Fire victim joins WAC

Boston, Massachusetts –
Miss Edwina J. Mullin of Cambridge, who was injured in the Cocoanut Grove holocaust, has joined the WAC to replace her Army-officer fiancé who was among the 490 persons who were killed in the nightclub fire.