This photo history reveals the story of the Cocoanut Grove fire, the deadliest disaster of its kind in history.
On the evening of November 28, 1942, a massive fire broke out in a popular Boston nightclub known as the Cocoanut Grove. That night, 492 people died. Today, the Cocoanut Grove fire remains, by far, the deadliest disaster of its kind in history.
The Cocoanut Grove first opened its doors to the public in 1927. It was initially owned by two orchestra leaders, Mickey Alpert and Jacques Renard, before it passed on to the bootlegger Charles "King" Solomon. After Solomon was gunned down in 1933, the club's ownership passed to his lawyer, Barnet "Barney" Welansky.
Welansky was a tough businessman who wasn't going to let even one penny slip away. He hired youngsters for minimum wage and he locked and bricked up emergency exits to prevents his customers from fleeing the premises without paying. Welansky didn't know it at the time but this latter move would ultimately lead to the deaths of hundreds of people.
Despite Welansky's tough tactics, the Cocoanut Grove was one of the most popular nightclubs in Boston. And for good reason: The club had a restaurant, a dancing area, bars, several lounge areas, a rooftop area for dancing under the stars, floor shows, and piano-playing entertainers. The club resembled a tropical paradise and was often frequented by movie stars.
But it all came to an end on November 28, 1942. No one knows for certain how the fire started that night.
Some say it was the fault of a 16-year-old busboy named Stanley Tomaszewski. Shortly before the fire started, a young man unscrewed a light bulb in the Melody Lounge downstairs. He needed the cover of darkness to kiss his date in privacy.
Sometime later, Tomaszewski was instructed to screw the light bulb back in and he lit a matchstick to better see the lamp. After the light bulb was screwed back in, Tomaszewski extinguished the match. Immediately afterward, some people saw flames on the fake palm trees just beneath the ceiling.
However, the official investigation ruled out the possibility that the fire was started by Tomaszewski.
Whatever its cause, the lethal fire spread rapidly and soon killed hundreds of people. Because Welanksy had boarded up most exit doors, there were few escape routes available. To make matters worse, it is believed that more than 1,000 people were present at the club during the fire even though the club's official capacity was 460 people.
Hundreds of people tried to exit through the main entrance, a revolving door. However, the panic-stricken crowd jammed the door until it broke and those still stuck inside the club were soon engulfed by flames.
In fact, the fire moved so rapidly that some patrons were found sitting dead right in their seats, still clutching their drinks in their hands. A few people survived by hiding in the walk-in-refrigerator and the ice box.
It has been estimated that access to emergency exits — the ones that Welansky had boarded up — could have saved the lives of hundreds killed during the Cocoanut Grove fire. Welanksy was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was pardoned after serving just four.
After this look at the Cocoanut Grove fire, see Boston's great molasses flood of 1919.