We recognized the name when a customer brought us a couple of matchbooks from the Cocoanut Grove Night Club, but we couldn’t remember the significance. Boston natives wouldn’t need the internet to tell them that one of the nation’s deadliest fires happened at the Grove in November of 1942. It killed 492 patrons and injured hundreds more. The tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II in newspaper headlines.
Today, 17 Piedmont Street is a parking lot in Boston’s Bay Village neighbor-
hood. But during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s, it was the address of the city’s premier nightclub.
Disasters That Changed the World has a detailed account of the night club tragedy.
Nine exits were available on the main floor of the Cocoanut Grove, but most customers only knew of the way that they had entered the club–through the revolving door. Also many of the other exits had doors that may have been locked. All doorways in the club opened inward, meaning that panicked patrons would press against a door holding it shut, ultimately causing a deadly and gruesome pile up of bodies.
The Melody Lounge was on the lower level of the club. It had two exits, but one of them was in the kitchen and most customers were unaware of it. A few customers did see it, and escaped the building that way. Others were able to break windows (except for the glass block windows and those with security bars on them). The main floor of the club was divided into several lounges with a maze of corridors between them. No fire doors were installed between the various lounges because the owner felt they would be an encumbrance and would cost too much.
As can be seen in the picture, most of the lounges were decorated in a “Tahitian” style with paper palm trees and other very flammable materials. These included leather coverings on the walls which emitted particularly noxious fumes.
The club had a capacity of 500 people but 800-1000 people were in the club on November 28th, 1942. Smoking was allowed in the club, but the commonly accepted cause of the fire was that a waiter who had been sent to replace or repair a burnt out bulb lit a match to see the bulb. Evidently the match struck a paper palm tree and set it ablaze. At first the tree burned slowly while employees struggled to pull it away from the wall but they were ultimately unable to do so, and the faux ceiling made of paper and designed to look like a night sky caught fire. In search of a source of oxygen, the flames headed straight to the only exit patrons were aware of.
The tragedy led to a reform of safety standards and codes across the country. To this day, we can see the results everywhere we go and often take those ubiquitous lighted “EXIT” signs for granted.
Now there is a plaque embedded in the brick sidewalk next to where the fire occurred. The memorial reads: “The Cocoanut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people who died in the Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. ‘Phoenix out of the Ashes’”
A smaller inscription in the lower left corner says, “This plaque crafted by Anthony B. Marra, youngest survivor of the Cocoanut Grove fire”.