Episode 39: Tragedy at Cocoanut Grove

The 1942 fire at Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub killed a staggering 492 people, making it the deadliest fire in Boston history and one of the deadliest fires in US history. For Boston, it is the deadliest modern disaster of any type. Only the smallpox epidemics of the early 1700s and the 1918 Spanish flu rival it for loss of life.

Tragedy at Cocoanut Grove

During our description of the fire itself, we quote extensively from four sources without stopping to identify each one.  Here are those sources:

Read more about the jazz scene in Boston before the Cocoanut Grove fire, then see how the Savoy Cafe reopened, but Steinert Hall did not.

These days, you can read more about the fire from the Cocoanut Grove Coalition who keeps the memory of victims, survivors, and first responders alive.  You can also read this Globe editorial about condo owners who don’t want a memorial at the most fitting site.

(Except the floor plan, civil defense poster, and newspaper headline, the above photos are from the Boston Public Library Print Department, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license via Digital Commonwealth.)

This Week in Boston History

  • July 31, 1915: A German U-Boat commander sinks a Boston-bound boat, then sees a sea monster. Was it a prehistoric crocodile? Plus, listen to two Boston bros spot a sea monster on Boston Harbor in 2015 (very NSFW language).
  • August 1, 1878: Thousands gather at Faneuil Hall for a rally in support of free speech and against the imprisonment of Ezra Heywood.  Ezra and Angela Heywood had published Cupid’s Yoke, which advocated against traditional marriage and in favor of birth control and access to abortion.
  • August 2, 1943: PT-109 carrying LTJG John Fitzgerald Kennedy and a crew of 13 is rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy will later be decorated for heroism in getting his crew to safety.
  • August 3, 1923: Former Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, who gained national prominence during the 1919 Boston Police Strike, is inaugurated as President of the United States by lamplight in a farmhouse in Vermont.
  • August 4, 1806: Federalist Thomas Selfridge shoots and kills Charles Austin, the eighteen year old son of his Democratic-Republican rival, on State Street in broad daylight.
  • August 5, 1725: The border war between Massachusetts and her Wabanki neighbors to the north begins to wind down, as a treaty brings the first settlement of peace to the war known as Dummer’s War, Father Rale’s War, or Graylock’s War.
  • August 6, 1776: John Adams writes to Abigail with a morale-boosting message for John Quincy, as the family suffers through the after-effects of smallpox inoculation.