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Boston terror 75 years ago

Remembering the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire

Boston terror 75 years ago

Smoke pours from the Cocoanut Grove nightclub during the fire of Nov. 28, 1942, in Boston (AP)

Last year’s nightclub shooting in Orlando killed 50. The Oct. 1 concert attack in Las Vegas left 59 dead. Terrorist murders are a special horror, but the good old days also had their share of terror resulting from man’s cupidity and stupidity—and Tuesday is the 75th anniversary of a Boston horror with a death toll of 492.

I have a personal connection to that because Nov. 28, 1942, was a special night for my mother, who was then 24. Her date took her to one of downtown Boston’s premier nightclubs, the Cocoanut Grove, a former speakeasy and gangland hideout. In 1933 thugs had gunned down in a men’s room the former owner, bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon. The new owner boasted of his Mafia ties. 

The Grove still had the scent of excitement and danger. It had columns that looked like palm trees with light fixtures made to look like coconuts. Dark blue satin covered the ceilings, bamboo and rattan the walls. Drapes concealed exits. Customers who tried to escape without paying found side doors bolted shut. Bouncers removed customers who became too rambunctious, carrying them out through the revolving door at the club’s main entrance.

My mother, though, was disappointed. She and her date could not get into the Grove at about 9 p.m. because the nightclub, with an official capacity of 460, already had 1,000 people inside.

Newspapers the next morning bannered the horrifying news: Shortly after 10 a fire broke out and spread rapidly. Patrons tried to crawl through thick clouds of smoke. Bodies piled up at the jammed revolving door. Other doors were bolted or opened inward. They did not open at all when dozens of people were pressed against them. 

Some survivors had sensational stories. Cliff Johnson, a Coast Guardsman, ran back into the burning nightclub four times to look for his date, not knowing she had safely escaped. Johnson had third-degree burns over more than half of his body and became at that time the most severely burned person ever to survive. Dr. Newton Browder did thousands of pinpoint skin grafts, using a Gillette blue blade to move bits of Johnson’s uninjured skin to wounds.

Abe Fox/AP

Clifford Johnson exercises on special equipment over his bed in Boston City Hospital, Sept. 16, 1943. (Abe Fox/AP)

After two years Johnson left the hospital married to Marion Donovan, his nurse. But on Dec. 19, 1956, 14 years later, Johnson was a fuel oil deliverer in Missouri. His truck skidded off the road and caught fire. Trapped in the cab, Johnson burned to death.

My mother read every article about the fire she could find and followed what happened to the owner. Convicted of manslaughter for violating even the loose safety standards of the time, he received a 12- to 15-year sentence but died of cancer after four. The 492 deaths made the Cocoanut Grove the deadliest nightclub site in history.

Three years before my mother died at age 90, she said, “The best thing in my life was not being in that fire.”

Comments

  • Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Tue, 11/28/2017 10:35 am

    God's providence was crystal clear that night for your mother.  But for Clifford Johnson ... what a painful and miraculous recovery, only to die in a truck cab burned alive 14 years later?  Who can fathom the depths of His providence?  What a story.