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.