Businessman, Criminal. He received public notoriety as the owner of the Cocoanut Grove Supper Club at 17 Piedmont Street in Boston, Massachusetts. With approximately 1,000 occupants in the club, a major fire occurred at 10:15 the evening of November 29, 1942 in the newly remodeled basement lounge. The building was built in 1927 and consisted of a lobby, a main floor dining room and several lounges including one in the basement in a South Seas décor. Many of the occupants were servicemen waiting for deployment for duty during World War II. According to the official report, the cause of the fire was never known but two good guesses would be that a 16-year-old busboy's lighted match caught an artificial palm tree on fire or there was shortage in the electric wiring. Flammable decorations on the ceiling spread the fire rapidly up stairs. Since the fire department had answered a call nearby, they saw the smoke and came to the fire before the fire alarm was pulled at 10:20 PM, thus the fire was extinguished within minutes. This did not stop the tragedy from happening. Lives could have been saved if the doors in the unlicensed new basement lounge swung outward instead, in error, opened inward. Two other doors in the club could not be used as exits as they were locked to keep customers from leaving without paying their bill, yet some employees did exit through windows and another five hid in the walk-in freezer. The fire turned the lights off, thus victims were attempting to escape in the dark. According to a Boston Historical Society report, a total of 492 lives were claimed from the fire including actor Buck Jones. Causing a medical crisis for the city, a total of 166 were actually hospitalized in various conditions related to burns and toxic smoke inhalation. At Massachusetts General Hospital on December 2, 1942, the first dose of the new antibiotic penicillin was given to fight burn infections. Those dead at the scene were taken to nearby mortuaries. Since there were so many victims, at times non-medical personnel made the decision who had died in the fire. Several presumed dead victims, who were taken to the morgue, were actually found alive on arrival, yet lived even after their delayed treatment. One death was added to the count on January 9, 1943 after a victim's death by suicide. It should be noted that the occupant capacity of 460 for this structure had also been exceeded. For exceeding the occupant capacity, closed exits, and using an unlicensed electrician for wiring in the venue, Welansky, a lawyer by trade, was charged with manslaughter. On the night of the fire, he was recuperating from a heart attack as a patient in Massachusetts General Hospital, thus his brother, James, was in charge of the club that night. A Grand Jury indicted 10 employees, but the only person convicted of manslaughter was Welansky. He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in Charlestown State Prison. With his health in decline from end-stage cancer, he was pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin after serving three and a half years. He died within months of his release. Tobin, the mayor of Boston at the time of the fire, would have been the person responsible for inspecting buildings for breech of any fire codes. For this reason, he was called before the Grand Jury but not indicted. The Cocoanut Grove tragedy prompted major changes and enforcement of laws and regulations in fire prevention and control for nightclubs and other related places of assembly. As a result of the tragedy, corrective actions were taken to provide for emergency lighting, occupant capacity placards in places of assembly, no flammable décor to be used, and exit lights were required. This fire's dead count was only exceeded by Chicago's Iroquois Theater Fire on December 30, 1903, which killed 603 persons. A bronze memorial plaque was placed in the brick sidewalk in 1993 and the Bostonian Society placed a second marker on the wall of the hotel, which is now on the site.
Bio by: Linda Davis
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