The name Cocoanut Grove will never be forgotten in Boston history, nor in Wilmington. On Nov. 28, 1942, 75 years ago, nearly 500 people perished in a matter of 15 minutes in the nation’s worst-ever nightclub fire.
The exact toll was 492 dead, including the four Fitzgerald brothers from Wilmington and the four women who accompanied them that evening. One of them was Mildred Rogers, the principal of the Silver Lake School. Another was her sister.
Like many others who went to the Coconut Grove that night, the Fitzgerald party had gone to the Boston College — Holy Cross game that afternoon at Fenway Park. The undefeated Boston College team was ranked number one in the nation, and a win would have sent them to the Sugar Bowl. But that was not in the cards. Holy Cross walloped the BC Eagles, 55 to 12.
The Fitzgeralds were celebrating the return of Henry Fitzgerald from Hendricks Field in Florida. Henry, 28, was a Private First Class in the Army Air Corps. He had four brothers, Eddie, John, Jim and Wilfred and two sisters, Anna and Mary.
Eddie was living in Chicago, and was not home for the event. But his four brothers decided to celebrate, and they each had a date that night. Jim, the custodian at the Silver Lake School, was accompanied by Mildred Rogers.
John was an executive with the Boston and Maine Railroad, and was associated with Northeast Airlines, which the B&M owned at that time. Wilfred was in construction, building churches around New England.
Henry had brought an Army friend home on furlough. There were four others in the party as well, 13 in total.
The Coconut Grove was a popular night-spot on Piedmont Street in Boston’s theater district. It was in a section of Boston called Bay Village, near the Statler Hotel, which is now called the Park Plaza. The Cocoanut Grove was a one and a half story building, with a stage and a dance floor on the first floor and a lounge in the basement. The building, once a garage, was a block long and a half block wide, had been converted into a nightclub. The tropical decor, depicting a South Sea island, was highly flammable. During Prohibition, it was a “speakeasy,” an illegal bar.
Ironically, the Boston College team had planned to go to the Cocoanut Grove that evening, but in light of their drubbing, they instead went to the Statler. But scores of fans from that game went to the Coconut Grove that night.
At the time of the fire, it is estimated there were 800 to 1,000 people in the club, far in excess of safety codes. Indeed, the death toll exceeded the legal capacity of the club by 32.
Shortly after 10 p.m., as the showgirls were just starting down the stairs from their dressing room for the second show, a busboy went to replace a light bulb in the basement Melody Lounge. Unable to see the socket, he lit a match. The flames quickly ignited the fake palm tree decor. Some patrons observed the fire and took it lightly, but the fire spread rapidly. One man testified that as a regular patron, he had seen the palm trees catch fire at other times, but the fires were always extinguished.
Years later, the busboy insisted that he had not caused the fire, but a surviving witness has said that was the cause. No official cause was ever established.
In minutes, the nightclub became a smokey inferno, and when the lights went out, it became a screaming madhouse. And there was no way out.
The horrible loss of life that night was due primarily to the lack of exits. There were two revolving doors at the front of the club. There were other doors, but they were all locked. And with hundreds of people thrashing to get out, the revolving doors were quickly clogged.
Some chorus girls managed to escape, led to safety by a 19-year-old chorus boy, Marshall Cole. He broke out a window in a second-floor dressing room and led the way to an adjoining roof. Others managed to escape through the kitchen. Five people survived in the walk-in refrigerator.
Scores of ambulances rushed to the scene, but with the horrific toll, they were overwhelmed. Newspaper trucks and Railway Express trucks were pressed into service to carry the dead. A makeshift morgue was set up in a nearby garage. Rescue workers forced their way into the nightclub to find corpses piled six or seven deep in a tangled mass at the revolving doors. Some of the dead were still sitting at tables, having been trapped and unable to move.
Martial law was declared in the immediate vicinity of the fire.
Scores of victims were taken to Boston hospitals, where they were lined up in corridors, many beyond help. There was a shortage of medical help, since many Boston doctors had volunteered for military service.
On Fitz Terrace in Wilmington, telephone rang at 2 a.m. in the home of 71-year-old Mary Fitzgerald. The caller told her that her oldest son, James, was dead.
It was the beginning of a nightmare for Mary Fitzgerald, one from which she would never recover.
Soon after the 2 a.m. call, her two sons-in-law, Michael Barry, a deputy U.S. Marshall, and William Leahy went to Boston to assist in the search. It was a mission of futility.
At 7 a.m., Mrs. Fitzgerald received word that Wilfred, too, was dead. Soon thereafter, she learned of the death of Henry. Sometime later, she learned that John, too, had perished.
Of the 13 people in the Fitzgerald party, there was but one survivor, Henry’s Army friend, whose name is not known.
The body of James, the first to be named, was identified by James Gilligan, a teacher at Dorchester High School, who lived on Burnap Street in Wilmington. He was an air raid worker in Boston and answered a call for help that night.
Another man who answered the call was Fr. Albert J. Shea, a priest at St. James Church in Boston. He earned accolades for his work that night for his work among the dead and dying. Father Shea later became pastor of St. Thomas Church in Wilmington, where he served for many years before returning to St. James, where he later became a monsignor.
The funeral for the Fitzgerald brothers was held on Dec. 1. A solemn High Mass was held at St. Thomas Church with their cousin, Fr. William Walsh of St. John the Evangelist Church in Swampscott. Fr. John Daley, pastor of St. Thomas Church was the deacon and Fr. John Saunders, the assistant pastor, was sub-deacon. Among the clergy present were Fr. John McGoohan, former curate of St. Thomas and Rev. Clyde Martin, pastor of the Wilmington Congregational Church, both of whom were chaplains in the U.S. Army.
Mildred Rogers was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Rogers of Lowell. She served both as teacher and principal of what was then known as the Silver Lake School, along with a portable school building which was nearby.
One year later, the school was dedicated in her name in a ceremony attended by a large number of persons. Her picture hung over the doorway of that school until it closed in the late 1970’s. It was used as meeting rooms and as rehearsal space for a theater group for a few years, but was torn down after a fire in the early 1980s.
Her father presented a large check to the school nurse, Mrs. Esther Nichols, to start a fund called the Mildred Rogers Fund, to assist in the health and welfare of Wilmington schoolchildren.
The owner of the Cocoanut Grove, attorney Barnet “Barney” Welansky, was convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter and was sentenced to 12-15 years in prison. He served four.
As a result of the Cocoanut Grove tragedy, intense scrutiny was given to fire safety codes. Among the improvements were regulations that there be sufficient exits opening outward to evacuate the building, and that no flammable materials be used in decorations.