1942 Fifty Years Ago

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A fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston killed 492 patrons and injured 166 others on the cool night of November 28. It apparently started with a single replacement light bulb and an imitation palm tree decoration. The club was packed with a Saturday night crowd celebrating a football victory when the fake palm caught and its flame spread to the ceiling of the basement Melody Lounge. The fire crossed the ceiling to the stairs and trapped the room in toxic smoke. Most people did not know of a second exit through the kitchen.

“It was incredible,” recalled a member of Boston’s Engine Company 35, whose way at first was blocked by the bodies. “I couldn’t even get in with the hose.” Once inside the club another fireman noticed a striking young woman still seated at a table in the Melody Lounge. “She was sitting with her eyes open and her hand on a cocktail glass, as if waiting for someone. As I first looked at her, I wondered why she was just sitting there, thinking she was okay. But, of course, she was dead.”

The disaster produced some unsatisfying villains—including a hapless fire inspector who claimed the club’s decorations had resisted his attempts to light them only the week before—but it also brought about many innovations in fire prevention and in the treatment of burns. Cocoanut Grove victims taken to Massachusetts General Hospital were among the first patients to receive a new drug called penicillin.

In the November third elections the Republicans failed to win control of the House despite a net gain of nine Senate and forty-two House seats, but they did add four governorships along the way.

Coffee rationing went into effect on November 28; the Selective Service Act was amended on November 18 to make men eligible for the draft at age eighteen.