Metro, Newton

Newton Free Library Hosts Webinar on Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire

Stephanie Schorow, author of The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire: A Boston Tragedy, recounted the history of the United States’ deadliest nightclub fire in a webinar hosted by the Newton Free Library and other local libraries on Thursday night. 

“The past is never really the past, it keeps catching up with us,” Schorow said.

Schorow’s book details the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, which took place in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood in 1942. While the cause of the fire is uncertain, once the fire started, patrons were trapped inside as the club’s main door was jammed and six other exits were locked, according to Schorow.

The club was filled to over double its capacity of 460 people at the time of the fire, resulting in 429 deaths, she said.

According to Schorow, a new law passed in the wake of the fire stated that business owners could be charged with manslaughter if a death occurred as a result of their business being kept in an unsafe condition.

The fire’s outcome resulted in medical advancements, such as improvements in burn treatment practices and increased knowledge about post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Schorow.

She said the event caused generational trauma among those related to victims of the nightclub fire.

“I’ve had people coming up and they’re still searching for information about relatives that they lost or never knew,” Schorow said. 

While Schorow said her continued interest in the topic inspired her research, she continues to come back to studying the nightclub fire because of the myths commonly associated with the event. 

Some myths allege that then-members of Boston College football did not go to the nightclub—their typical post-game celebration spot—on the night of the fire as they suffered a loss to Holy Cross on the same night, according to Schorow. 

According to Schorow, a BC football coach claimed Holy Cross’ win was a form of divine intervention that saved the BC players from the danger of going to the nightclub.

Schorow’s research debunked the claim, as BC went to a party at a different venue rather than spending the night in, she said.

“The team was not going to go to the Cocoanut Grove that night,” Schorow said. “They actually went to a party at the [Boston] Statler Hotel, which is now [Boston] Park Plaza Hotel.”

The story surrounding BC football underscores a greater truth about how people deal with disasters, Schorow said.

“When there’s disasters like this where there’s horrible things, we as humans need to see a reason for it—we need to feel like there’s some purpose to that,” she said. “We want to feel some good will come out of it, or that God was with us even in the worst of circumstances.”

As a result of the efforts of relatives of the fire’s victims, a memorial will be constructed in Boston’s Statler Park by fall 2023, 81 years after the fire took place, according to Schorow. 

The city of Boston has allocated $700,000 for the memorial

“The idea is to create a memorial where people can come learn about this fire,” Schorow said. “Younger people can learn about this fire and think about the lessons that it holds for today.”

December 4, 2022