Massachusetts

The Kid Wrongly Blamed for the Cocoanut Grove Fire

Stanley Tomaszewski was a 16-year-old busboy working on the night of the  Cocoanut Grove fire, Nov. 28, 1942, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

More than 1,000 patrons jammed into the Boston nightclub. They included servicemen and their dates, suburbanites out for a night on the town, college football fans, couples celebrating anniversaries and a cowboy movie star and his entourage. It was the height of World War II, and everyone went to the Cocoanut Grove.

Smoke rises from the Cocoanut Grove fire. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

The Cocoanut Grove Fire

Matchbook from the Cocoanut Grove. Courtesy Boston Public Library.

Matchbook from the Cocoanut Grove. Courtesy Boston Public Library.

In a packed basement lounge, a serviceman and his date sat next to a fake palm tree with a 7-1/2 watt light bulb sticking out from a laminated cocoanut husk. The soldier reached over and unscrewed the light bulb so he could kiss his date in the dark. The bartender noticed and told Tomaszewski to screw it back in.

Tomaszewski climbed a bar stool, but he couldn’t see much in the dark corner. He lit a match, held it in his right hand and screwed in the light bulb with his left. Then he climbed down from the bar stool, dropped the match on the floor and put it out with his foot.

It was 10:15 pm. Within eight minutes, nearly 500 people would be dead or about to die.

The Cocoanut Grove fire was the worst nightclub fire in U.S. history, killing five times as many people as The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., 60 years later.

We may never know what caused the Cocoanut Grove fire. Some believe faulty wiring caused it. Some think it spread so quickly because of a mystery gas, perhaps a substitute for Freon, scarce because of the war.  Many blamed Stanley Tomaszewski, who would go to his grave with the stigma as the busboy who started the Cocoanut Grove fire.

Stanley Tomaszewski

Stanley Tomaszewski’s teacher described him as ‘one of the swellest kids.’ He was tall, good-looking, an honor student at Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys and a starting football player. He worked nine-hour shifts at the Cocoanut Grove Friday and Saturday nights for $2.47 plus tips. The money went to help his sick mother and father, a janitor, and to pay for war bonds.

The building was a former complex of garages and warehouses. It had been converted to dining rooms, bars, and lounges with a kitschy South Seas theme, replete with fake palm trees, rattan and bamboo trim, leatherette sofas and blue satin canopies suspended from the ceilings.

The flimsy, flammable decorations disguised side exits. Other exits were bolted shut to prevent patrons from beating their checks. The Boston Fire Department authorized club’s seating capacity at 460.

Boston mobster Charles ‘King’ Solomon owned the club from 1931-33. He had hired such marquee acts as Rudy Vallee, Sophie Tucker, Helen Morgan and Jimmy Durante.

Solomon died in a gangland shooting in 1933, and his lawyer, Barney Welansky, took ownership.

Unlike Solomon, Welansky made profit from the club. He slashed the entertainment budget, hired cheap underage employees and cut corners on construction with unlicensed electricians and un-fireproofed materials.

Respectable

Welansky turned the Cocoanut Grove into a respectable middle-class venue for anniversary parties and political fundraisers. On that weekend in 1942, Boston College football fans had planned on going to the club for a party. They thought they would celebrate a victory by the heavily favored Eagles over Jesuit rival Holy Cross.

But Holy Cross won in a rout, and some disappointed fans -- including BC alumni Mayor Maurice Tobin -- stayed away from the Cocoanut Grove that night.

Many others came. The cast of the Irving Berlin musical, This Is The Army, showed up for drinks. Buck Jones, a popular Western movie star, came with an entourage. He'd just appeared at a Boston Garden rally to urge kids to buy war stamps.

Aiding victims in the street. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Aiding victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire in the street. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

The fire broke out shortly after Stanley Tomaszewski replaced the light bulb in the basement lounge. A gunner’s mate later said he saw a flame about the size of a dinner plate flash between the top of the palm tree and the blue satin canopy.

Inferno

Waiters first tried to douse the small flames with water, but the fire raced up the stairs and burst into a fireball on the central dance floor. Then with astonishing speed the yellow flames rolled through the air into the next bar, down a corridor and ignited the main club room. Within five minutes, the entire building burst into an inferno.

The acrid, toxic smoke quickly overcame the people inside the club. Some  died sitting in their seats holding their drinks. More people died from respiratory problems than from burns.

Goody Goodell, a singer in the basement lounge, survived by wetting a cloth napkin and breathing through it while she escaped. A sailor made it out after urinating in his handkerchief and holding it over his face.

Patrons raced for the main exit, a revolving door, but they couldn't get through. A stack of bodies eight feet high clogged the door.

Taking a victim to an ambulance. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Taking a victim of the Cocoanut Grove fire to an ambulance. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

The Victims

Thomas I. Gray, a Navy ensign on shore leave, was staying at the Statler. He later remembered how he and his shipmates had gone out on the town when they followed the sound of sirens.

They found abandoned cars outside of the Grove that prevented emergency vehicles from reaching the fire. Gray helped carry victims to ambulances.

…there were people trapped inside. You could hear them and you could see them. Once in a while one of them would work his way out and they were laying in the street, some of them. And the ones that did get out, their shirts were torn off their backs, their backs were bloody from where people had clawed them and just like wild animals in there.

Gray remembered the Shore Patrol and Army MPs who showed up long after the fire burned out. They moved the crowds back from the firefighters, police, Army and Navy rescue workers.

Within 12 minutes the fire had killed hundreds, and 181 victims were taken to Massachusetts General and Boston City hospitals.

Buck Jones died in the hospital. Four brothers from the town of Wilmington, Mass., all died in the Cocoanut Grove fire, and the town put up a statue of them on the green.

Also dead: Bunny Leslie, a cigarette girl and half-sister to movie star Lillian Roth; 15-year-old Eleanor Chiampa, treated to a night out by her Army lieutenant brother; headwaiter Frank Balzarini; musical director Bernie Fazioli; cashier Catherine Swett, who loyally refused to abandon the cash box; and Joe Trafanglia, the classmate of Stanley Tomaszewski who had gotten him the job.

Stanley Tomaszewski at a public hearing about the fire. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Stanley Tomaszewski at a public hearing about the Cocoanut Grove fire. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Fingerpointing

Public hearings into the cause of the Cocoanut Grove fire started late the next day. Stanley Tomaszewski walked into a police station and volunteered to talk about his role in the fire.

On Monday, he took the stand.  He said he didn’t think he started the fire. Asked again, he said he thought the fire started in the palm tree.

But did his match cause the Cocoanut Grove fire, or did defective wiring in the tree cause it? And regardless of what started the fire, why did it spread so fast and why was it so toxic?

Over the years, people came up with various theories over the years. Methyl chloride, a substitute for Freon, explained some, but not all, of the fire’s mysteries. Perhaps the leatherette sofas gave off toxic fumes.

The official report didn't reach a conclusion about the cause of the fire. Furthermore, it said, Stanley Tomaszewski did not start the fire. But Boston Herald headlines on Monday announced, ‘Bus Boy Fixing Light with Match Set Fire.’

For months, Tomaszewski stayed at the Kenmore Hotel under police guard for his own safety.

Barney Welansky. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Barney Welansky. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Welansky

On the night of the Cocoanut Grove fire, club owner Barney Welansky was recovering from a heart attack at Massachusetts General Hospital. Described as a 45-year-old portly martinet, he had bragged he didn’t have to obey the building code because of his connections to Boston Mayor Tobin.

A jury convicted Welansky of manslaughter and sentenced him to 12-15 years in prison.

Tobin narrowly escaped indictment. Instead, he won election as governor. Tobin pardoned Welansky after he spent four years in prison. Welansky died nine weeks later of cancer, but said he wished he’d died in the fire.

The Cocoanut Grove after the fire. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

After the Cocoanut Grove fire. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Aftermath

Stanley Tomaszewski graduated from Boston College and worked as a federal auditor until he retired. He married and had three children. His wife, Betty, said he was a very decent man.

In 1972, Tomaszewski told a Boston Globe reporter that he prayed for the souls of the innocents who died every day. He also said he often visited their graves in Massachusetts.

Tomaszewski subsequently told another reporter 21 years later that he wished people would let sleeping dogs lie. 

I've suffered enough--spit on, called every name in the book and threatened. Phone calls in the middle of the night. It hasn't been easy...I don't have a sense of guilt, because it wasn't my fault. If I felt guilty I wouldn't be talking to you, my name would not be on the doorbell and in the telephone book. I never backed away.

Stanley Tomaszewski died Oct. 20, 1994, at 68.

Greed

Stephanie Schorow, in The Cocoanut Grove Fire, reached a conclusion about the major cause of death: greed. She wrote,

Whether the match or methyl chloride caused the fire, no matter whether strange gasses were released by the furnishings or by a mysterious chemical, the major causes of death in the Grove were the locked doors, inadequate exits, and crowded conditions. Whatever the initial spark, greed and thoughtlessness were the real killers.

To read firsthand accounts of the Cocoanut Grove fire from survivors, click here. For digitized documents from the fire click here. To see the Boston Public Library’s collection of photographs from the Cocoanut Grove fire, click here.

With thanks to Fire in the Grove by John C . Esposito. This story about the Cocoanut Grove fire was updated in 2017.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Lazybum

    November 29, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    I am continually amazed by the ability of Massachusetts to elect, reelect and promote to their political hacks to higher positions of power. Tobin, the Kennedy Mob, Duval Patrick, John Kerry…what the bleep is wrong with these people!!!!

    • Lauren

      December 3, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      Lazybum……………..Don’t forget Mayor James Michael Curley………he was elected to his fourth term while serving time at Danbury prison on felony charges. I don’t know. I grew up 16 miles west of Boston, and neither I, nor my parents before me, could ever understand how Boston, a bastion of liberty and truly our nation’s birthplace, could be taken over so predominantly by the mob (which includes all those people you and I named). It may be that so many immigrants of questionable character landed there and never spread out……..they took over. After all, many. many immigrants came here to escape their follies in Europe, not just for religious freedoms. Those who were leading decent, productive lives in Europe had no reason to come here.

  2. Joel O'Brien

    December 3, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    One of the many hundreds of people responding to the fire that night was my mother, Alma (Masse’), of Cambridge, as a member of the state’s Women’s Defense Corps. She transported plasma to area hospitals that were treating the victims.

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  5. Sandra

    October 7, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    Being born and raised in Cambridge, across the river from Boston, I concur with the statements you made, Lazybum and Lauren. Such a liberal state, which claims to be the party of the people, have screwed them over and over again. I have no faith in the government of this state. Joel O’Brien, how proud you must be of your amazing Mom! As far as Stanley Tomaszewski, I feel so horrible about how he was taunted though out his life. He was just a kid doing what he was ordered to do. Even if it was caused by the match, if the club was up to code, the fire would have readily been distinguished in a matter of seconds by a splash of water. I’m glad his conscience was clear, anyway. I was just at the site of the Cocoanut Grove last night. Next to the plac in the sidewalk is a light pole. The was a picture taped to it which had no identification on it. I wondered to my husband if that might be one of the victims, since the picture was obviously an old-time photograph. I just saw the photo here of Stanley Tomaszewski I now realize that it is his picture on the light pole! I sincerely hope that it was put there as a testament to his brave acts that night, pulling people to safety and not but some idiot still trying to humiliate and blame him, even after his death. But I doubt it. Sick People.

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