At 3 a.m. on July 4, 1925, 50 couples crowded onto the dance floor of the Pickwick Club in Boston’s Chinatown, kicking their heels while dancing the Charleston. They were tripping the light fantastic ‘like folks gone mad,” a club singer later said.
Moments later the Pickwick Club came crashing down, killing 44 and injuring scores more. It was the worst disaster to strike Boston until then.
Though the Pickwick Club building had been weakened by fire, rain and excavation next door, many believed the real killer was the Charleston.
City officials, including Mayor James Michael Curley, thought the old five-story building couldn’t withstand the unnatural pounding of the dancers’ feet. Some cities banned the Charleston altogether, going so far as to post signs saying, “This Building Cannot Withstand the Charleston.”
The Charleston was nicknamed the Dance of Death.
The Pickwick Club Disaster
The boisterous crowd at the Pickwick Club in Boston’s Tenderloin District was celebrating the Fourth of July in exuberant Jazz Age style, drinking, eating and dancing the Charleston. It was a revolutionary dance, a break from the past that allowed partners to separate from each other.
A fight had broken out earlier, and police arrested one of the belligerents. Men lit little firecrackers to make the women jump. Patrolman Benjamin Alexander had gone into the club, looking for a jewel thief. He would not come out alive.
The four-piece orchestra had just finished playing The Twelfth St. Rag, and the bandleader was deciding what to play next when one of the musicians spoke up.
"Aren't these lights getting dim?" he said. The porter pointed out sand sifting down from the ceiling.
The lights went dark, what sounded like fireworks crackled, a women cried out and the floor suddenly dropped. There was an awful crash and a huge gap opened in the floor.
“With a roar that was heard for blocks, the second and third floors were carried down into the basement with their cargo of dead and dying,” newspapers reported.
Two patrolmen heard the roar, and looking back saw dust rising from the ruined building. They pulled several people from the building as the walls and staircase were still quaking.
Help came immediately. Within 15 minutes flood lights were trained on the wreckage. Police officers and firefighters searched the timbers and flooring amid the wrenching cries of injured people trapped under beams and bricks. By dawn a fleet of ambulances raced back and forth between the ruined building, carrying the injured to hospitals.
Doctors arrived on the scene. Dr. Michael McGarty amputated a man's finger to free him, but only after lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke into the mouth of the victim, who begged for a cigarette.
Priests came to provide conditional absolution to the dead and dying as firefighters took off their helmets and kneeled. Most of the bodies were found 15 to 20 feet below street level.
Rescuers heard the cries of Edith Jordan, a 28-year-old newlywed from Somerville who was buried under four feet of brick and plaster. A beam lay across her chest and two dead people on her legs. Hours later, rescue workers managed to dig a tunnel to her and take her out on a stretcher. She died soon after arriving at City Hospital. Her husband was injured but survived.
Patrolman Alexander and another police officer died in the Pickwick Club disaster. So did several popular boxers and a man indicted for gas bombing the Rhode Island state Senate Chamber the year before. Most of the dead were in their 20s and 30s.
At the time, dance halls were linked with Satan. Reformers like the Rev. John Roach Straton argued dancing leads to immorality.
Newspapers reported the PIckwick Club collapsed because 'the newest crazy dance step causes vibrations which give the stamping heels of an average couple the destructive force of a giant twenty times their weight.'
Boston city officials tried to shut down two other nightclubs where the Charleston was danced.
Across the country, the Charleston was banned. In Kansas City, officials pronounced, "The Charleston dance may shake the foundations of public morality all it wants to, but when it weakens the foundations of buildings housing dance floors, it ought to be stopped."
What Caused the Pickwick Club Collapse
The real cause of the collapse was a dangerously weakened building undermined by excavation for a garage in the next lot.
A fire had broken out in the Pickwick Club building in April, and the roof was covered with a thin board and tarpaper. Rainstorms had weakened the structure, which was often overcrowded with nightclubbers. Three days before the building collapse, a rainstorm blew off part of the roof and a hole was chopped in the floor to let water drain into the basement.
The next day, Boston's building inspector inspected the building and pronounced it safe.
A grand jury charged 10 men with manslaughter, including building contractors, building inspectors and the president of the PIckwick Club.
During the trial, witnesses testified the collapse was caused by a lack of bracing and the pressure of excavated earth against one side of the wall. The engineer who supervised the construction of the Panama Canal testified a pier that had collapsed was made of the 'rottenest concrete' he had ever seen. Another witness said the fire had damaged 50 supporting timbers and a side wall
All 10 men were acquitted.
The collapse is credited with inspiring two H.P. Lovecraft short stories, The Horror at Red Hook and He, written within three months of the Pickwick Club Tragedy.
(Here’s how to dance the Charleston.)
Images: Chinatown Today By Ingfbruno - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27497701