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 fire, rain and an excavation next door weakened the Pickwick Club, many believed the Charleston caused the building’s collapse.
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 got the nickname ‘Dance of Death.’
The Pickwick Club Disaster
The boisterous crowd at the Pickwick Club in Boston’s Combat Zone celebrated the Fourth of July in exuberant Jazz Age style, drinking (illegally–Prohibition was in effect), eating and dancing the Charleston. It was a revolutionary dance, a break from the past because it 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 just finished playing The Twelfth St. Rag, when one of the musicians spoke up.
“Aren’t these lights getting dim?” he said. The porter then 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 still quaked.
The Dead and Dying
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. A fleet of ambulances raced back and forth, carrying the injured from the ruined building to nearby 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 victim’s mouth. He had begged for a cigarette before the doctor cut off his finger.
Priests came to provide conditional absolution to the dead and dying as firefighters took off their helmets and kneeled. Rescuers found most of the bodies 15 to 20 feet below street level.
Rescuers heard the cries of Edith Jordan, a 28-year-old newlywed from Somerville 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 also suffered injuries in the collapse, 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 had only reached their 20s or 30s.
At the time, dance halls were linked with Satan. Reformers like the Rev. John Roach Straton argued that dancing led 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 people danced the Charleston.
Local officials then banned the Charleston across the country. 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 only a thin board and tar paper comprised the roof. Rainstorms had weakened the often-overcrowded building.
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 collapsed pier was made of the ‘rottenest concrete’ he had ever seen. Another witness said the fire damaged 50 supporting timbers and a side wall
The jury acquitted all 10 accused men.
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. Charleston contest courtesy Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection via Flickr, CC by SA 2.0.
This story was updated in 2021.