A History of Deadly Fires and their Memorials
The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred on December 30, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. It is the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history. At least 605 people died as a result of the fire but not all the deaths were reported, as some of the bodies were removed from the scene.
A bronze bas-relief memorial by sculptor Lorado Taft without any identifying markings was placed inside the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall. On December 31, 1911, The Chicago Tribune described the marker as depicting “the Motherhood of the World protecting the children of the universe, the body of a child borne on a litter by herculean male figures, with a bereaved mother bending over it”. The memorial was located in the Iroquois Hospital on Wacker until the building was demolished in 1951. It was placed in storage in City Hall until it was installed in its current location in 1960. On November 5, 2010, the memorial was rededicated and a descriptive plaque was donated by the Union League Club of Chicago. The dedication was attended by members of the Chicago City Council, the Union League Clug and Taft’s granddaughter.
Chicago held an annual memorial service at City Hall, until the last survivors died.
The Cocoanut Grove was Boston’s premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s. On November 28, 1942, this club was the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in US history, killing 492 people (which was 32 more than the building’s authorized capacity) and injuring hundreds more. The enormity of the tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II in newspaper headlines. It led to a reform of safety standards and codes across the country, and major changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims.
It was the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history; only the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago had a higher death toll, of 602.
Embedded in the brick sidewalk next to the location of the fire is a memorial to those who lost their lives. The plaque states:
The Cocoanut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people that died in the Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. “Phoenix out of the Ashes”
A smaller inscription in the lower left corner says, “This plaque crafted by Anthony P. Marra, youngest survivor of the Cocoanut Grove fire”.
The Rhythm Club fire aka The Natchez Dance Hall Holocaust was a fire in Natchez, Mississippi, on the night of April 23, 1940 that killed 209 people and severely injured many others. Hundreds of people became trapped inside the one-story steel-clad wooden building.
The 11:30 p.m. inferno began as members of the local Moneywasters Social Club were enjoying the song “Clarinet Lullaby”, performed by Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians orchestra from Chicago. Starting near the main entrance door, the fire quickly engulfed the structure due to Spanish moss that had been draped over interior’s rafters as a decoration. In order to ensure there were no bugs in the decorative moss, it had been sprayed with petroleum-based Flit insecticide. Due to the dry conditions, flammable methane gas was generated from the moss and resulted in the destruction of the building within an hour.
The disaster was memorialized in songs such as “Mississippi Fire Blues” and “Natchez Mississippi Blues” by the Lewis Bronzeville Five; “The Natchez Fire” by Gene Gilmore; “We The Cats Shall Hep You” by Cab Calloway; “For You” by Slim Gaillard; “You’re A Heavenly Thing” by Cleo Brown; “The Death Of Walter Barnes” by Leonard Caston; “The Natchez Burnin” by Howlin’ Wolf; “That Night” by Stompy Jones; and “Natchez Fire” by John Lee Hooker.
A memorial marker stands in Natchez’s Bluff Park.
On November 6, 2010, the Rhythm Club Museum, commemorating the tragedy, opened in Natchez.
The documentary film The Rhythm Club Fire was completed in December 2012 according to the official website for the film.
The Rhoads Opera House Fire occurred on January 13, 1908 in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. The opera house caught fire during a church-sponsored stage play. The fire started when a kerosene lamp was knocked over, lighting gasoline from a stereoscopic machine. The stage and auditorium were located on the 2nd floor and all auxiliary exits were either unmarked or locked. One fire escape was available but unable to be accessed through a locked window above a 3 foot sill. 171 people perished when the exit was crowded against to escape the fire. Entire families were wiped out.
A building of apartments and stores has now been built on the former opera house’s site with a plaque commemorating the tragedy. A Memorial to the unidentified victims is also in Fairview Cemetery, Boyertown
The Hartford circus fire, which occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. The fire occurred during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by approximately 7,000 people. An estimated 167-169 people died and over 700 were injured.
The cause of the fire remains unproven. Investigators at the time believed it was caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette but others suspected an arsonist. Several years later, while being investigated on other arson charges, Robert Dale Segee (1929–1997), who was an adolescent roustabout at the time, confessed to starting the blaze. He was never tried for the crime and later recanted his confession.
Because of the paraffin wax waterproofing of the tent, the flames spread rapidly. Many people were badly burned by the melting paraffin, which rained down like napalm from the roof. The fiery tent collapsed in about eight minutes according to eyewitness survivors, trapping hundreds of spectators beneath it.
In 2002, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation was established to erect a permanent memorial to the people killed in the fire. Ground was broken for the monument on July 6, 2004, at the site where the fire occurred. This memorial is located behind the Wish School at 350 Barbour Street.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Kentucky is the third deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. It occurred on the night of May 28, 1977, during the Memorial Day weekend. A total of 165 persons died and over 200 were injured as a result of the blaze.
It was the deadliest fire in the United States since 1942 when 491 people were killed in the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston.
The last victim of the fire, Barbara Thornhill of Delhi Township, died on March 1, 1978, ten months after the fire. Many early sources (including the Pulitzer citation below) give the death toll as 164. Some sources give the death toll as 167 to include the unborn children of two pregnant women who died in the fire.
Richard Whitt of the Louisville Courier-Journal was awarded the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Local General or Spot News Reporting for his articles on the fire. His citation reads: “For his coverage of a fire that took 164 lives at the Beverly Hills Supper Club at Southgate, Ky., and subsequent investigation of the lack of enforcement of state fire codes.”
As of 2012, the site of the club has been left undeveloped.
The Happy Land fire was an arson fire that killed 87 people trapped in an unlicensed social club called “Happy Land” (at 1959 Southern Boulevard) in the West Farms section of The Bronx, New York, on March 25, 1990. Most of the victims were young ethnic Hondurans celebrating Carnival. Unemployed Cuban refugee Julio González, whose former girlfriend was employed at the club, was arrested shortly after and ultimately convicted of arson and murder.
Before the blaze, Happy Land was ordered closed for building code violations in November 1988. Violations included no fire exits, alarms or sprinkler system. No follow-up by the fire department was documented.
The fire exits had been blocked to prevent people from entering without paying the cover charge. In the panic that ensued, a few people escaped by breaking a metal gate over one door.
The street outside the former Happy Land social club (which was located on the northwest corner of Southern Boulevard and East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx) has been renamed “The Plaza of the Eighty-Seven” as a way of memorializing the victims. Five of the victims were students at nearby Theodore Roosevelt High School, which held a memorial service for the victims in April 1990. A memorial was erected directly across the street from the former establishment with the names of all 87 victims enscribed on it.
The 1811 Richmond Theatre fire occurred in Richmond, Virginia, United States on December 26, 1811. It devastated the Richmond Theatre, located on the north side of Broad Street between what is now Twelfth and College Streets. The fire, which killed 72 people including many government officials, was at the time the worst urban disaster in American history.
The fire started after the curtain fell following the first act, when the chandelier was lifted toward the ceiling with the flame still lit. The lamp became entangled in the cords used to lift the chandelier and it touched one of the items used in the front scenes, which caught fire. As soon as the boy worker who was operating the cords saw the flames, he fled the building. The flames rose up the scenery and spread from one hanging scene to the other; there were 35 such hanging scenes which could be lowered. There were, in addition to the hangings, the borders that provided the outline of the building, the skies and so forth. All of these caught fire sequentially. Pine planks (with shingles over them) fixed over rafters with no plastering and ceiling spread the flames, which fell from the ceiling and spread extremely rapidly. The impact of the fire was worsened because the stage curtain hid the initial flames from the audience.
The Monumental Church was built on the Richmond Theatre site between 1812 and 1814 to commemorate those who had died from the fire. The marble monument in the form of an urn erected at the church contains the names of 72 victims of the fire, inscribed on its four cardinal faces. The monument is enclosed within a wired fence. It is located in the central yard of the memorial church, in the middle of the church’s front or main portico. The remains of the dead lie in a crypt below the portico. On the monument, the names of the male victims face Broad Street. The names of female victims are found on the remaining three sides. Six of the known victims were black, and at least one was enslaved. Their six names are carved below the names of the 66 white victims on the monument’s base. Although the monument lists only 72 victims, at least 76 were known to have died in the blaze or in the days immediately following the disaster.
In 2004, Monumental Church underwent a significant renovation, though the bodies of the victims are still in a brick crypt below the church. During the renovation, the original monument to the 72 people killed in the fire was replaced by an exact replica. The documentary Saving Grace-Resurrecting American History, written and directed by Emmy winning writer/director Eric Futterman, follows the process of using laser scanning to recreate the monument in computers, then sending the data to Ireland, where stonecutters used both high tech computer equipment and old-fashioned stone-cutting to create a new 7,000 pound monument.