Rhythm Club fire

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Rhythm Club fire
Plaque of those who died in Rhythum Club Fire, 1940, Natchez IMG 6963.JPG
Plaque of those who perished in the fire.
Date April 23, 1940 (1940-04-23)
Venue Rhythm Club
Location Natchez, Mississippi, United States
Coordinates 31°33′33″N 91°23′51″W / 31.559085°N 91.397458°W / 31.559085; -91.397458Coordinates: 31°33′33″N 91°23′51″W / 31.559085°N 91.397458°W / 31.559085; -91.397458
Type Fire
Deaths 209

The Rhythm Club fire (or The Natchez Dance Hall Holocaust) was a fire in Natchez, Mississippi, United States on the night of April 23, 1940 that killed 209 people and severely injured many others.[1][2] Hundreds of people became trapped inside the one-story steel-clad wooden building. The victims were mostly African Americans.

The dance hall, which was a converted blacksmith shop once used as a church, was located in a one-story frame building at 1 St. Catherine Street, blocks from the city's business district. At the time, this was the second most deadly building fire in the history of the nation. It is now ranked as the fourth deadliest assembly and club fire in U.S. history.[1]


The fire 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 at 11:30 pm, the fire quickly engulfed the structure, due to Spanish moss that had been draped over interior's rafters as a decoration.[3] 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.[4]

As windows had been boarded up to prevent outsiders from viewing or listening to the music, the crowd was trapped. More than 300 people struggled to get out after the blaze began. A handful of people were able to get out the front door or through the ticket booth, while the remainder tried to press their way to the back door which was padlocked and boarded shut.[4]

Blinding smoke made movement difficult. Many people died from smoke inhalation or by being crushed by the crowd trying to escape. Bandleader Barnes and nine members of his band were among the victims. One of the group's two survivors, drummer Walter Brown, vowed never to play again; the other survivor was bassist Arthur Edward. Barnes was well regarded as a strong contemporary of both Duke Ellington and Woody Herman.[4]


People believed the fire to be accidental, started by the careless discarding of a match.[citation needed] The day after the blaze, five men were arrested after reports they had drunkenly threatened in an argument to burn the building down. Charges against them were later dropped.[citation needed]

The three local funeral homes had too many bodies to handle.[citation needed] Many of the victims were eventually buried in mass graves. In the aftermath of the fire, citizens of Natchez raised more than $5,000 to help the local Red Cross.[citation needed] The city passed new fire laws to prevent the overcrowding of buildings.[citation needed]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • 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; "The Death of Walter Barnes" by Leonard Caston; "The Natchez Burnin" by Howlin' Wolf; and "Natchez Fire" by John Lee Hooker.[4]
  • A memorial marker was erected in Natchez's Bluff Park.[5]
  • On November 6, 2010, the Rhythm Club Museum, commemorating the tragedy, opened in Natchez.[6]
  • A documentary film about this, The Rhythm Club Fire, was completed in December 2012.[6][7]
  • African-American author Richard Wright wrote about a similar large fire in his novel, The Long Dream (1958), to expose graft on the part of the white police chief. He took payments from the African-American owners of the club in order to allow the nightclub to stay open despite citations of fire hazards.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Deadliest Public Assembly and Nightclub Fires". National Fire Protection Agency. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  2. ^ "'Complete panic' as 233 killed in Brazil nightclub fire". USA Today. 27 January 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013. 
  3. ^ Michael, Rugel (23 April 2011). "Natchez Burning: Anniversary of The Rhythm Club Fire". Retrieved 25 June 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d Monge, Luigi (1 June 2007). "Death by Fire: African American Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire". In Robert Springer. Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come from: Lyrics and History. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 76–107. ISBN 978-1-934110-29-4. 
  5. ^ Lane, Emily (21 April 2011). "Memorial staying put despite talks". Natchez Democrat. Retrieved 1 September 2011. 
  6. ^ a b Lane, Emily (15 March 2011). "Natchez remembers Rhythm Club fire". Natchez Democrat. Retrieved 1 September 2011. 
  7. ^ "The Rhythm Club Fire documentary". Retrieved 1 September 2011.