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 listing 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 a dance hall in Natchez, Mississippi, on the night of April 23, 1940, which killed 209 people and severely injured many others.[1][2] Hundreds of people were trapped inside building. The victims were all black. At the time, it was the second deadliest 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 dance hall, a converted blacksmith shop once used as a church, was located in a one-story steel-clad wood-frame building at 1 St. Catherine Street, blocks from the city's business district.


As members of the local Moneywasters Social Club were enjoying the song "Clarinet Lullaby", performed by Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians, an orchestra from Chicago, the fire started near the main entrance door at 11:30 pm and, fed by Spanish moss that had been draped over interior's rafters as a decoration, quickly engulfed the structure.[3] To ensure there were no bugs in the decorative moss, it had been sprayed with FLIT, a petroleum-based insecticide. Under the dry conditions, flammable methane gas was generated from the moss. The building was destroyed within an hour.[4]

The windows had been boarded up to prevent outsiders from viewing or listening to the music, and as a result 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 others 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, the drummer Walter Brown, vowed never to play again; the other survivor was the bassist Arthur Edward. Barnes was well regarded as a strong competitor with his contemporaries Duke Ellington and Woody Herman.[4]


People believed the fire to be accidental, started by a carelessly discarded 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 prohibiting 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 Bluff Park in Natchez.[5] A historical marker has been placed at the site of the club, which contains a museum to the club and the fire as of 2016.
  • On November 6, 2010, the Rhythm Club Museum, commemorating the tragedy, opened in Natchez.[6]
  • A documentary film, The Rhythm Club Fire, was completed in December 2012.[6][7]
  • The African-American writer 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, who 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, Robert. Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come from: Lyrics and History. University 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.