Rhythm Club fire
Plaque listing those who perished in the fire
|Date||April 23, 1940|
|Location||Natchez, Mississippi, United States|
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. Hundreds of people were trapped inside the building. 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.
It was a single-story, wood building with corrugated steel siding that was 120 ft (36.6m) x 38 ft (11.6 m) with 24 windows that were mostly shuttered or nailed shut at the time of the fire. There was only one exit, with an inward opening door, that opened into a main entrance foyer that had another set of doors that also opened inward.
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. 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.
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, although some reports put the total in the club closer to 700. 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. Upon realizing their limited options to escape the fire, many victims attempted to break through the corrugated steel walls of the building, but were unsuccessful. Due to the walls being made of metal, and little ventilation for the heat or the smoke, the walls held the heat in the club like an oven. When water from the fire hoses hit the metal siding it created steam that scalded many victims.
Blinding smoke made movement difficult. Many people died from smoke inhalation or by being crushed by the crowd trying to escape. Survivors remembered the burning moss falling from the ceiling and forming a barrier between the dance floor and the exit, with the moss igniting clothing and hair of victims and survivors.
Bandleader Walter Barnes and nine members of his band were among the victims. The band was credited with attempting to calm the crowd and Barnes was praised as a hero for leading the song "Marie" by Irving Berlin as the fire raged. 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.
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People believed the fire to be accidental, started by a carelessly discarded match or cigarette that then ignited the decorative Spanish moss. Other sources claim a fire from a hamburger stand, located near the exit spread to the Spanish Moss and grew rapidly. 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.
Due to the time of the fire there were issues dealing with the amount of the dead, with segregation affecting the time that the bodies were properly seen to. Under segregation only African American morticians were allowed to handle African American dead, and the three local black funeral homes had too many bodies to handle. 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.
Photos donated to the Rhythm Nightclub Fire Museum in 2015, show the coffins of the band members who died in the fire, being escorted by African-American boy scouts on a train. More than 15,000 mourners attended the funeral of Walter Barnes and the Natchez Social and Civic Club, raised money for the victims families and for the memorial.
The city passed new fire laws prohibiting the overcrowding of buildings.
The fire helped bring forward building requirements that were aimed at making night clubs safer in the event of a fire. Requirements for nightclubs now include the installation of fire protection systems, provisions for safer building finishes and decorations, provisions for better exiting systems, and for clubs to have trained crowd managers on duty.
Representation in other media
- 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.
- A memorial marker was erected in Bluff Park in Natchez. 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.
- A documentary film, The Rhythm Club Fire, was completed in December 2012.
- 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.
- List of nightclub fires
- Study club fire of 1929, night club fire that killed 20 and injured 50 people
- "Deadliest Public Assembly and Nightclub Fires". National Fire Protection Agency. Retrieved 15 October 2013.
- "'Complete Panic' as 233 Killed in Brazil Nightclub Fire". USA Today. 27 January 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
- Duval, Robert F (2006). "NFPA Case Study: Nightclub Fires" (PDF). NFPA.
- Michael, Rugel (23 April 2011). "Natchez Burning: Anniversary of The Rhythm Club Fire". Retrieved 25 June 2013.
- 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.
- Tubbs, Jeffrey; Meacham, Brian (2007). Egress Design Solutions: A Guide to Evacuation and Crowd Management Planning. Hoboken, NJ: Jon Wiley & Sons. pp. 62–63. ISBN 978-0-471-71956-4.
- ""The Greatest Tragedy Ever to Strike the Race": The Untold Story of the Rhythm Club Fire". We're History. 2018-04-23. Retrieved 2018-05-15.
- Schwartz, Heidi (2010-04-23). "Remembering The Rhythm Night Club Fire | Facility Executive - Creating Intelligent Buildings". Facility Executive - Creating Intelligent Buildings. Retrieved 2018-05-15.
- "Home Page". rnconsitemm. Retrieved 2018-05-15.
- "Natchez Burning". msbluestrail.org. Retrieved 2018-05-15.
- "Rhythm Nightclub Fire Memorialized Through Photos Never Seen – News Mississippi". newsms.fm. Retrieved 2018-05-15.
- Lane, Emily (21 April 2011). "Memorial Staying Put Despite Talks". Natchez Democrat. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
- Lane, Emily (15 March 2011). "Natchez Remembers Rhythm Club Fire". Natchez Democrat. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
- "The Rhythm Club Fire Documentary". Retrieved 1 September 2011.
- Ward Jr, Jerry W.; Butler, Rober J. (2008). The Richard Wright Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 322. ISBN 978-0-313-31239-7.