Little Bits of History

Mississippi Burning

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 23, 2012

Rhythm Night Club

April 23, 1940: The Rhythm Night Club catches fire in Natchez, Mississippi. The club was a venue for African-Americans. The one story building was originally a church and then a blacksmith shop. The address of 1 St. Catherine Street was just blocks outside the city’s business district. At the time of the fire, it was the second deadliest fire after the Iroquois Theater Fire (December 30, 1903 in Chicago). Since that time, the Cocoanut Grove fire (November 28, 1942 in Boston) left 492 dead in the wake of a devastating fire.

At 11:30 PM, a blaze broke out near the front door (and only exit). Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians, an orchestra from Chicago, was playing at the time. The windows were boarded over to prevent outsiders from peeking in and also to dampen the sound so those outside the club weren’t able to listen to the music from within. The club was decorated with Spanish moss hanging from the rafters. This dry material quickly ignited and spread the flames even faster. It also produced a deadly, flammable methane gas. The entire club burned in an hour.

There were 209 killed in the fire and many more patrons were injured. Most of the people inside were killed by either smoke inhalation or by the crush of people attempting to flee. Barnes, at the time of the incident, was being favorably compared to Duke Ellington and Woody Herman. He and nine other members of the orchestra were killed in the fire. Three members of the group survived. Walter Brown, the drummer, vowed to never play again. When firefighters arrived, the building was fully involved. They found the dead piled on top of one another, but heard sounds beneath the carnage. As they peeled away the dead, under the crush were survivors, suffering both burns and crush injuries.

There was some speculation the fire was intentionally set. There had been some disgruntled patrons who in a drunken rage had threatened to burn the building down. They were arrested and eventually released with charges dropped. It is thought the fire may have started with carelessly discarded cigarette butts. The city of Natchez raised $5,000 (≈ $77,400 in 2009 USD) to help the local Red Cross deal with the disaster. New fire laws were also instituted, limiting over crowding in buildings. The disaster was memorialized by many musicians and there is a marker erected in Natchez’s Bluff Park.

I was at this casino minding my own business, and this guy came up to me and said, ‘You’re gonna have to move, you’re blocking a fire exit.’ As though if there was a fire, I wasn’t gonna run. If you’re flammable and have legs, you are never blocking a fire exit. – Mitch Hedberg

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. – Robert Frost

Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there was a fire? The one nearest the door of course. – George Bernard Shaw

Whenever our neighbor’s house is on fire, it cannot be amiss for the engines to play a little on our own. – Edmund Burke

Also on this day:

The Bard of Avon – In 1616 William Shakespeare dies.
Boston Latin School – In 1635, the first public school in America (still open) was founded.
Lights, Camera, Action – In 1867, a patent for a zoetrope was granted.