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Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire Collection

Call Number: MS 7040

Scope and Contents

This collection consists of material gathered by retired firefighter Charles Kenney, Jr.between 1990-2002 (bulk 1991-1992) in preparation for a book on the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of 1942. The book (unpublished) was to focus on the effect of the fire on the Boston Fire Department. In particular, the collection documents the fire’s origin, Kenney’s theory that the refrigerant gas methyl chloride was the original accelerant for the fire, the experiences of the survivors, the work performed at the fire by the responding Engine and Ladder companies and the investigation into the fire by both the Boston Fire Department (Reilly Commission) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Between 1991 and 1992, Kenney interviewed 29 people including survivors, firefighters, and medical personnel about their experiences with the fire. The interviews provide eyewitness accounts and contain observations by Kenney. Among the subjects discussed are the methyl chloride theory, possible sources of responsibility for the cause of the fire as well as Cocoanut Grove employees and the role they played in helping patrons exit the nightclub. Some of the topics documented in Kenney’s research material are the fire from a professional prospective, the actions of the Boston Fire Department in response to the fire and casualties.

The collection contains transcripts and cassette tapes of interviews of survivors and firefighters, research notes, newspaper and magazine clippings, obituaries, maps and diagrams of the club, and copies of official documents such as Boston Fire Department running cards and reports, and the Reilly Commission hearing transcript. The report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, lists of victims, injured persons, and firefighters who were at the scene, exhibits, and correspondence are also included.


  • 1942-2002
  • Majority of material found in 1991-1992
  • Other: Date acquired: 12/00/2011


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research, but access to content stored on audiocassettes in the collection is currently restricted. Contact the Archives Department for more information.

Conditions Governing Use

Items in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. In most cases, the Boston Public Library does not hold the copyright to the items in our collections. It is the sole responsibility of the user to make their own determination about what types of usage might be permissible under U.S. and international copyright law.

Biographical / Historical

Biographical Note

Charles Kenney Jr., a former Boston firefighter, was born on April 11, 1925. His father was also in the Boston Fire Department and fought the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942.  In the 1990s Kenney began to research the fire, its origin and the effect it had on the firefighting profession in Boston. As a result of his work, he was designated by the Boston Fire Department as their official Cocoanut Grove historian.  Kenney and another fire researcher have theorized that the refrigerant gas methyl chloride which was used in the club’s refrigerator leaked, ignited, and became the original accelerant for the fire.  Kenney has lectured on the Cocoanut Grove fire and developed his research into a manuscript which was never published.

Historical Note

The Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire occurred on November 28, 1942 when a fast-moving blaze swept through the popular nightspot on Piedmont Street near Boston’s theater district. Nearly 450 people were killed, many more died in the weeks to come, and hundreds were injured, both physically and psychologically. The official death toll was put at 492, including a man who committed suicide over guilt from surviving the fire while his wife died. The fire affected nearly everyone in the Boston area at that time and it played a significant role in altering building safety codes, manslaughter laws, and medical treatment for burn and lung injuries.  Penicillin was used for the first time (in non-test patients) to fight infection in burn victims at Massachusetts General Hospital.  The cause of the fire is attributed to a match lit by a busboy who was trying to replace a light bulb; however, the official cause is unknown.


2.03 Cubic Feet (2 record cartons and one card box.)

Language of Materials



The collection is arranged in three series: Series l. Interviews; Series II. Unpublished manuscripts; and Series III. Research material.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Labels and exteriors of audiocassettes may be made available upon request. Cassette tape cases should not be opened, and tapes themselves should not be handled due to the fragile nature of the material.

Source of Acquisition

Charles Kenney, Jr.

Method of Acquisition


Related Materials

William A. Rilley Collection

Processing Information

Finding aid written by Jessica Holden, January 2012.

Processing Information

This electronic finding aid is transcribed from legacy data. In many cases, transcriptions were not verified against collection materials at the time of transcription. As a result, this finding aid could be incomplete and might only reflect a partial understanding of the material.

Statement on harmful description

Archival description reflects the biases of time periods and cultures in which it was created and may include direct quotations or descriptions that use inappropriate or harmful language. Creator provided descriptions may be maintained in order to preserve the context in which the collection was created and/or used. Legacy description and potentially offensive content may be made available online until a collection can be reprocessed because the access that they provide to primary source materials is uniquely valuable to the research community at large. Our efforts to repair outdated descriptions and to describe our collections more equitably are iterative and ongoing.

Guide to the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire Collection
Under Revision
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

About this library

Part of the Boston Public Library Archives & Special Collections Repository

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Boston MA 02116 United States