The Rhythm Club Dance Hall in Natchez, Mississippi was once a blacksmith shop that had been converted from a church at 1 St. Catherine Street.
On the night of April 23, 1940, the mostly African American members of the local Moneywasters Social Club were enjoying music performed by Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians orchestra on tour from Chicago.
The interior rafters of the wood framed single story steel clad structure had been draped with chicken wire and Spanish dry moss as decoration. To ensure that there were no bugs in the decorative moss, the rafters had been sprayed with petroleum-based Flit insecticide.
To prevent outsiders from sneaking in the building, the back door had been padlocked and boarded up. To prevent people outside the dance hall from listening to the music, the windows had also been boarded up.
At 11:30 pm the orchestra began playing the song “Clarinet Lullaby,” when near the main entrance door, someone carelessly discarded a match after lighting a cigarette.
The resulting fire quickly engulfed the dry wood structure as more than 300 people panicked trying to escape the growing inferno. A handful of people near the front door were able to get out through the ticket booth, while the remainder of the people fought their way to the back door.
Reportedly, Band leader Walter Barnes had his orchestra continue playing the song “Marie” in hopes of keeping the crowd from stampeding.
Then the decorative moss began to release flammable methane gas, which generated even more smoke, heat, and fire.
Within minutes, most of the people had died from smoke inhalation or crushed by the crowd trying to escape.
Bandleader Walter Barnes and nine members of his band were among the victims.
Drummer Walter Brown always kept a hammer to nail his drums to the stage, he used this to break open a boarded up window and escape, only to vow later to never to play again; the other survivor was bassist Arthur Edward who followed Brown out the window.
By the time the fire was extinguished an hour later, 209 people had lost their lives, with many others severely injured.
The next morning, five African Americans were arrested after reports they had drunkenly threatened to burn the building down during an argument. Charges against them were dropped later that day.
The three local Natchez funeral homes had too many bodies to handle.
As a result, many of the victims were eventually buried in a mass grave.
At the time, this was the second most deadly building fire in the history of the nation. Today, the Rhythm Club Fire is ranked as the fourth deadliest assembly and club fire in U.S. history.
In the aftermath of the fire, citizens of Natchez raised more than $5,000 to help the local Red Cross.
Natchez also passed new fire laws to prevent the overcrowding of buildings.
The disaster was soon 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.
The Rhythm Club blaze also served as inspiration for a central scene in African American author Richard Wright‘s 1958 novel, The Long Dream. In this work, Wright uses the fire 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.
On November 6, 2010, the Rhythm Club Museum, commemorating the tragedy, opened in Natchez.
The documentary film The Rhythm Club Fire was completed in December of 2012.
Today, a memorial marker stands in Natchez’s Bluff Park.
Now WE know em