The Troy Street Observer

July 4, 1925: Did Hot Jazz Bring Down the Pickwick Club?

It was 3:00 in the morning on July 4, 1925, at the Pickwick Club, a licensed social club—a speakeasy—at 6 Beach Street in downtown Boston. McGlennon’s Jazz Orchestra was on the bandstand, with Johnny Duffy singing “Twelfth Street Rag.” There were perhaps 125 people in the room at the time, maybe 50 of them dancing.

The Boston Post, the Day After
The Boston Post, the Day After

An employee, standing outside the second-story club’s barred door, heard a sound he described as being like “a granulated substance falling on paper.” He went to the empty third floor to investigate, but found nothing out of the ordinary. A few minutes later, water began splashing to the club’s floor. At about 3:05, plaster started falling, lights went out, the ceiling collapsed, the floor gave way, two side walls caved in, and the whole building came crashing down.

It was a catastrophe, and the death toll eventually reached 44, singer Johnny Duffy among them. A stunned Boston asked, “how could this happen?”

The first fingers were pointed at the revelers. The band whipped the Charleston dancers into a frenzy, and the collapse occurred when the tune ended—some club patrons thought the lights going out at the song’s end was part of the act. In the popular mind, “Charleston” and “building collapse” became locked in a cause-and-effect relationship. Even trade papers like Variety were repeating the story.

In Boston, clubs were closed pending a safety inspection, and Mayor James Michael Curley proposed a ban on the Charleston, but that went nowhere. Not so in other communities, where instead of looking at structural integrity or occupancy levels, city authorities just banned Charleston dancing, citing the Pickwick. (Amy Koritz, in her study of the 1920s, Culture Makers, offers a fascinating look at this.) For years afterward in Boston, bandleaders were told to turn it down when the dancing got too vigorous.

As it turned out, the energetic dancers had nothing to do with it.

The story of the disaster began three months earlier, when a fire badly damaged the upper three floors of the five-story building. Repairs were made, a temporary roof installed, and the Pickwick reopened. But the fire left behind a weakened structure, and City of Boston building inspectors were later castigated for allowing any part of the building to reopen. They should have declared it unsafe.

Meanwhile, the neighboring building to the east had been razed, and a 40-foot hole excavated for a new building’s foundation. This left the east wall of the Pickwick club weakened, and concrete piers were added to shore it up. Despite these efforts, the wall sagged and began to buckle inward. Rainwater pooled on the roof. On July 4 the inevitable happened, as the roof caved in, the east and north walls followed, and the building collapsed.

The deaths of 44 people sparked a public outcry, and 12 employees of the city and the building contractor were indicted on various charges. All were acquitted—this was Curley’s Boston, after all. Building code reforms stalled, and in the end, nothing really came of it. But stories of lax inspection and shoddy workmanship would all be heard again, 17 years later, when the Cocoanut Grove burned.

Euday Bowman’s “12th Street Rag” was one of the most popular rags and it has been a favorite of jazz players over the decades. Here, though, pianist Aaron Robinson stays in the ragtime spirit. It’s a good one for the Fourth of July.

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Comments

  1. Johnny Duffy was my great grandfather. My maternal grandmother was 2 at the time and her sister was only 2 weeks old. Both have since passed away.

    I grew up hearing stories about how talented a song and dance man he was.

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