Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum
5 St. Catherine Street
N.B. This entry was revised 24 February 2019.
Fare you well, goodbye!
I’m just gonna let all you people know
What happened in that Natchez fire.
— Gene Gilmore, “The Natchez Fire,” one of a number of jazz and blues songs written to memorialize the fire. See the YouTube video for a recording of the song with photographs from the fire.
One of my favorite books as a kid was Jay Robert Nash’s Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Present. Not only providing stories of hundreds of disasters, the book includes rare photographs from the scenes, including some that are quite graphic. One of those photographs I remember clearly is from the 1940 fire at the Rhythm Night Club in Natchez. The photograph shows bodies of many of the African-American club goers laid out. These nicely dressed people are covered with soot with some almost frozen in dance-like attitudes.
As I’m reading through my blogs tonight, I came across an entry from Natchez Ghosts: The Devil’s Punchbowl, the official blog of the Natchez Area Paranormal Society regarding this recently opened museum. The museum is located on the site of the night club and serves as a memorial to this fire that claimed around 207 lives (there are discrepancies in the actual number) and affected many more.
Occupying a ramshackle wood frame building, the Rhythm Night Club was a swinging place on the spring evening of April 23, 1940. Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians, a noted band from Chicago, was playing to a packed house of nearly 700. From the ceiling decorative Spanish moss had been hung. That moss that had been sprayed with a petroleum-based insecticide called Flit, in an attempt to kill the insects that lived within it.
Near the club’s front door, a fire broke out, quickly spreading through the highly-flammable moss. As patrons rushed to the windows and doors, they found most of them boarded up. Among those killed were Walter Barnes, the bandleader, and most of his band. While the fire destroyed so many lives, it did lead to some of the myriad fire regulations that save many lives today.
Opening last year, the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum seeks to tell the story of this tragedy as well as memorialize the site. The blog entry on Natchez Ghosts mentions that one of the founders has reported paranormal activity throughout the building. This activity includes the sounds of voices, music, and doors opening and closing. He has also found photographs apparently removed from the walls and then laid on the floor at interesting angles.
It should be noted that there are many sites throughout the South related to similar tragedies with paranormal activity such as places associated with the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, which burned in 1977; the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta in 1946 (the building is now home to the Ellis Hotel); and the site of the Cleveland School in Kershaw County, South Carolina, which burned in 1923.
The blog entry also mentions that the Natchez Area Paranormal Society (NAPS) is ramping up to investigate the location in the very near future. I look forward to seeing their evidence.
Update: It appears that the Natchez Paranormal Society is no longer active. Their blog is still up, but has not been updated since 2015.
- Hogan, Vershal. “Rhythm Nigh Club fire museum dedicated.” Natchez Democrat. 25 April 2010.
- Nash, Jay Robert. Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Present. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976.
- Natchez Area Paranormal Society. “Rhythm Night Club Fire Investigation.” Natchez Ghosts: The Devil’s Punchbowl. 20 September 2011.
- Rhythm Club fire. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 20 September 2011.
- “Rhythm Night Club museum celebrates grand opening.” Natchez Democrat. 8 November 2010.