Rhythm and Blues–Natchez, Mississippi

Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum
5 St. Catherine Street
Natchez, Mississippi

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 the stories of hundreds of disasters, the book includes are 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.

Headline from the 24 April 1940 Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville, Mississippi.

Installed in a ramshackle wood frame building, the Rhythm Night Club was a swinging place on this spring evening, 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, Spanish moss was hung as a decoration; moss that had been sprayed with a petroleum-based insecticide called Flit to kill the insects that lived within it. A fire broke out near the front door of the club and quickly spread through the highly flammable moss. As club goers 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 much of a generation of African-Americans in the region, 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 at the site. 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 related to similar tragedies with paranormal activity such as the site of the Eastland disaster (1915) in Chicago, the Winecoff Hotel fire (1946) in Atlanta and Ground Zero (2011) in New York City.

The blog entry also mentions that NAPS is ramping up to investigate the location in the very near future. I look forward to seeing their evidence.

Goodbye, Goodbye,
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.



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