The Rhythm Night Club fire took place in Natchez, Mississippi, United States on April 23, 1940 and killed 209 African-American party goers, while severely injuring many others. The nightclub, which was once a church and converted blacksmith shop, was located in a one-story frame building on 1 St. Catherine Street, just blocks from the city's business district. It remains the second deadliest fire at a night club in the United States.
The 11:30 p.m. inferno began as members of the local Moneywasters Social Club were enjoying the song "Clarinet Lullaby" performed by Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians orchestra from Chicago. Starting in front of the main entrance door of the building, the fire quickly engulfed the structure in flames due to the decorative Spanish moss that was draped over the rafters. Due to the dry conditions, flammable methane gas was generated from the moss, resulting in the torching of the structure within an hour.
With windows boarded up to prevent outsiders from viewing or listening to the music, more than 300 people struggled to leave after the blaze began. A handful of people left by the door or through the ticket booth, while the remainder of individuals attempted to leave through the back door.
Blinding smoke made movement difficult, with many of the dead either perishing by smoke inhalation or by being crushed by the furious stampede of people trying to escape. Bandleader Barnes and nine members of his band were among the victims, with one of the group's three survivors, drummer Walter Brown, vowing never to play again. At the time of his death, Barnes was considered a strong contemporary of both Duke Ellington and Woody Herman.
What was first thought of as an accidental fire set by the careless discarding of a match by two women changed quickly the day after the blaze when five African-Americans were arrested after reports they had drunkenly threatened to burn the building down. Charges were later dropped.
Three local funeral homes were inundated with bodies, with many eventually buried in mass graves. In the aftermath of the tragedy, citizens of Natchez raised more than $5,000 to help the local Red Cross, while new fire laws were established to prevent the overcrowding of buildings.
The disaster has been acknowledged with songs such as "Mississippi Fire Blues" and "Natchez Mississippi Blues" by the Lewis Bronzeville Five; "The Natchez Fire" by Gene Gilmore; "We The Cats Shall Hep You" by Cab Calloway; "For You" by Slim Gaillard; "You're A Heavenly Thing" by Cleo Brown; "The Death Of Walter Barnes" by Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston; "The Natchez Burnin" by Howlin' Wolf; "That Night" by Stompy Jones; and "Natchez Fire" by John Lee Hooker.
A memorial marker stands in Natchez's Bluff Park.