The first, which began at noon on November 29, 1942 was begun by the Boston Police Department (BFD). The police wanted to determine if there were any criminal or corruption issues connected with the fire. Statements were taken at Police Department Headquarters, City Hospital, Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Brighton Marine Hospital, Cambridge City Hospital, Chelsea Naval Hospital. 148 interviews were conducted. Testimonies continued through December 11, 1942. Complete transcripts of the investigation (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3) have been made public by the Boston Police Department. They are in three volumes and are bound in chronological order.
The second, an inquest ordered by Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, started at 3:00 pm on November 29th at the Bristol Street Fire headquarters. Boston Fire Commissioner William Arthur Reilly was in charge, with military officers, FBI agents, and State Fire Marshal Stephen C. Garrity as observers. Its purpose was two-fold—to discover the cause of the fire, and to determine whether there was negligence on the part of the Boston Fire Department. Interviews started immediately, and continued through January 20, 1943, when public hearings were suspended “to avoid possible interference with criminal proceedings initiated by the Attorney-General and the District Attorney for Suffolk County.” Fifteen sessions of interviews were conducted in all. Copies of transcripts for three of the interview sessions and the index to exhibits are available online. The report of the inquest, along with Reilly’s recommendations, a list of witnesses and a list of the dead and injured, was issued by Reilly on November 19, 1943.
The third investigation started a day later, on November 30th. Massachusetts Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell and Boston District Attorney William J. Foley opened the second inquiry to try to determine who was responsible for the fire. Unlike the Reilly inquiries, these interviews were closed to the public and to the press. While they called some of the same witnesses as the Reilly investigation, they also broadened the base, calling in witnesses that might shed light on any corrupt practices. Over the next week, they held interviews and gathered evidence to be presented to a grand jury. Jury selection started on December 7th and by December 29th all testimony was over.
The grand jury issued ten indictments to people deemed to be responsible for the fire. Barnett (Barney) Welansky, the owner, and James Welansky, Barney’s brother and the person in charge of the club that night, and Jacob Goldfine, wine steward, were charged with manslaughter. Fire Lieut. Frank Linney was charged with neglect of duties in his role of inspecting the Cocoanut Grove. Police Captain Buccigross, who had been on duty at the Grove the night of the fire, was charged with neglection of duties. Charged with conspiracy to violate building codes were Theodore Eldracher, Boston Building Inspector, Ruben Bodenhorn, architect and interior designer, Samuel Rudnick, contractor, and David Gilbert, foreman.
The manslaughter trial of the Welansky’s and Goldfine started on March 15, 1943. On the witness stand, Barney took all responsibility for the management of the club. After a month of hearing 130 witnesses and reviewing 155 exhibits, the jury acquitted James Welansky and Jacob Goldfine. Barney Welansky was found guilty of 19 counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. In November 1946, due to health reasons, Barney Welansky was freed from prison but died soon after.
The conspiracy to violate building laws trial against Jimmy Welansky, Theodore Eldracher, Samuel Rudnick, David Gilbert and Ruben Bodenhorn began on June 15, 1943. It was declared a mistrial after nineteen days of testimony. A second trial acquitted Welansky, Gilbert, Bodenhorn and Eldracher. Rudnick was found guilty and sentenced to serve two years in the House of Correction. However, the judge then granted a stay of sentence pending appeal.
Fire Lieut. Frank J. Linney’s trial on the charges of neglect of duty started on October 26, 1943. Assistant District Attorney Fredrick Doyle said “We are not charging corruption. We are offering to show that the defendant failed to carry out his duties, that his inspection of the Cocoanut Grove premises was not even a perfunctory one, that he failed to note the non-existence of fire doors, or the bolts on panic doors which rendered those doors unusable.” Lieut. Linney was eventually found not guilty and acquitted of the charges against him.
November 8, 1943 the trial of “willful neglect of duty” in connection with licensing of the Cocoanut Grove against Boston Building Commissioner James H. Mooney began. It was charged that he had “willfully failed to enforce the building laws against persons known to have been operating places of public assembly in violation of the building laws.” After only an hour into the proceedings, Judge Francis J. Good ordered the jury to return with a not guilty verdict. The judge said that the government had failed to show that Mooney had willfully neglected, omitted, and refused to do his duty.
The charge against Police Captain Buccigross was dropped July 31, 1944 and he was reinstated to duty.