In 1942 the Coconut Club in Boston Massachusetts caught fire in the second deadliest fire in United States history. The overcrowded club had sealed emergency exits and was filled drastically beyond capacity. When it burned it killed 492 people, and injuring 130 others.

The owner, Barney Welasnky had connections to the Boston mob and thus was able to dodge safety standards and fire code using his connections. In fact, the club had been inspected by the Boston Fire Prevention and Safety department a week prior and declared safe.

After the catastrophic fire Barney was charged and convicted for manslaughter due to his negligence and disregard for safety. But of the 492 victims only 19 charges were brought against him. The articles I've read said that the victims were chosen randomly to represent the dead, but I don't understand this happened.

Ultimately, Barney was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was pardoned after serving four years by the Governor of Massachusetts. He died of cancer shortly after the pardon.

With this context, why might a subset of victims represent the total killed in a criminal court? What was the purpose of selecting 19 victims rather than all 492 or any other number?

1 Answer 1


Most likely, they chose enough victims to ensure a long prison term while having plenty of additional victims to charge if something went wrong at trial. Plus limiting the number of victims limits the amount of repetitive testimony and evidence the prosecutors had to introduce proving the death of each victim.

If you charge with 19 counts when there are 492 victims and something goes wrong at trial, whether you think but can’t prove that the mob paid off a juror or whether you just get an oddball juror that votes to acquit, you can always pick some of the remaining 473 victims to bring charges. The prosecutors could have failed in 24 straight trials for 19 charges of manslaughter and still been able to bring charges a 25th time (though that would have been highly unusual).

If you charge a defendant with manslaughter, you have to prove the death of a particular person. So there has to be evidence that Bob Smith went to the club, Bob Smith’s body was recovered and identified, Bob Smith was autopsied and the cause of death was smoke inhalation, etc. That gets repetitive after a time and jurors start thinking of the victims as numbers rather than people. Limiting the number of charges makes it much easier to make the victims seem like distinct humans to the jury. You can show pictures of the victims at trial and jurors can recognize particular individuals not just “1 of 492 dead people”.

  • Interesting answer, I'll give it some more time before accepting it. I should also edit the post to mention that Barney was given fifteen years, but pardoned after serving four, and died shortly after the pardon
    – PausePause
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 18:45
  • This answer is not correct. Res judicata operates in criminal law to require the prosecutor to bring all relevant charges or forgo them.
    – Dale M
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 22:18
  • @Dale M Asking from a different legal culture, what does count as Res judicata in the case above? It seems you count a unique crime, not 492 ones, don't you?
    – mario
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 14:26
  • @Dale M. for Res judicata I read you need identity of the parties to the action, but here you may have 492 different parties.
    – mario
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 15:53

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