The Mystery of the West Plains Dance Hall Explosion

by AbbyFitz

For reasons unknown to this day, a violent explosion ripped through a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, sending 39 people to a fiery death and turning a community upside down.

Friday, April 13th, 1928, began just as any other day. The small city of West Plains, Missouri, was bustling with its normal everyday activity.

That morning, milkmen were delivering milk, children were running off to school, and women were going to the courthouse square to do some much needed shopping in town.

It was a typical spring Ozark day and they were doing what they typically had done everyday for years.

They had no idea the monotonous routine of small town life was going to be violently wrenched from them before midnight that night.

West Plains, Missouri

The tiny metropolis in the Ozarks
Original Howell County Courthouse, West Plains, Missouri
Original Howell County Courthouse, West Plains, Missouri

West Plains, Missouri, is a small town by most standards, located on U.S. Highway 63 about 25 miles from the Arkansas border. In 1928, the railroad had built West Plains up to a population of over 3,300 citizens, quite a metropolis in the region at that time.

West Plains was the city to come to in the early 20th century. Nearby towns such as Thayer, Alton, and Ava looked at West Plains the way we might look at New York City today. West Plains drew many struggling farmers from their land with the promise of steady pay and modern conveniences they could only dream about back home on the farm.

The  downtown square bustled with activity. Strikingly modern, West Plains boasted many businesses, including a Coca-Cola bottling plant, hardware store, numerous department and grocery stores, auto dealerships, and garages.

Farmers from miles around came to West Plains to sell their goods and to buy the newest modern household goods and farming equipment. Their wives bought the latest fashions at department stores, such as Langston's.

There was also abundant things for the younger set of West Plains to enjoy. The teenagers and young adults were regulars at the movie house, the ice cream parlor, and the opera house, which were all located down on the courthouse square.

Best of all, there was Bond Hall, a favorite hangout on Friday nights. A weekly dance featured musicians playing the most popular songs of the day. It was here that men and women could dance the night away to the new music craze, jazz.

Dancing is the Bee's Knees

The attendees of Bond Hall dances enthusiastically embraced the carefree attitude of the 1920's.

Bond Hall was located just off the square on East Main Street. As with most businesses on the square, the building had different uses for upstairs and downstairs. A motor garage, owned by Joseph Wiser, was located downstairs. The upstairs was a community hall that was available for rent. Baby and wedding showers and parties of all kinds had been hosted here by West Plains citizens for years.

On Friday nights, though, the upstairs came alive. Dances were held at Bond Hall every Friday without fail. Youth from West Plains and the surrounding area made it a point to attend these dances. It was the place for young people to be and be seen on Friday nights.

 One such young lady, Dimple Martin, was a frequent attendee of the dances held at Bond Hall before she moved away. A vivacious little redhead, she loved fun and having a good time. 

In April 1928, the 21 year old was home on her Easter vacation. Even though she was now attending a secretarial school in Memphis, Tennessee, with her sister, Blanche, Dimple frequently went to Bond Hall when she was home.

It was the 1920's, the Jazz Age, and Dimple's generation were embracing freedoms that their parents and grandparents had never even imagined. What was once taboo was now considered acceptable.

 Bold music, like jazz, and bold dances, like the Charleston and the Breakaway, raised the eyebrows of some of the more conservative set in the small city. Nevertheless, Dimple and the rest of the young people of the West Plains were ready to date and dance and have a good time, just as they did every Friday night.

The Calm Before the Firestorm

Laughing and dancing, it was the perfect party

1920's DancersDimple’s parents, Robert and Soula Martin, were the organizers of the weekly dance held at Bond Hall. They served the best refreshments and booked the best orchestras in the area to entertain West Plains and the surrounding area's young elite.

On this Friday the 13th, however, the orchestra they had booked had cancelled at the last minute. But there was no shortage of musical talent to be found in West Plains, though. They asked their friends, Carl Mullins, a drummer, and Dail Allen, a trumpeter, to provide the night's entertainment. Their daughter, Dimple, was a skilled pianist, and she agreed to round out the musical trio for the dance.

The band played all of the hits of the day, songs such as "My Blue Heaven", and "Sonny Boy". Nearly 60 couples took to the dance floor that night. There seemed no end to the music, food, and fun.

Finally, at 11:00 p.m., the band was winding down for the first intermission. Unwilling to take a break from dancing, the couples requested the band play one more song, “At Sundown”.

Husband and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends held each other as they foxtrotted across the dance floor to the peppy beat of the jazz favorite. Friends sat around tables or loitered on the stairwell, all laughing and talking and having the time of their lives. They had no way of knowing the nightmare they were about to be thrust into.

"At Sundown"

The song the partygoers at Bond Hall last heard before the explosion

Earthquake or an Explosion?

The explosion was so violent, towns 30 miles away thought the jolt was an earthquake.

In the middle of “At Sundown”, a deep rumbling was heard. It was faint at first, but then the dance floor started to bow upwards. A powerful force burst through the wood floor of the hall and blew the entire roof off of the building. Everyone in the hall was thrown violently up into the air. Some survivors described the experience as a never ending feeling of "going up."

The explosion was so severe, it was heard and felt 30 miles away in towns such as Thayer and Mountain View, Missouri. The explosion was so severe, residents of these communities thought the powerful shaking was caused by an earthquake. They could have never imagined the horror that was taking place so nearby.

The explosion severely damaged the buildings and apartments surrounding Bond Hall. Those who lived in the upstairs apartments had to run for their lives to escape the debris and fire, some having to climb down splintered boards because the stairs had completely collapsed.

Everyone in West Plains hurried to the square to see what had caused such an explosion. What they were met with some something they had never before seen, and the ghastly vision would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

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"An Earthly Hell"

How a witness later described the holocaust at Bond Hall that night.

Hellish FlamesImmediately after the explosion, a fireball erupted inside what was once Bond Hall. Those that were pinned by bricks and fallen debris were quickly burned alive. Other victims who were not trapped by the rubble fared no better.

The violent explosion had threw many dancers, still clinging to their partners, into the air. Some had landed clear of the building, and some were holding onto whatever they could grab as they fell back to earth.

A minister who was staying at the Arcade Hotel next door to the Bond Building was knocked to the floor of his second story room. He got himself up and ran out onto the porch to see what had caused such an explosion. To his horror, he saw a man and a woman clinging to what was left standing of Bond Hall.

They were nearly naked, burned, and badly injured. They screamed at him to help them. As he leaned over the railings to reach the woman, a huge burst of flame boiled up from below and devoured the couple. They then fell back down into the inferno below with the minister looking on in shock.

Smoldering Ruins of Bond HallThough three sides had been blown out during the explosion, the back wall of Bond Hall was still standing, but leaning backwards at a sharp angle. Trapped men and women were seen trying to scale the wall to escape the fire. However, it had started to rain, which made the wall slippery and hard to climb. Every person that tried to climb the wall slid back down to the flames to their deaths.

The townsfolk stood in front of the raging fire wanting to rescue those inside screaming for help, but the heat was so intense no one could even get near the building to save them. All they could do was stand there helplessly on the street listening to the screams for help and the agonizing moans of those trapped inside.

Mercifully, the victims inside Bond Hall probably died very quickly. Though it seemed their screams went on for ages, witnesses later told authorities that there were no human sounds heard after only five minutes. 

The Remains of Bond Hall. West Plains, Missouri
The Remains of Bond Hall. West Plains, Missouri

Chaos in the Streets

Debris and Bodies littered East Main Street

That night, survival depended on where the blast had thrown you. Very few were able to free themselves from the debris and the fire blazing where Bond Hall once stood. If you were lucky, you were thrown out into the streets. 

Knowing there was nothing they could do to help the victims trapped inside the fire, volunteers turned their attentions to the street and began combing through the debris in an effort to find anyone who might have survived the explosion. The rescuers found a few men and women who were still alive and dug them out and carried them to local hospitals.

In all the commotion, someone spotted a flash of red. A gentleman ran over to see if it was someone who might be alive. There, crushed under the piano she had just been playing moments before, was Dimple Martin. Her parents were also found dead not far from her.

In all, 39 people lost their lives that chilly April night, and 20 more were seriously injured. But a whole town was rocked to its core by such a horrific tragedy, but their grief had just begun.

Families Try to Identify Their Dead

The dead were identified by personal effects found on them.

A rose locketAfter the fire, families had the gruesome task of identifying their loved ones. 20 were positively identified, either by the clothing they had been wearing, if they were still clothed, or by trinkets or personal items that were found on the bodies. Some of their stories are heartbreaking.

A few weeks before the fire, Carl Mullins, had given his wife, Naomi, a locket to celebrate her pregnancy. It was this locket that helped Carl positively identify his wife.

A father recognized a couple of gold charms that his son had won in college that was found on an unidentified body, which brought him a bittersweet peace.

For 19 families, however, there was nothing but charcoal to claim and bury. Though they were sure their loved ones had perished in the fire, they had no body they could positively identify to lay to rest.

It was decided by the city of West Plains, and the families of the 19 unidentified bodies, that the victims would be buried in a mass grave in Oak Lawn Cemetery.

Families and the Community Grieve for its Young Victims

In a city as small as West Plains, everyone knew someone who was lost in the explosion.

Nearly every household in the city of West Plains either lost a family member in the blast or knew a family that did.

The sorrow was felt even more deeply because most of the victims were teenagers and young adults. So many parents had lost a child, some their only child, that fateful Friday night.

Nearly every church in West Plains held a funeral for a victim in the days that followed the blast. But the most tragic funeral was for the unidentifiable victims. Mabel Riley's husband had not been able to be identified, and her family wanted the two of them to be buried together, which brought the number buried in the mass grave at Oak Lawn Cemetery to 20.

In a way, it was a time for the whole community to grieve. That day, an estimated 7,000 people attended the funeral honoring the victims.

Caskets of Unidentified Victims of the Bond Hall Explosion
Caskets of Unidentified Victims of the Bond Hall Explosion

Foul Play or an Unfortunate Accident?

West Plains was determined to find an answer.

The townsfolk of West Plains were suffering from grief and shock. They needed to understand how and why something so tragic had happened to their community.

The day after the fire, a coroner’s jury was convened to try to determine the cause of the explosion. For four days they took testimony from anyone who was at the dance, had been on the street, or had had any dealings with the garage owner, Joseph Wiser, that Friday.

Theories swirled as to what had happened. The most popular theory is that the owner of the garage was having financial difficulty and had deliberately caused the explosion to collect insurance money. Though many people believed this theory until they died, it seems implausible since Mr. Wiser was at the garage that night and was himself killed in the blast and he only had minimal insurance coverage on his garage.

Several witnesses testified they remembered seeing three strange men in the area of the garage that Friday afternoon. No one recognized them and they never came forward, so it is unknown if these men, if they did exist, had anything to do with the explosion.

In the end, the jury could find no cause of the explosion. Whether the explosion was caused by foul play or an accident, after 80 years it seems that the cause will never be known.

A Fiction Novel Surrounding the Explosion

Updated: 03/25/2014, AbbyFitz
 
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AbbyFitz on 12/12/2013

I guess what caught my attention most about this story is that it seemed like just an ordinary night and then it was snatched away. It's scary thinking that our lives could change so drastically in seconds.

WordChazer on 12/12/2013

Wow. That's a tale and then some. I'm not the greatest fan of fire myself, and one of my worst fears is a house fire, so I can see where Jo's coming from. It reminds me of the tales of events in the London Blitz, where such explosions weren't seen coming either.

AbbyFitz on 11/05/2013

Thank you! Your opinion means a lot to me.

JoHarrington on 11/05/2013

What a horrifying story! I'm pyrophobic, which makes it even worse. Those poor people. :( Very well written though.

AbbyFitz on 11/05/2013

It was very sad. When they couldn't find a definite cause for the explosion, everyone involved quit talking about it and didn't say anything until years later about it.

AbbyFitz on 11/05/2013

Thank you for stopping by!

ologsinquito on 11/05/2013

Definitely an unsolved mystery and a tragic one at that.

cmoneyspinner on 11/05/2013

An unsolved mystery can leave an empty void in people's lives and holes in their hearts. That's the down side. To pass through that and get to other side, you hope and pray that the incident doesn't become a recurring unsolved mystery. One time? Most people can handle it. But more than once?

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