I am surprised by the number of Knickerbocker stories that have emerged since I wrote my Knickerbocker Snowstorm book. Just during the past week, I have been contacted by two different families with Knickerbocker Snowstorm stories that I have not previously encountered. Many of the stories are being passed down by word-of-mouth.
I am making the effort to gather and document these stories before they are lost or forgotten. The collapse of the Knickerbocker Theatre’s roof in the record snowstorm of January 1922 impacted hundreds of area families. After 91 years, many of the families continue to pass down their stories.
Below are just a few of the stories, both from the impacted families and from newspaper archives. I have included shortened versions of the stories to fit within this post.
Read below for the stories.
George S. Patton was not feeling well when he received the call to join the US Army’s rescue effort to respond to the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster. Despite his illness, Patton joined a convoy of Army trucks that departed Fort Myer, bound for the theater. Within minutes, the convoy got hopelessly stuck in the snow on the city streets of Washington. Many hours later, Patton and his convoy of Army trucks arrived at the Knickerbocker Theatre, being pulled by four teams of mules. The U.S. Marines, however, had decided to load all of their supplies in backpacks, not in trucks, and they arrived to the theater several hours earlier and were well underway with the rescue effort when Patton arrived.
Mary Forsyth was pinned under the wreckage of the Knickerbocker Theatre’s roof. Next to Mary was a young couple, a “man and his sweetheart,” who were also pinned under the concrete. While moans of pain and anguish could be heard from all sides, the man began to sing. His girl joined in song. Both sang for many minutes until they lapsed into unconsciousness. The couple later passed away. Mary Forsyth survived and would tell the story of the singing couple under the rubble. It was learned that a couple on their honeymoon perished that night in the theater. Was it the same couple? We may never know.
Leon Theunissen was sitting next to his 9 year-old daughter in the balcony of the Knickerbocker Theatre when he heard a great crash. A falling block of concrete then knocked him unconscious. When he awoke on the floor of the theater, he could hear his daughter calling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” He then heard, “Please save my Daddy.” He rigorously searched the wreckage from where he heard her voice. He recruited four volunteers to help him search through the rubble and debris. Many hours later, Leon gave up his search and went home “broken-hearted.” When here arrived home, he found his daughter waiting. She had been carried home much earlier by a rescue worker. She was unharmed.
Miss Agnes Mellon was on a date at the Knickerbocker Theatre. Suddenly, the theater’s roof collapsed. As the roof crashed to the floor, a terrible gust of wind blew outward, as the air inside the theater was violently evacuated. Agnes’ date, James, was blown into the lobby and saved from the crushing debris. Agnes did not survive the fall of the roof. James, who was engaged to Agnes, never married.
The more detailed story of Agnes Mellon can be found here.
As the rescuers dug through the rubble they found a large air pocket that had been created by the roof’s steel beams that had buckled upward. In the middle of the air pocket was a man sitting upright in his theater chair, untouched and completely uninjured by the collapsed roof. He was staring straight forward, calmly, with his eyes wide open. When the rescue workers opened up the air pocket and told him it was time leave, he remained still. The rescue workers quickly realized that he was dead, a victim of an apparent heart attack.
Charles Lyman planned to join his cousin, David, at the Knickerbocker Theatre for their usual Saturday evening movie. On that particular evening, Charles decided it was best to finish his homework assignment before joining David. After finishing the homework, Charles rushed to the Knickerbocker Theatre to see the show. When he was only one block away from the theater he heard a great crash. The roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre had just collapsed. Charles’ cousin, David, perished in the disaster and Charles would later tell his family that a homework assignment had saved his life.
The more detailed story of David Lyman can be found here.
Howard and Howard Knessi, Jr.
Mrs. Knessi insisted to her family that they not sit by the stage, but instead sit at the back of the theater. She had a life-long aversion to sitting in the front of a theater and she decided to move to the back row. When the roof fell, she survived. Her husband, Howard, and son (Howard Jr.), however, were not so lucky. Being more forward, they were killed in the roof collapse.
Joe Beal was the first violinist in the Knickerbocker Theatre’s orchestra. As soon as Joe was old enough to hold a bow, his father had set him to the task of mastering the violin. Joe played violin for years before joining the Navy Yard band. Joe made tours of the country with the band and later made first violin in the Knickerbocker Theatre’s orchestra. Joe was making his father’s dream come true until he played his last note on the floor of the Knickerbocker Theatre. Joe had been married only four days, his bride stayed home during the night of the big storm.
The more detailed story of the orchestra and Joe Beal can be found here
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A list of the identified dead from the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster was published soon after the crash of the roof. The original list contained 104 names. It was later reduced to 98 as it was discovered a few of the identified dead were found to be still living. One man on the list of dead remarked, “Friends who call my wife to express their sorrow at my death are disconcerted when I answer the telephone.”
If you have a Knickerbocker Snowstorm story, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope to consolidate the various stories and publish a booklet in the near future.