Note: A mystery surrounding the grave of a 17 year-old boy in Congressional Cemetery, killed in the Knickerbocker Theater disaster, prompted me to undertake a long and fascinating research effort to find the boy’s family and uncover the story of what happened to the boy and his family after the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater collapsed under the weight of a record-breaking snowstorm. I was amazed at the information and photos that I was able to gather, 90 years after the tragedy. Below is the story of that boy, David H. Lyman, Jr., and his family.
David Lyman, Jr. was the pride and joy of his family. David had excellent grades at Western High School, he was a star athlete on his club baseball team, and his striking good looks strongly resembled his father.
David loved baseball. During the spring and summer of 1921, David worked as an usher at Griffith Stadium during Washington Senators baseball games. David would take a baseball to work with him and scope out his favorite American and National league players for their signatures.
Read below for the rest of the story.
Over the course of many games, David managed to get his baseball signed by Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, and Lee Fohl. David treasured his autographed baseball, it was his most prized possession.
After school, David played baseball and basketball for a local club team called the Riggs Athletic Club. The boys on the Riggs club went to different high schools in the Washington area but they were all good friends. The team was also very competitive in the Washington area.
After Saturday games, the boys of the Riggs Athletic club would often meet at the Knickerbocker Theater to relax, hangout, and watch silent films. It was their Saturday evening routine.
On one particular Saturday, on January 28, 1922, the Riggs Athletic Club made plans to meet at the Knickerbocker Theater for a team outing. During that day, however, a record-breaking snowstorm buried Washington under a heavy blanket of snow which stalled traffic and shutdown most of the city’s street cars. The snow depth that afternoon exceeded 24” and snow was still falling as evening approached. Most of the boys on David’s teammates either decided to stay home or could not make it through the snow to the theater.
Undaunted by the heavy snow, David made plans to walk to the theater. He asked his 18 year-old cousin, Charles H. Lyman III, to go see the movie with him. Charles, who was finishing a homework assignment, said he would meet David at the theater after he was done with his homework.
David left home without Charles and met a good friend and Riggs teammate, Kirkland Duke, at the Knickerbocker Theater. Kirkland, who attended Central High School, was a year younger than David.
David and Kirkland each paid 25 cents for a movie ticket and they took their seats on the left side of the balcony as they did for every Knickerbocker movie. The boys waited for the film to begin as the orchestra played music below. They also waited for Charles to arrive.
Charles, who stayed home to finish his homework, was finally done and he rushed out into the snowstorm to meet David at the theater. The time was about 9 p.m. and Charles quickly trudged through knee-deep snow toward the Knickerbocker Theater, he would only be a few minutes late.
Heavy snow fell as Charles approached the theater. When Charles was only one block away from the Knickerbocker Theater he heard a very loud, crashing noise. The roof of the theater had just collapsed under the weight of the snow.
Charles rushed into the theater and found a darkened scene with no lights. Twisted steel beams and piles of heavy iron mesh layered with thick plaster covered the theater’s floor. Plaster dust filled the air.
Under huge heaps of rubble that had once been the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater came cries for help and moans of pain. Over one hundred movie-goers were buried under the rubble.
Charles joined in with a chaotic rescue effort that grew larger as more volunteers, police, and firemen arrived. The rescue effort became much better organized late in the evening when hundreds of soldiers arrived carrying lights, saws, sledge hammers, chisels, acetylene torches, and jacks. Charles assisted with the rescue effort that night but he never found his cousin, David.
The next morning, David was identified at the morgue by his mother, Josephine Lyman. She recognized his Boy Scout pants and boots. David’s cause of death was documented as a crushed chest.
David, like many of the other Knickerbocker Theater victims, was identified by their clothing due to a heavy layer of plaster dust that coated the faces of the dead. David’s friend, Kirkland Duke, was also among the dead. The death toll for the disaster was 98.
The Lyman family sued the Knickerbocker Theatre Company but the courts were unable to determine who was liable.
The Knickerbocker Theatre Company’s defense was simple: A huge, unforeseeable snowstorm was to blame for collapsing the roof of the theater and the company had previously complied with all building codes and regulations.
The Lyman family appealed the court’s decision. In the appeal, Lyman vs. Knickerbocker Theatre Co., 5 F.2d 538, the court again sided with the Knickerbocker Theatre Company. The Lyman family, like all of the families impacted by the disaster, never received a cent.
On November 21, 1922, the United States Supreme Court refused to consider Knickerbocker appeals.
In 1923, a year after David’s death, tragedy struck the Lyman family again when David’s father died of tuberculosis. David and his father were buried side-by-side in Congressional Cemetery.
David’s mother, devastated by the loss of both her husband and oldest son, would never go to church again for “fear of crying.”
Charles Lyman, David’s cousin who just missed the collapse of the Knickerbocker’s roof by minutes, was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1923. After graduation in 1926, Charles received a commission to the US Navy.
Charles did very well in the Navy. In September of 1943, Charles was given command of the destroyer USS Lewis Hancock with its 327 officers and men. In 1945, Charles was given command of Destroyer Division 10 and became assistant chief of staff for operations of Amphibious Group Three, Pacific Fleet.
Charles led his men in multiple WWII battles and engagements, including assaults on the Marshall Islands, Guam, Leyte, Truk, and Lingayen Gulf. Charles was later promoted to rear admiral.
The family of Charles H. Lyman III would occasionally discuss the Knickerbocker tragedy and how a simple homework assignment had possibly saved his life.
The family of David H. Lyman, Jr., however, would rarely discuss the tragedy and most of their Knickerbocker-related information would remain hidden from the family for many years.
David’s mother, Josephine, never remarried after her husband died in 1923. She found various jobs as a building rent collector which allowed the family to live rent-free, she worked in a boarding house, and she worked in an antique shop.
The family lived paycheck-to-paycheck and struggled financially. Their Knickerbocker lawsuits had failed and they were unable to replace the father’s income.
Josephine’s brother, Dessie Trenholm, was a lawyer in New York and he came to the rescue with financial support and he also acted as a surrogate father for the other Lyman children, Frank and Lilla. Dessie may have also helped with the family’s Knickerbocker lawsuits.
As for David’s autographed baseball, his most prized possession, it was put into storage and kept safe by his mother, Josephine. In 1942, Josephine moved into the home of her son, Frank, in Bethesda, Maryland.
One spring day in 1945, eight year-old Frank Lyman, Jr., David’s nephew, found the baseball in his grandmother’s trunk. The signatures on the ball were meaningless to Frank but he knew the purpose of a baseball.
For weeks, Frank and his friends played catch with David’s baseball in the Lyman’s yard. Frank really liked his Marty Marion shortstop glove and the baseball got a lot of good use.
As spring turned to summer, and the games of catch continued, the cover of the baseball began to peal off. Frank’s last memory of David’s prized baseball was leaving it in a patch of ivy near his house.
On January 1946, Charles Lyman was on a Navy transport plane flying from Hawaii to California. He was returning home to the United States after a long tour at sea. The war was over.
Just as the California coastline came into view through the windows of the transport plane, Charles wrote the following note: “I am coming home from the wars and there is a song in my heart.”
Meanwhile, as Charles wrote his note on the Navy transport plane, an autographed baseball lay in a patch of ivy near the Lyman’s house in Bethesda, Maryland. The signatures on the ball were faded and the cover was mostly torn off. The baseball, once a prized possession of a very promising young man, was never retrieved from the ivy.
On a sunny, fall afternoon in November of 1978, the brother and sister of David Lyman, Jr., Frank and Lilla, stood in Congressional Cemetery admiring a set of new gravestones. Their mother, Josephine, passed away in 1957 and the family did not have the financial means to purchase a gravestone at the time of her death.
Twenty years later, Frank and Lilla finally purchased their mother a gravestone. In the process, they also replaced the gravestones of their brother and father who had died over 50 years earlier. The stones were cut from granite and would last a very long time.
Frank and Lilla paused to reflect and to take photos. Freshly dug dirt still lay around the outer edges of the gravestones. They finished taking photos and left the cemetery.
. . .
My research effort
On July 29, 2012, I entered the gates of Congressional Cemetery. Over my shoulder hung a Sony digital camera and in my hand was a cemetery map. On the map was a scribbled the name David H. Lyman with a set of grave coordinates.
David Lyman was one of 98 names on the Knickerbocker Theater death list that just happened to match a grave plot in Congressional Cemetery. I had used the search tool on Congressional’s website to discover whether any Knickerbocker victims were there, and, after unsuccessfully querying a number of names, the database indicated David was there and displayed his grave coordinates.
I was working on a book about the Knickerbocker Snowstorm and I wanted to photograph a gravestone of a Knickerbocker Theater victim. David’s gravestone would be the subject of one of my last photos for the book.
I got the idea of photographing a Knickerbocker grave from a reader on the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog. The reader commented on a blog post that I wrote by informing me that there were Knickerbocker graves in Congressional Cemetery. Since I needed a Knickerbocker-related photo and I had exhausted my supply vintage photos from1922, a Congressional Cemetery gravestone with a date of January 28, 1922 would have to suffice.
As I walked down Ingle Street in Congressional Cemetery, comparing the map’s grid with my current location, I counted down grid markings toward David’s gravesite. It was a hot summer afternoon and my plan was to take a few photos and get back home as quickly as possible.
I walked past David’s gravesite twice, by accident, but when I finally located his gravestone I did a double-take, literally.
There were two matching gravestones with the same name, David Hinkley Lyman. I quickly realized that a father and son were buried together, side-by-side, with matching gravestones. David H. Lyman, Jr. was the Knickerbocker victim and his father, who died a year later, in April 1923, was buried next to him.
I also noticed something curious about the gravestones. They were new. I had expected to find a bleached and weathered gravestone. Instead, I found two well-cut granite gravestones engraved with the same name that showed no signs of weathering or age.
I looked at the dates on the gravestones and did the math in my head. The younger Lyman, the Knickerbocker Theater victim, was only 17 years-old when he was killed. That is the same age as my oldest son. The father died in his mid-40s which is close to my age.
I suddenly felt a sense of sadness. The Knickerbocker Theater death toll had always been a statistic to me, a number that I had seen for many years in articles and stories about the Knickerbocker Snowstorm.
Now, as I stood at the grave of a father and son, possibly from a family similar to my own, I felt the personal side of the tragedy. The suffering that the family must have felt after their deaths was hard to imagine.
I found a Congressional Cemetery caretaker and showed him the gravestones. He verified that they were replacement stones, possibly installed in the 1970s. As I later learned (and mention above), David’s brother and sister had remembered David and his father decades after the Knickerbocker Theater disaster and gave them new gravestones.
I paused for a few minutes and took photographs of the Lyman gravestones. I also took a few landscape photographs of Congressional Cemetery.
After spending more than an hour in the cemetery I exited back down Ingle Street. It had not been a short trip to the cemetery like I had previously planned.
As I rode the Metro train home the sense of sadness I felt earlier turned to curiosity. Who was David? How did David’s father die? What happened to the family after the Knickerbocker Theater tragedy? Obviously, the family survived and was strong enough to return many years later to replace the gravestones. But why were the gravestones even replaced? The entire situation seemed quite perplexing.
As my Metro train pulled into the Vienna station I decided I was going to try to find answers to my questions. I wasn’t sure where to start my search or if there was anyone still alive who would know details from a tragedy that occurred 90 years ago.
Despite the uncertainties, I decided to begin a new research effort. I was going to track down the Lyman family to ask a few questions, and hopefully, someone would still remember.
And so my story begins...
I would like to thank the Lyman family, particularly Frank Lyman, Jr. and Marge Miller. I would also like to thank Debbie Chambers for assistance with this story.