Note: I found the story of Agnes Mellon and her date to the Knickerbocker Theater while I was researching David H. Lyman. I was instantly drawn to Agnes and her story. Perhaps it was the photo of Agnes above, with her sad and distant eyes, or maybe it was my own memories of dates at the theater. Regardless of the reason, I find the story of Agnes to be quite unique and painfully sad. Her story is documented below.
Agnes Mellon was a beautiful young woman. That was the first comment most people made about her. Even her older sister, Grace, was inclined to say that Agnes was “quite a looker.”
But Agnes had seen her share of tragedy during childhood. Agnes’ mother died six months after Agnes was born and her father died when Agnes was only seven years-old. Agnes’ grandmother, Mary Quinn, and her two aunts, Aunt Marie and Aunt Agnes, moved Agnes to Ventor, New Jersey and raised her until she was 18 years-old.
Read below for the rest of the story of Agnes Mellon.
At the age of 18, Agnes moved back to Washington, D.C. and lived as a lodger in the Duvall household with friends. Later, Agnes moved in with her sister Emma, a widow, who also lived in Washington.
Emma helped Agnes find a job as a clerk at the National Geographic Society. Agnes enjoyed working for National Geographic and she quickly made friends.
As the New Year of 1922 rang in, Agnes had turned 19. Since her move to Washington, Agnes had found a great job and she also had met a nice, young man who lived in Georgetown named James H. Hoffman.
Agnes and James had started a serious relationship and they began to talk of marriage. Life was going well for Agnes and the year ahead looked promising.
Everything changed one snowy Saturday evening on January 28, 1922. Agnes and James decided to go on a date to the Knickerbocker Theater. It was comedy night at the Knickerbocker and the featured movie, ”Get-rich-quick Wallingford,” was scheduled to start at 9 p.m. They left together for the theater.
On the way to the Knickerbocker Theater, Agnes and James stopped at the house of Agnes’ older sister, Grace Madert. They were hoping that Grace would join them for the show.
What followed next was a conversation that was well-remembered and recounted many times by the Madert family:
There was a knock at the door. Grace answered and found Agnes and James standing outside in the snow. Agnes and James entered the house and asked Grace if she wanted to “brave the storm” to go see a movie at the Knickerbocker Theater.
Grace replied, “Oh Agnes, maybe if the weather wasn’t so bad we would ... but I don’t think tonight is right for us. You kids go ahead and have a good time”
Agnes said, “What about Jack? ... he’d like to go, wouldn’t you Jack?”
Jack was Grace’s five year-old son who had never seen a motion picture show. Jack, who was standing near Grace, would always remember that moment for the rest of his life. He really wanted to go to the theater with Agnes to see his first movie.
Grace replied, “Jack is just getting over a bad chest cold and really shouldn’t be out in this weather... but, we’ll do it again some other time.”
Agnes said, “It will be alright, Grace, we’ll bundle him up real good and he’ll have a great time. I’ll just hold him in my lap.”
Grace said, “He’s not going and that’s that. I don’t need him coming down with pneumonia.”
Agnes paused and said, “Well, OK then... We gotta go or we’ll miss the start.”
When Agnes and James arrived at the theater the movie’s first scene had just started to roll. In the front of the theater, the orchestra was playing.
What happened next can be pieced together through eyewitness reports, the account from James, and the coroner’s report:
When Agnes and James walked into the lobby of the Knickerbocker Theater its roof was strained by the weight of the snow and may have started to crack. Agnes and James, knowing they were late, did not stop at the coat check in the lobby and they did not pause to remove their coats.
The couple immediately passed through the lobby and entered the theater. Agnes was leading the way, a step or two ahead of James.
Suddenly, the roof separated from the walls of the theater and fell straight down, in one large piece. From wall-to-wall and corner-to-corner, the roof fell as one flat surface.
Agnes and James had entered the theater as the roof crashed down. It is possible that James hesitated near the theater’s doorway, sensing that something was wrong. What is known, however, is that Agnes and James were both inside the theater and James was near the doorway to the lobby.
As the roof fell, it compressed the air inside the theater which created a massive wind gust that blew out the theater’s windows and doors. James, who was near the theater’s doorway, was blown into the lobby. James landed “without a scratch.” The roof of the lobby did not collapse so everyone in the lobby was unharmed.
An hour or two later there was another knock at Grace’s front door. It was a neighbor with the alarming news that the Knickerbocker Theater had just collapsed. Grace and her husband, John, immediately thought of Agnes.
John, who was a well-respected dentist in Washington, rushed out into the storm bound for the Knickerbocker Theater, hoping to find Agnes.
When John arrived at the scene, he found that police lines were drawn around the theater and a crowd had assembled to watch the rescue effort. Police and fire rescue workers were running the effort.
Bodies were being carried out of the theater and they were laid down in rows on the snow-covered sidewalk, adjacent to the theater. The rescuer workers were using anything available to cover the victims, including coats, sheets, and blankets.
John pleaded with the police to let him inside their lines to look for Agnes, to examine the bodies, and to assist. The police refused. He was told to wait until a morgue was opened. John went back home without news of Agnes.
Initially, Agnes was listed as “unknown.” Like many of the Knickerbocker victims, Agnes had a thick layer of plaster dust which coated her face making it difficult for family members to recognize her among the dozens of plaster-coated bodies in the morgue.
It took a day or two before Agnes’ brother, Charles Leo, finally recognized Agnes in the morgue. Leo was able to identify his sister by the khaki knickerbockers that she was wearing — a truly sad irony. Agnes was also wearing a winter coat made of brown leather overtop of a light brown sweater.
After the funeral, James Hoffman, Agnes’ boyfriend, began to visit Grace. It is not certain if James was visiting to help with his own mourning or to offer assistance to Grace. Regardless of the reason for the visits by James, Grace grew bitter.
When Grace saw James she couldn’t help but think: Why was he spared and Agnes was not? Their family had already suffered so much tragedy having lost a mother, father, and an older sister. It wasn’t fair to take Agnes too. James was a reminder of that.
Over time, James ended his visits to see Grace. The story passed down through the Madert family was that James never married.
The year was 1958 and Jack Madert was taking his family to the movies. It had been 36 years since Agnes invited him to the Knickerbocker Theater when he was five years-old. Jack, now 41 years-old, had a family of his own with a young son.
Jack decided to take his family to seeThe 7th Voyage of Sinbad which was playing at the Ambassador Theater. The Ambassador Theater had been built on the site of the Knickerbocker Theater in 1923 and the builders used the Knickerbocker Theater’s outer walls as part of its structure.
When the family arrived at the theater, Jack’s wife was uneasy. It had been 36 years since the Knickerbocker Theater disaster and Jack still needed to reassure his wife that the Ambassador Theater was safe.
The trip to the movies went well for the family and the scariest part of the outing was the movie’s Cyclops creature which completely terrified Jack’s young son, John. John can still remember that trip, even today.
Two years later, on a cold, winter day in 1960, John saw his grandmother, Grace, weeping next to a window in their house. John walked over to Grace and noticed that she was looking out the window.
Outside, snow was falling and the ground was turning white. John asked his grandmother, “What’s wrong, Nanny Grace?”
Grace, staring at the falling snow, responded, “Poor Agnes. Poor, poor Agnes... I was just thinking of my little sister.”
My research effort
I stumbled upon the story of Agnes Mellon on Ancestry.com while I was researching David H. Lyman. I found a message titled, Miss Agnes Mellon, that was posted on April 23, 2012. Below is the message:
Agnes was on a date. Her date was blown into the lobby and he survived. Agnes was covered in plaster and was originally listed as an unknown. She was identified by her brother, Charles Leo Mellon, from her clothing. Very sad occasion for the family and “Leo” would always cry when he thought of her. Leo was my grandfather.
I was happy to see that it was a recent post. I emailed the author, Kathy Baker, and she sent me more information about Agnes. Kathy also gave me contact information for another family member, John Madert, III, who is Jack’s son.
I received wonderful photos and stories, and the family members were more than happy to help with my research project.
After I received all of the information about Agnes, I did a bit of detective work to try to figure out the reason why Agnes was crushed by the roof while James was blown into the lobby.
Below are the facts with an explanation of how I made my deductions:
Agnes’ boyfriend, James, mentioned that he was blown from the theater into the lobby. That story is consistent with multiple accounts about the Knickerbocker Theater’s windows and doors being blown out when the roof came down. It’s also consistent with a report which stated that the roof fell as one large, flat surface.
Because the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater fell flat, it violently pushed out the air below through any available opening, particularly doors and windows. The resulting wind gust could have easily blown James into the lobby, just like he stated.
At the moment the roof collapsed, James must have been standing close to the theater’s door. He could not have been too far into the theater and he could not have been in a seat. Agnes was probably farther away from the door than James, or not aligned with the door.
Because Agnes and James were running slightly late for the movie, and since the roof collapse occurred just after the start of the movie, I deduced the couple walked into the theater seconds before the roof fell.
That assumption is supported by the report that Agnes was found in the rubble wearing her winter coat. If Agnes had taken her seat and settled in for the movie, she probably would have removed her coat which would have been still wet from the snowstorm.
After the collapse of the roof, Agnes died of shock under the rubble. It’s possible she was under the collapsed balcony at the back of the theater. Victims under the balcony were buried for a very long time. It took 20 hours to rescue a few of the victims from under the balcony. It is not known how long Agnes was buried.
While it’s not exactly certain what happened to Agnes that night in the theater, it is clear is that Agnes had made quite an impression on her family and friends before the disaster. The loss of Agnes was grieved for many years.
This story is a remembrance and tribute to her life and her family, 90 years after that terrible, snowy night in 1922.
Note: I would like to thank John Madert, Kathy Baker, Lisa Edkins, Jeff Edkins, and Debbie Chambers for information, photos, and assistance with this article.