Note: This is my fourth article based from interviews with Washington-area families who had a family member involved in the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster of January 28, 1922. As with my first three articles (see Lyman, Mellon, and Natiello), I have documented the family stories that have been passed down by word-of-mouth over the past 91 years. This story is unique, however, because it involves a Washington Post family, the Daly family, and the coverage of the news that followed the disaster. I have included a story summary and the full story below.
John Jay Daly, the Washington Post’s drama critic, chose an aisle seat in the back row of the Knickerbocker Theatre to watch the silent film, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford. The date was January 28, 1922 and Daly had braved a record-breaking snowstorm to review the newly-released comedy film for his drama column in the Washington Post.
Within several minutes after Daly settled into his seat, small chunks of plaster began to fall from the ceiling. At the same moment, a cloud of plaster dust slowly expanded in the air above the audience and the orchestra. The dust cloud spewed from a large crack that suddenly formed in the theater’s ceiling and divided the ceiling down the middle.
Daly, sensing that something was wrong, decided to take a few quick steps from his theater seat to the nearby lobby. Seconds later, the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre, weighed down by two feet of snow, crashed down to the auditorium floor and onto the heads of hundreds of movie patrons. The theater’s balcony, impacted by the falling roof, also broke free from its moorings and slammed to the ground, breaking into massive chunks of concrete and steel.
The roof of the lobby did not collapse, however, and Daly was unharmed. The Washington Post’s drama critic stood in lobby for a brief moment, gazing out onto the horrible aftermath with disbelief. He had just witnessed what would later be called Washington’s greatest disaster and he had stepped into the lobby just in time to avoid his own death.
For the next several days, Daly would be the Washington Post’s top reporter and writer. His coverage of the disaster would put himself and his newspaper into the spotlight as the entire nation waited for news about the disaster, the rescue effort, and the review of building codes that suddenly seemed suspect and inadequate.
Daly would later be recruited to join national magazines and news syndicates to cover world news. His life and career would be changed forever.
The Full Story:
It was a late spring day in 1911 when John Jay Daly announced to his family that he was going to be a sports writer for the Washington Post. He chose to make the announcement the day before he was scheduled to graduate from Catholic University with a degree in mechanical engineering.
John Jay Daly, who was nicknamed Jack, loved to write stories and poetry. During his senior year at Catholic University, he wrote for the school paper and submitted his work to the Washington Post. On May 7, 1911, he had a breakthrough moment: The Washington Post chose to run one of his satirical poems titled, “BASEBALL — EEN WASHEENTON” in their sports section. The poem, quite funny but rather inappropriate by today’s standards of journalism, was well-received by the public.
The success of the poem was the encouragement that Jack needed to make the decision to pursue writing and journalism after graduation and not begin a career in mechanical engineering. It also helped Jack to get a job offer from the Washington Post.
Thomas Daly, Jack’s father, was very unhappy with his son’s announcement about his Washington Post job opportunity. By family accounts, Thomas was absolutely shocked and furious. He told Jack, “No son of mine is going to be a newspaper man.” And Thomas was steadfast in that belief.
Many years earlier, Thomas Daly had worked for the Washington Post in their print and composing room, through most of the 1870s and 1880s. Thomas had been part of the Washington Post’s transition from the cumbersome letterset printing with moveable type to the new “hot press” technology called Linotype.
The job of printing a newspaper in the late nineteenth century was difficult and tedious, even with the new Linotype machines, and Thomas did not have fond memories of the Washington Post and of the newspaper industry in general. In addition, Thomas had just paid for his son’s education at Catholic University to study mechanical engineering, not journalism and sports.
Thomas Daly insisted to his son that he pursue engineering after school but Jack was determined to be a writer. The father and son argued bitterly. Both men were very stubborn and a compromise was not met.
The debate ended in a stalemate and the relationship between the father and son would never be the same. Decades later, Jack’s daughter, Ginny, would say her father was disowned that day for choosing to work for the Washington Post. Jack never reconciled with his father and years later referred to him only as, “The Old Man.”
The morning after the family argument, Jack graduated from Catholic University. Later that day, during the afternoon, he started his new job as a sports writer with the Washington Post. Jack wasted no time with getting started in his new career.
Jack spent several years with the Washington Post covering sports and then found work with the New Britain Herald in Connecticut as an editor in 1917. During WWI, Jack served in Europe with the Army Intelligence Corps. After the war, Jack found work with the New York American and the San Antonio Light publications. In 1921, Jack decided to return to the Washington Post, not as a sports writer, but instead taking a job as their drama critic.
Jack’s drama column was called, “Footlights and Shadows.” Jack reviewed plays and films in both Washington, D.C. and New York City. His patch covered 88 theaters and playhouses in the two cities.
On the evening of January 28, 1922, Jack walked to the Knickerbocker Theatre in a heavy snowstorm. The snowstorm, the single largest snow event in official Washington records, was winding down after it had deposited over two feet of snow on the city. The weight of the snow put a severe burden on the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre.
Jack’s trip to the theater that evening was to review the new silent film, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, for his column in the Washington Post. The movie was a comedy and it had been released the previous month, on December 4, 1921. Despite the storm, a crowd of over 300 people filled the theater for the showing.
Jack knew the manager of the Knickerbocker Theatre and he had made an agreement that he could walk the floor of the theater during any show. Jack felt that he could only give a proper review of a show if he sat in both the best seat in the house and in the cheap seats. He would move from the front of the theater to the back of the theater and up to the balcony during the same show. He would always sit near the aisle so he could easily change seats.
For the movie Get-Rich-Wallingford, Jack decided to start with the cheap seats, a last row aisle seat next to the lobby door. His seat selection proved to be a very fortunate choice on that snowy January evening.
As clock struck 9:00 p.m. the movie began to roll. The orchestra played a lively tune to accompany the movie’s opening scene. Almost immediately, the film produced laughs in the audience.
Within a couple of minutes after the start of the movie, small chunks of plaster began to fall from the ceiling. A cloud of plaster dust slowly expanded in the air above the audience and the orchestra. The dust cloud spewed from a large crack that had formed and divided the theater’s ceiling down the middle.
Jack, sensing that something was wrong, decided to quickly move from his seat into the lobby. Seconds later, the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre, weighed down by two feet of snow, crashed down to the auditorium floor and onto the heads of hundreds of movie patrons. The theater’s balcony, impacted by the falling roof, also broke free from its moorings and slammed to the ground, breaking into massive chunks of concrete and steel.
The roof of the lobby did not collapse, however, and Jack was unharmed. The Washington Post’s drama critic stood in lobby for a brief moment, gazing out onto the horrible aftermath with disbelief. He had just witnessed what would later be called Washington’s greatest disaster and he had stepped into the lobby just in time to avoid his own death.
Jack ran out of the theater to Peoples Drug Store which was located across the street. The drug store had a wall phone that he could use to report the disaster.
Jack quickly called the Washington Post’s managing editor and explained what had happened. As Jack spoke, a man covered in plaster dust entered the drug store. He tried to wrench the phone from Jack’s hand saying, “My wife is dying – give me the phone.”
Jack pushed him away and said he was calling for help. The man threatened, “I’ll knock you out!” Jack explained that he was talking to the Washington Post and they were in the process of calling for help. The frantic man, convinced that Jack was telling the truth, left the store and ran back to his wife.
The editor told Jack to go cover the story and report back to the Washington Post that same night. He told Jack that he would report the disaster to the authorities.
The Washington Post’s editor then called the local switchboard operator and explained what had happened at the theater. The Post later ran a story about the first telephone call to the operator and how the other operators on duty divided the city between themselves and simultaneously made calls to every police station, hospital, and doctor in Washington, notifying them of the disaster. In the article, the Washington Post never claimed credit for making the call. That piece of the story would be passed down through the Daly family.
Jack went back into the Knickerbocker Theatre and quickly met a man named Roger Whitcomb of New York City who said he purchased the last ticket to the show. He was standing in the lobby when the roof crashed down. Whitcomb exclaimed to Jack, “Great God! It was the most heart-rendering thing I ever want to witness.” Whitcomb said the crash occurred a few minutes past 9:00 p.m.
Within minutes, Jack watched the first body carried out of the theater. It was Mrs. B. H. Covall of Washington, D.C. Her husband had navigated through the snow with his automobile and dropped his wife and niece off at the theater’s door. Moments later, the roof collapsed. When Mr. Covall arrived back at the theater he found his wife on the floor of the nearby candy shop barely breathing. He watched his wife take her last breath. Mr. Covall remarked to Jack with a tear in his eye, “She died without recognizing me.”
Jack then turned his attention to a rescue effort of a 15 year-old boy trapped under concrete. The boy’s lower body was crushed under blocks of concrete that were much too heavy for the rescue workers to move. Automobile jacks were immediately stripped from cars outside the theater and the jacks were used to try to lift the concrete blocks. The concrete did not budge under the force of the small car jacks.
The boy remained calm and never complained as the rescue workers tried to lift the concrete. A doctor on site administered first aid as the rescue workers continued to push on the concrete blocks. The doctor turned to Jack and said, “That lad is as brave as any man who ever went into the trenches. By God, they had a chance in the trenches. He has none.”
A Catholic priest soon arrived. It was Father John Floersch of St. Paul’s parish. He prayed for all of the individuals who were still trapped under the rubble and he gave them absolution, regardless of their faith. While Father John prayed, moans could be heard from under the rubble. After his prayers, the priest joined in with the rescue effort.
Jack spent a couple of hours helping inside the theater and documenting the sights and sounds he saw that night. He watched as the nearby candy shop was slowly turned into a make-shift hospital. He also noted that the power was never lost to the theater’s signs. Outside, all of the Knickerbocker’s lights and signs glowed brightly, giving a false impression to the horror that existed within the theater’s walls. Inside, 98 were killed and 133 injured.
Later that night, Jack rushed back to the Washington Post headquarters to write his story. In the 1920s, the Washington Post gave all of their reporters cab fare for each assignment, to expedite their trip back to the Post. On that evening, the cabs were not running on the snowy streets of Washington but it would not have mattered to Jack. Jack always pocketed the cab fare for each story and walked instead. He said the walk was good exercise and he could earn a little extra money for his stories.
Upon arriving at the Washington Post, Jack immediately sat down at his Underwood typewriter and began writing the story. He worked through the night and typed until his fingers ached. Meanwhile, other reporters served him coffee and gave him updates regarding the rescue effort. The Washington Post’s drama critic had suddenly become the paper’s top reporter, writing a review of a real-life drama on a magnitude that the city had never experienced.
In the early morning hours of January 29, 1922, Jack submitted a 5,000 word article about the tragedy. His article included the following the lines: “There was applause and laughter following a particularly clever comedy situation. There was a crash that struck terror into the hearts a-thrill with merriment. There was a gust of wind, a rushing of air that blew open the closed doors of the theater – and then, after one concerted groan, there was silence – and Crandall’s Knickerbocker theater, previously the temple of mirth, had been transformed into a tomb.”
For the next several days, Jack continued to write articles about the Knickerbocker disaster, the rescue effort, and investigations into building codes that suddenly were viewed as suspect and inadequate.
The Knickerbocker tragedy and the subsequent events that unfolded became “Jack’s story” which was read and followed across the nation. He gained immediate attention and a reputation as an excellent reporter and writer that could deliver under pressure.
Jack received a variety of job offers from other papers, magazines, and news wire services. For the next several years, however, Jack continued to work for the Washington Post.
During a review of a Christmas play at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the mid-1920s, Jack met a woman named Mary Tinley. Jack and Mary wed in September 1926 and the employees of the Washington Post collected money to purchase the newlyweds a set of bedroom furniture. It was evident that Jack was quite popular at the Washington Post.
Finally, the lure of outside jobs proved too much for the ambitious reporter. He accepted a job working for Newsweek in New York City. He also wrote for the news syndicate, North American Newspaper Alliance, and traveled to Europe to document Hitler’s rise to power.
Jack returned to Washington in 1929 and rejoined the Washington Post for the third time. During the next several years, Jack wrote a weekly column called, “Daily O’Currences” which followed a fictional character named “Luella” and her imaginary, but difficult life at home with her husband. Jack also restarted his drama column, “Footlights and Shadows,” and, in addition, he covered local and world news.
During this time period, Jack also wrote for the Washington Post’s competitor, the Evening Star. Jack used the pseudonym, Neil Sheridan, to protect his identity from the Washington Post. Many years later, in the 1940s, Jack joined the Evening Star as a featured writer. In addition to writing, Jack did news broadcasts for radio station WMAL.
By 1948, Jack’s family had grown and he had become established as a well-known writer and journalist. In the spring of that year, Parents’ Magazine selected the Daly family as “America’s Outstanding Family.” The award was presented on May 6, 1948 during “National Family Week.”
During the family’s photo shoot for the award, Washington News photographer, Aaron Miller, suggested to the family that they do a spoof of the rigid, traditional family portraits of past decades. The family was happy to play along and they posed accordingly.
Parents’ Magazine loved the spoof photo and ran it as their choice image to document the award that year.
The readers also loved the photo and Life Magazine chose to run the same spoof in their publication with a full-page spread. It appeared in the May 17, 1948 issue of Life Magazine with the title, “Outstanding Family Gently Kids the Award that it Won.”
The popularity of the photo also resulted in a TV appearance by the Daly family, which was a very unusual occurrence in 1948.
Twenty years later, in 1968, the family decided to recreate the spoof photo that was a big hit two decades earlier. This time, the photo was for the family, not for a magazine or award.
On December 16, 1976, Jack died of cancer in Georgetown University Hospital. He was 88 years-old. The Washington Post ran an article titled, “John J. Daly, 88, Newsman, Poet, Dies”. A photo and brief history of Jack’s life was included in the article.
Ultimately, Jack’s best known work is a poem called, “A Toast to the Flag” that he wrote at the start of his career, in 1916. The poem became very popular and was recited by school kids and organizations for decades. Jack’s articles about the Knickerbocker Theatre Disaster, however, was the group of work that catapulted him into prominence in the world of journalism, opening doors to national publications that may not have been open and available to a regional drama critic.
Over the course of his career, Jack wrote for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Associated Press, Cosmopolitan, Readers Digest, Esquire, The Evening Star, The Washingtonian, Nation’s Business, The New Republic, and many other publications.
Looking back at that spring day in 1911 when Thomas Daly exclaimed, “No son of mine is going to be a newspaper man,” Thomas could never have imagined what his son would accomplish in the decades that followed. Jack not only became an excellent “newspaper man” but he also became a poet, an author, and a broadcaster. Jack’s kids and their kids would also pursue journalism and many would be employed at the Washington Post for years to follow. No doubt, even the stubborn Thomas Daly would have been proud of his son’s accomplishments.
John Jay Daly and his wife, Mary, had seven children, twenty grandchildren, and 34 great grandchildren. Many of the family members pursued journalism and communications. Four generations of the Daly family have worked for the Washington Post at various times in various roles since the 1870s. Some of the family members continue to work in the field of journalism today.
Note, in one of the emails I recently received from John Jay Daly’s granddaughter, Maureen Arnson, she wrote, “Thank you for keeping this story alive in D.C. history.” I have received this message in various forms from the other Knickerbocker families and from many Washington Post readers. It’s this type of message that helps to keep me motivated to dig into the history and document these stories before they are lost. After 90+ years, memories of Knickerbocker stories are fading away.
Thanks to Ginny Daly, Maureen Arnson, and Mary Gorman for providing information and photos for this article.