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The Tragic Night at Knickerbocker Theatre: a Deadly Snowstorm’s Legacy

On January 28, 1922, after two days of being stuck at home because of the biggest snowstorm in Washington D.C’s history, Thomas Fleming (January 25, 1851 – January 28, 1922), John Paton Fleming (April 14, 1898 – January 28, 1922), and Mary Lee Fleming (April 7, 1892 – January 28, 1922) decided to go and watch two new movies that night at the nearby Randall’s Knickerbocker Theatre. Since they lived at 1801 Wyoming Avenue NW, it was easy for them to walk to the theatre at 18th and Columbia Road NW, even though there was a lot of snow since it was only about a mile away. They thought they could get good seats in the front since the theatre wouldn’t be crowded. The first movie, “School Days,” started at 7:30 p.m. The “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford” feature movie started at 9:00 p.m. An orchestra would play live music throughout both movies.

Thomas was the son of Dr. Robert Fleming Fleming (the use of the double Fleming is common in the family) and Mary Elizabeth Lee Fleming – buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia – who bought the Lee-Fendall House in 1870. The Flemings are also related to Richard Bland Lee and, according to the family, to Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States.

John worked as an examiner at the U.S. Patent Office while Mary Lee was getting ready to go to the Blue Ridge Mountains as a missionary.

Unknown to them, while they were enjoying the movie, a lot of heavy snow, more than 28 inches, had put a lot of strain on the Knickerbocker’s flat roof. Suddenly, a loud noise was heard at 9:00 p.m., right when the second movie was starting. Just after that, the ceiling and top of the theater collapsed onto the concrete balcony, and then both collapsed, making a lot of debris and snow fall onto the section where people were sitting to watch the movie. The falling debris instantly buried the moviegoers under concrete, plaster, and twisted steel beams. The Flemings and many others from Washington, including former Congressman Andrew Jackson Barchfeld, were crushed to death.

Thomas Fleming was killed along with his son John and daughter Mary Lee in the Knickerbocker Theatre roof collapse on January 28, 1922. From the pamphlet Thomas Fleming 1881 – 1941, courtesy of the Fleming family.

As news spread about the terrible event, brave people from Washington came together to organize a rescue mission. This mission involved two groups of Marines from two different locations: the Marine Barracks at 8th and I Street SE in Washington, DC, and the Pan American Building. There were also soldiers stationed across the Potomac River at Fort Myers in Arlington, Virginia, who participated. The soldiers were under the command of Major George S. Patton, who later became famous during World War II. Major Patton led the rescue effort.

The Marines came first and joined the police, firefighters, and regular people searching through the debris to find people still alive. In the beginning, they found many people who survived, but they also found many people who died, including a man sitting in a chair in a theater. The debris didn’t hurt him, but he died because he was shocked by what happened.

Interior of the Knickerbocker Theatre. Image from Library of Congress.

The Army came later after facing difficulties reaching the location. They eventually decided to use Army mules to assist in pulling military trucks through the snow-covered streets of Washington, D.C. Initially, they discovered some survivors. However, as the night progressed, their focus shifted to retrieving the deceased.

Patton later wrote to his father, saying, “They were pretty much flattened.” He also mentioned, “Many of the heads were only three or four inches thick. This made it difficult to recognize people because they had a purplish color.” 1Ambrose, Kevin. Knickerbocker Stories. Published by Historical Enterprises. 2021. Pg 59.

Many people were so badly mangled that their bodies couldn’t be recognized. Thomas Fleming was only identified in the morgue by his watch and other personal belongings, as described in the booklet titled “Thomas Fleming 1881 – 1941”, privately published by the Fleming family in 1981. Ninety-eight individuals died in the tragedy, and 133 others were hurt.

The three Flemings were laid to rest in the Presbyterian Cemetery, close to their relatives, the Dixons and Quisenberrys. Even today, their descendants still grieve their passing.

Investigators found that the collapse happened because the structure was not designed well and was under a lot of stress from the weight of the snow. Families of the victims tried to hold someone responsible through lawsuits, but no one was held accountable. After the disaster, two more people associated with the theater, the architect Reginald Geare, and the owner Harry Crandall, tragically took their own lives in 1927 and 1937, respectively.

Fleming family plot in the Presbyterian Cemetery. Also buried in the plot is Robert Fleming Fleming, who ran an automotive dealership in Washington, his wife, Ida von Lengerke Fleming, and his infant sister Ann Paton Fleming. Image by D. Heiby.

Another person who was affected by the disaster was Agnes Mellon. She was out on a date with a friend when the debris fell on her and caused her death. The only way her family could identify her was by the khaki shorts she was wearing. Agnes’ sister, Grace, was married to Dr. John Harmon Madert. Interestingly, Samuel Madert Jr., Dr. Madert’s great-nephew, is buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery close to the Flemings.

According to an article published by the Washington Post on November 15, 2019, the Knickerbocker Snowstorm is considered the most critical snowstorm in the history of Washington, D.C.

Sources of Information

Ambrose, Kevin. Knickerbocker Stories. Published by Historical Enterprises. 2021.

Official website of The Washington Post and the article “100 years later, a call for a Knickerbocker Theatre memorial“. Accessed January 30, 2022.

  • 1
    Ambrose, Kevin. Knickerbocker Stories. Published by Historical Enterprises. 2021. Pg 59.
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By David

Hello. With a passion for bringing history to life, I serve my community as a public historian and cemetery superintendent. My journey has led me to own businesses, conduct Civil War battlefield tours and research Alexandria’s cemeteries.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within Alexandria's Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. The Presbyterian Cemetery has close ties to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, situated one mile east, where my family has worshipped for two generations. My parents are laid to rest in this cemetery, which holds a special place in my heart.

Most weekends, you can find me leading tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, where thirteen cemeteries are located, with over 35,000 buried. Considered one of the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States, I weave my enthusiasm for teaching with the stories of those interred there. I also manage a blog focused on all the cemeteries in Alexandria where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized.

In addition, I'm an active Board Member of both the Alexandria Historical Society and Lee-Fendall House Museum. As part of the Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium, I diligently preserve endangered burial sites throughout the region.

If Alexandria’s history captivates you, I invite you to join one of my cemetery tours, read my blog on memorializing souls buried across the city’s cemeteries, or connect with me on social media. I find joy and purpose in bringing Alexandria’s rich past to life and serving my community.

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