Lovick Schoolfield and The Knickerbocker Theater Disaster

Readers of this blog might recognize the Schoolfield name from a previous post on one of Lovick’s cousins, Kate.

Danville locals have stronger ties to the family through its affiliation with Dan River Mills, once one of the city’s largest employers.

When I hear the name “Schoolfield” I usually associate it with a crumbling economy and factory buildings being dismantled brick-by-brick.

But I also think about one of the Schoolfields who died tragically while out catching a movie in the winter of 1922.

William “Lovick” Schoolfield was the son of James E. and Lucy France Schoolfield. James was a prominent businessman and later an evangelist. Lovick grew up in the family home at 750 Main Street with his siblings and parents. His obituary states that he was well-liked in town and had a reputation for living a “clean, manly life.”2

After graduating from St. Paul’s School in Long Island, NY he was employed at New York’s United Rubber Company. The first job of his business career was cut short by his enlistment in the Navy in 1917, where he served until after the war and was honorably discharged. He returned to Danville to recuperate from influenza, an illness which also sent him to Baltimore for treatment.

Just a few weeks before his death he went to Washington, DC on business. Three of his siblings (Sue, Samuel, and Lucille) and their mother were in DC at that time.

While his siblings were residents of that area, his mother may have been visiting for the winter. Later she also moved nearer to her surviving family.2  (James E. had passed away by this time.)

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division

The blizzard of January 1922, often called the Great Knickerbocker Snowstorm, had already dropped over two feet of snow on DC by the evening of January 28.

Inclement weather didn’t prevent nearly 300 people from attending a screening of the comedic film “Get-Rick-Quick Wallingford” at the Knickerbocker Theater, a building which had a flat roof. Shortly after 9 p.m. the roof began to collapse under the heavy snow as the orchestra played after the end of the movie.

Florida Representative John Smithwick, who survived the disaster, said that he could see and hear the ceiling begin to crack just before plaster began to fall. As pieces of the roof caved in on the people still inside the theater, he described a scene of absolute chaos: the sounds of women and children screaming, men yelling, and people crying out in agony along with the roaring avalanche of falling beams, steel, concrete, other debris, and snow.1  (A silent news reel of the aftermath can be seen here.)

By 11 p.m. nearly 3,000 people had converged upon the scene, making rescue efforts difficult. Marines were called in to restore order and assist police and firemen free people pinned underneath the rubble and retrieve the bodies of those who had died. Nearby shops were opened as temporary hospitals and locals supplied the fatigued rescue workers with food and hot drinks. There were accounts of peoples’ limbs having to be amputated in order to remove them from the debris. Other victims who survived the initial collapse laid pinned in the wreckage up to twelve hours waiting to be extracted with the bodies of those who had attended the film with in sight. How long Lovick’s suffering lasted is not known.

The death toll was initially believed to be as high as 104 but was eventually listed as 98 dead and 133 injured. Manslaughter indictments were brought against several contractors and architects who had designed and built the Knickerbocker, but those charges were dismissed because no one could determine who was actually liable.3

As of the morning of January 31, Lovick’s body had not arrived back in Danville but was expected to be shipped in on a train that evening. His mother was reported to be too prostrated to come back to Danville for the services.2

Lovick was buried in Green Hill Cemetery among other members of his family, his marker not even giving so much as a hint as to the terror he probably felt during the last moments of his life, on a night when he had only expected to escape the boredom of being snowed in to watch a moving picture.

Lovick (L) with Bernard Pritchett, possibly 1903 (Image courtesy of Bobby Ricketts)

1 “Awful Scene in Crash Described” The Bee. 30 Jan. 1922.
2 “Body of William L. Schoolfield to Reach Here Today” The Bee 31 Jan. 1922.
3 “Drop Disaster Indictments” The Bee 25 July 1922.

*Originally published in 2016.

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