The Historian: The Knipe Sisters of New Hanover

This monument to the three Knipe sisters stands in the Falckner Swamp Reformed (now U.C.C.) lower cemetery.

The story of the Boyertown Opera House fire is so commonly known as to hardly bear repeating. However, for newcomers to the area, very briefly it is this.

On the night of Monday, January 13, 1908, 312 theatergoers and 60 actors were crowded into the second floor of the Rhoads’ Opera House, Washington Street and Philadelphia Avenue, in Boyertown to see “The Scottish Reformation.” The play was a fundraiser put on by a traveling company for St. John’s Lutheran Church, Boyertown, and it used local talent. Slides were shown between the acts.

In place of a bulb, early slide projectors used limelight. When a piece of a certain kind of limestone is heated to incandescence, it glows with a dazzling, white light which is where the term “limelight” originated. To heat the limestone to several thousand degrees, compressed illuminating gas and oxygen were mixed with regulators and burned beneath the limestone.

While the projectionist was showing slides, one or both hoses from the tanks holding the compressed gasses came loose. The escaping gas made a whooshing hiss. Someone back stage pushed the theater curtain aside to investigate the unfamiliar sound and knocked a kerosene lamp off the stage. It broke and burst into flames. Other actors kicked kerosene footlights aside, but they too broke. The front of the room was ablaze in an instant. Just at that time, some claim the highly flammable escaping gases reached a critical concentration and detonated.

Two windows in the room served as fire escapes but were unmarked. The one set of exit doors opened inward, and the panicked throng jammed against them. It’s probably best not to think about what went on inside that auditorium. Boyertown’s steam pumper was wrecked on the hill on Philadelphia Avenue killing fireman John Graver. Fire equipment was rushed by train from Pottstown, and the fire was extinguished by 1:00 a.m. Many people were burned getting out or injured jumping from windows. Space does not permit details here; interested readers should consult Mary Jane Schneider’s two very readable books “Midwinter Mourning” and “A Town in Tragedy.”

At dawn’s light, officials found the charred remains of 170 people. Almost everyone in the Boyertown area lost family or relatives or friends, coworkers, or acquaintances. Four of the victims were Jeremiah Roades age 52, owner of the Swamp Hotel (now named “Our Place”), and his three nieces whom he took to the play: Rachel Emily Knipe age 35; Lizzie Bertolet Knipe age 26; and Katie May Knipe age 23. They were the three daughters of a physician who lived in Swamp, Dr. Septimus A. Knipe (1841-1927), and Katharine B. Knipe (1841-1931) .

Dr. Knipe’s house, which he built about 1885, stands along the Swamp Pike at the entrance to Freed’s Market parking lot.

In 1867 Dr. Septimus Knipe took over the practice of his father Dr. Jacob Knipe (born 1804 in Gwynedd Township to farmer David Knipe). Dr. Jacob Knipe lived in Swamp, New Hanover, and continued a successful practice for at least 30 years. Three of his sons became physicians: Dr. Francis M. Knipe, who had a practice for a time in Frederick; Dr. Jacob O. Knipe, who had a practice in Norristown; and Dr. Septimus A. Knipe of whom we are speaking.

This author recalls The ruins of Dr. Jacob Knipe’s house. It lay in what is now the Gilbertsville Golf Course. Straight across Lutheran Road from the church a very long lane led to a crumbled brick chimney and a moldering pile of rubble with mature trees growing from it. Early atlases assign it and 85 acres to “Dr. Jacob Knipe.” It must have burned or been abandoned around the turn of the century.

Of the devastated Knipe Family, M.J. Schneider records this scene in her book “Midwinter Mourning”: “The Philadelphia Press reported on Dr. Septimus Knipe’s search for his daughters: ‘Bent with age and drawn with pain, Dr. Septimus Knipe arose from a sick bed in New Hanover and came here to search among the dead for his daughters. Among the grief stricken throng, the tottering form of the aged man drew forth many expressions of pity.

‘Bereft of all, the sufferers recognized in the heart-broken father one bowed lower than themselves.

‘Dr. Knipe found the bodies of all his daughters and watched, grief-bowed, as the shrouded forms were carried to a waiting hearse.’ ”

“Midwinter Mourning” goes on to report that “A funeral for the three sisters was held Monday, January 20, at the Knipe home, New Hanover Township. They were buried at the lower Falkner Swamp Reformed cemetery.

“An area newspaper reported: ‘…The three oak caskets were arranged side by side in the parlor and hundreds of people were unable to get into the house.

Rev. J.J. Kline of Swamp Lutheran conducted the service.

‘The Knipes have been prominent in the medical profession for many years and there were nearly a dozen Knipes with the title of M.D. present at the funeral.’”

Legislation was passed in Harrisburg the next year requiring doors on public buildings to open outward; seating to be limited; auditoriums to have multiple, clearly marked fire escapes; stages to have fire extinguishers; and projection booths to be enclosed in fireproof material.