Tragedy strikes a Lebanese Community, 1918

This post is written by Margie Stevens. Her research focuses on death certificates of Lebanese in the United States. Her regular contributions will feature stories of Lebanese in different states across the U.S. This month, her focus is on Kentucky.

Interior of the Pastime Theater

On the windy evening of Saturday, March 9, 1918, hundreds, including Rosa Azar and Tommy and Matry Thomas, gathered at the Pastime Theater to watch the silent film, “The Quiet Man [1].” There was standing room only at the Winchester, Kentucky theater. Even though it could hold 500 seated, at least 600 were in attendance. No one in the town imagined or would ever forget the tragedy that would soon occur. Two days earlier, on Thursday March 7th, a fire raged at the Luman building just south of the Pastime Theater. On Saturday, a witness reported to authorities that a large wall, a remnant of the fire, was swaying in 60mph winds [2]. Authorities decided that the wall was not a threat and let events continue as scheduled at the theater. At 7:45pm on March 9th, towards the end of “The Quiet Man,” the Luman building’s wall fell onto the Pastime, crushing the theater and people within. The sound was heard throughout the town and citizens rushed to the scene. The front of the theater and first ten rows were most severely hit. These rows were full of children including Rosa Azar and the Thomas brothers. Of the twelve people killed in the disaster, eight were under eighteen. Eleven people were killed on site and one died in the hospital. At least twenty others were critically injured while countless more went home with minor injuries.

Rosa Azar Death Certificate

For the small Lebanese community of Winchester, March 9th was truly tragic. Rosa Azar, 15, and Tommy Thomas, 11, were among the dead. Both were children of Lebanese immigrants who settled in Winchester after living in Lexington. Tommy was the son of George and Mary (Rowady) Thomas. George emigrated from Lebanon in 1891-1892 and his wife Mary followed him in 1903 with their oldest daughter Katie. They also had a daughter Anna and a son Matry at the time of the disaster. George first worked as a Huckster (peddler) with a wagon in Lexington, before moving to Winchester where he had a fruit store. The Thomas’ cousin Mike Rowady recounted that his father, Alex, gave Tommy and Matry “the money to go with his sister’s children . . . he grieved over that quite a bit.” Rosa Azar was the daughter of Gabour Azar and Sadie. Her father died when she was young and her mother remarried James Spears who, like George Thomas, worked in a fruit store. George Thomas provided details for both the death certificate of his son, and for Rosa Azar. It is possible that Rosa was one of “the sister’s children” that Tommy and his brother attended the theater with that night.

Tommie Thomas Death Certificate

Four days after the event at the Pastime Theater, funerals were held for Rosa and Tommy at St. Joseph Catholic Church and they were buried in Winchester Cemetery [4]. In 1920, the Spears, Thomas, and Rowady families were three of six Lebanese families in Winchester which indicates the grief felt by the community at the loss of the two children.

In 2013, Winchester citizens memorialized the events of March 9, 1918 with plaque, raising awareness of the Pastime Theater disaster and the lives that were lost 196 years ago. Notes: [1]: “Memorial Plaque to be presented at sight of theater wall’s collapse in Winchester,” Central Kentucky News, April 16, 2014 (accessed November 4, 2014). [2]: “Tragedy at the Pastime, 1918,” Winchester Sun Archives, March 7, 1998 (acessed November 4, 2014); “Dedication Sign to Honor Victims of 1918 Disaster in Clark County,”, April 17, 2014 (accessed November 4, 2014). [3]: “Dedication Sign to Honor Victims of 1918 Disaster in Clark County” [4]: “Pastime Theater Tradedy,” Clark County Kentucky Genealogy Trails, (accessed November 4, 2014)  

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