Bullock’s screening outraged reform-minded clergy and city councilmen. According to The Motion Picture World, “Prominent citizens, clerical and lay, united in condemnation of the fireOutside the Cleveland area, away from that city’s moral watchdogs and suffering survivors, the holocaust may have been delivered as promised. pictures.” “They ought to be suppressed,” said the Reverend Worth Tippy. “We want to forget the horrible scenes of the fire, not have them flaunted in the faces of parents who have lost children in the disaster.” Another critic emphasized that it was wrong “to play for gain to the most morbid instincts in people . . . We might as well bring the morgue down to the public square and invite people to come in and charge an admission.” A city councilman lobbied for police censors to review all films before they showed in Cleveland.
For all of the outrage directed at Bullock’s exhibition, no one demanded censoring newspapers that printed detailed descriptions of the carnage and graphic photos of charred bodies. TreatedCleveland Leader, March 7, 1908. All of Cleveland’s largest newspapers published photographs of the morgue lit by glaring flashes. to a private screening, reporters in Norwalk, Ohio found Bullock’s film unexpectedly mild when compared to newspaper coverage: “The only fault that might be found is that [the moving pictures] are not shocking enough to meet the expectations of those who might be attracted by the title. Everything that would offend has been eliminated. Photos of the scene of the fire printed in Cleveland papers were much worse than the film in this respect.” Norwalk’s authorities banned the film anyway. Even Fred Kohler, Cleveland’s Chief of Police, agreed that the actual content of Bullock’s screening steered clear of offensiveness, showing mostly the ruined school and its design flaws after the building’s collapse. Nonetheless, he concluded, the show’s insensitivity to the families of victims and objections of some nearby businesses meant that Bullock needed to remove all posters from the theater’s front and immediately stop the screenings.
Shutting Bullock down in Cleveland didn’t stop him from seeking other venues. The crowds for the film only made him certain of its value and probably fueled a sense of pride. He worked to make deals with cinemas in nearby cities, but in Canton, Norwalk Daily-Crescent News [Defiance, OH], Aug 17, 1908. W C Wood toured the midwest with Bullock’s footage. He charged half-price for children. and Sandusky, officials wanted no part of it. Bullock threatened to sue, but quickly moved on to a different plan. He offered the film to more distant theaters and touring lecturers, who took it on the road, stopping for two or three days in towns throughout the Midwest. Crowds came. In New Castle, Pennsylvania, customers jammed the theater so fully that the local fire chief, worried about disaster in his own town, interrupted a screening to demand better crowd control. It’s unclear whether any big-city theaters leased Bullock’s movie. Pre-existing arrangements with major distributors would have made it risky for them to do so.
By the fall of 1908, Bullock himself was on a Western tour, stopping in Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, and Bakersfield, California. Months after the fire and thousands of miles away, he seems to have restored footage originally cut in Cleveland. In Bakersfield, an advertisement said that “The films show . . . the falling walls, the flames licking the structure; [and] taking out of the bodies. “ In Colorado, a viewer (or Bullock posing as one) wrote after the film’s first display that “40 children are seen struggling against the closed doors, then the fire brigade from Colorado Springs Gazette, Oct 7, 1908. This announcement emphasizes the “record run” to Collinwood that allowed Bullock to document the horror. Elsewhere, Bullock claimed that more than a million people saw his film in Eastern theaters. Cleveland comes up just a few minutes too late to do any good. . . . The morgue, with 19 unidentified dead, is [also] seen.” As Bullock’s film flowered into fuller gruesomeness, he also more conspicuously asserted its educational virtues. An advertisement in Bakersfield, ignoring the shut down in Cleveland and elsewhere, claimed that “mayors and Chiefs of Police in big cities recommend the pictures to all interested in the structure of school buildings.” It’s possible that Bullock and others exaggerated the film’s carnage, hoping to create a sensation. But repeated mentions of removing material for screenings in the near aftermath of the tragedy and the later, scene-by-scene accounts of the film in the West suggest the presentation of different versions. Outside the Cleveland area, away from that city’s moral watchdogs and suffering survivors, the cinematic holocaust may have been delivered as promised.
How, 110 years later, can we untangle Bullock’s actions? What did he “truly” intend? Did audiences go only, as ministers feared, to indulge their most venal appetites at the expense of victims? Some may have gone in mourning, crying in darkness as the tragedy rolled by. We have no extensive records of audience reaction, only the words of ministers who insisted thatMarshall Everett, “the well-known author and descriptive writer,” joined the newspapers and Bullock in marketing the fire. Everett had earlier written with commercial success about the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago and saw an opportunity in Collinwood. they saw into the hearts of theater goers. In Toledo, Ohio, Bullock’s film so deeply disturbed one young mother that after seeing it she was committed to a state mental hospital. She fell into a desperate fear that her five-year-old would be similarly killed. Maybe scenes from the film replayed in her mind. Even if she started as a tasteless voyeur, Barbara Teeter wound up haunted by moving images.
Ministers and others saw Bullock as a simple purveyor of vice, because that’s how they understood the movie business at large. But Bullock didn’t know or explain himself in such one-dimensional terms. Few people would. He screened Hamlet and brought the beauty of Yellowstone to the masses in Cleveland. Perhaps Bullock stood before the fire, eager and determined as a filmmaker to capture the scene but horrified by what he actually saw. Even if he only shot as much as he could to make as much money as possible, isn’t there something valuable in making human tragedy painfully visible? Present-day cameramen rush to every calamity around the world and smartphone users post disaster footage on YouTube, looking for thousands of “likes.” The Reverend Tippy in 1908 thought that people should work hard to “forget the horrible scenes” that punish the conscience, not brand them into memory with endless replays. Others worked with Tippy to suppress Bullock’s film in the name of “decency.” The endless expansion of video’s empire, though, has made that moment of film’s suppression look positively quaint.
William Bullock loved movies at a point in history when it first became possible to do so. He stayed near film his entire life, and his father, Sam, was also in the business. Bullock’s ambitions to run theaters, make films, and distribute them hit their high point with the frenzy of the The Collinwood School Fire.
By the middle of 1908, in an effort to monopolize the business, large producers of motion pictures and patent holders of movie camera technology increasingly prevented independent film makers, including Bullock, from distributing their work to theaters. In 1909, Bullock left Cleveland to live in Los Angeles, maybe hoping to catch on in the fast-growing California film industry. LA was less than half of Cleveland’s size, but other independent film makers, seeking to escape restrictions imposed by the early, New-York-based giants of the industry, had started moving there a few years earlier. By the middle of 1910, Bullock was back in Cleveland, running a neighborhood theater with his father, far from downtown. They did business there through most of the 1920s, speaking out on occasion against efforts at censorship. At the time of his death, at the age of 63, Bullock had given up on running his own cinema, but not on the business of movies. The industry absorbed him. Over the last 20 years of his life, his obituary noted, Bullock worked as a projectionist at the Palace Theater, a vaudeville and motion picture cathedral filled with marble and chandeliers. Built downtown on Euclid Avenue in 1922, the Palace had 3,100 seats, at least ten times the capacity of Bullock’s American. The obituary said nothing about the projectionist’s own history of film-making or the controversy stirred by The Collinwood School Fire. Even for those closest to him, Bullock’s nearness to the tragedy had faded to black.