Murder in the Red Barn: The Crime Solved by a Dream

William Corder
William Corder
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ann Marten was tired of the awful dream. Twice now she’d woken after terrible visions of her stepdaughter, Maria, dead and buried under the dusty floor of a barn a half-mile from the cottage Ann shared with her husband, Thomas, in Polstead, England. At first, Ann believed that it was just a bad nightmare—to interpret it otherwise was irrational claptrap—but when the dream returned, she started to have second thoughts.

One day, she approached Thomas and asked him to bring her some peace of mind. “I think, were I in your place, I would go and examine the Red Barn,” she suggested.

Bewildered, Thomas asked why.

“I have very frequently dreamed about Maria,” Ann said, “and twice before Christmas, I dreamed that Maria was murdered, and buried in the Red Barn.” She would have told him sooner, Ann explained, but was afraid he’d think she was superstitious.

The Red Barn was a prominent landmark in Polstead, a quaint corner of England’s Suffolk County countryside. Named for a unique red brick roof, the building on Barnfield Hill was the last known meeting place between Maria Marten and her lover, William Corder. The pair had used the barn as a rendezvous point before apparently eloping to Ipswich on May 18, 1827.

Maria’s family hadn’t heard from her in the 11 months since. The Martens often wrote letters to the couple, but Maria never responded. Whenever Corder returned to Polstead, he always offered a slew of excuses explaining why Maria wasn’t writing: She was busy, her mail must have gotten lost, she had injured her hand and couldn’t write back. He reassured them, however, that Maria was happy and basically fine.

But when his wife began having bad dreams, Thomas Marten decided to dutifully check the Red Barn for any indication of foul play. He puttered around the structure and carefully removed litter from the floor—and then noticed an unusual slump in the dirt. According to one account, Thomas, a mole-catcher by trade, began loosening the ground with a mole-catching spike and, upon lifting the tool, dredged up a chunk of rotting human flesh.

Thomas didn’t have to dig more than two feet to discover that his wife’s prophecy might be true: In a shallow hole lay a decomposed human skeleton wrapped in a sack. It had long hair and a green handkerchief around its neck.

Upon seeing the body, Thomas refused to dig any further. He started for home.

When he found his wife, Thomas asked if she recalled Maria wearing a handkerchief the day she ran off to elope—and, if so, what color it was.

Ann searched her memories and nodded. Maria had been wearing a bandana that William Corder had given her. “A green one,” she said.

 

William Corder was a troublemaker. The son of a wealthy farmer, the sly lady’s man (who went by the nickname Foxey) was known to forge checks and steal animals from neighboring farms. On one occasion, he kidnapped his father’s pigs and pocketed the money from the sale.

By some accounts, that was not the life the young man aspired to: Corder purportedly wanted to become a teacher or journalist, but when his father refused to financially support those endeavors, Corder instead sustained his bank account with the fruits of petty crime.

Whatever Corder’s motivations, none of that mattered to his paramour Maria Marten, a 24-year-old single mother. Her first child (whose father was Corder’s older brother) had died early, but her second child (born to a member of the gentry who had no interest in marrying the daughter of a lowly mole-catcher) was still alive. This second father regularly sent money to help the child, but was otherwise absent from Maria’s life. So when William Corder returned to Polstead to help his family’s farm in 1825, Maria quickly fell for the wily smooth-talker.

After all, Corder showed that he could handle some responsibility. The same year he came back to town, his father died and two of his brothers became permanently hobbled by tuberculosis, leaving young Corder as one of the last able-bodied men in the family capable of running the farm. Around the time he assumed these duties, a romance between him and Maria began to blossom.

William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At first, the couple tried to keep their relationship secret, but life had other plans. In 1826, Maria became pregnant for a third time. Corder proposed that they marry shortly after the infant was born.

Tragically, only two weeks after its birth, the baby died in Maria’s arms. Maria’s father and stepmother carefully placed the lifeless infant in a box and wrapped it in a napkin. Corder promised to bury it somewhere safe.

Corder also promised that he still wanted to marry Maria, child or not. There was just one stipulation, he said: It had to happen soon. According to Corder, rumors were floating that the constable was going to punish Maria for having a third child out of wedlock. Called bastardy, the crime was punishable by public whipping.

In other words, they had to elope.

Around noon on May 18, 1827, Corder ran to the Marten cottage and told Maria that it was time to go. The constable, he said, was prepared to arrest her at any moment. Maria began to sob. Meanwhile, Maria’s sister, Ann, noticed that the young man was carrying a gun. “[He] told me not to meddle with it, as it was loaded,” she’d recall.

To avoid capture, Corder told Maria to dress in disguise and handed her a men’s waistcoat, a hat, a pair of trousers, and a green bandana. He placed the rest of her clothes in a bag and told her to meet him at the Red Barn down the road, where she could get dressed in her own clothing. Afterward, they’d flee to Ipswich and get married.

Corder then slipped out the front door, and Maria—in male costume—left out the back. She was never seen again.

Eleven months after she left, the police found William Corder married to a different woman and running a boarding school for girls in west London. When the police accosted him, they asked if he had ever known a woman by the name of Maria Marten.

“I never knew any such person even by name,” he responded.

 

Immediately, the crime captured people’s attention and imaginations: Here was the story of a poor country girl, a single mother no less, who was seduced and fooled by a wealthy cad who lured her to her death with the promise of marriage. No less amazing was the fact that the poor woman’s body was purportedly discovered thanks to a dream. For newspapers, the story was pure catnip.

“I never knew or heard of a case in my life which abounded with so many extraordinary incidents as the present,” M. Wyatt, a magistrate, explained at the time. “It really appears more like a romance than a tale of common life.”

Within days of the body’s discovery, Polstead became a bustling place “literally crowded with strangers from all parts of the adjacent country, for the news of this appalling discovery had ere this reached the remotest parts of the kingdom,” the journalist J. Curtis reported in his contemporaneous book, An Authentic And Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten.

In fact, as Corder sat in jail, Polstead would hold its most well-attended summer fair in ages, with amusements that included roving ballad singers and theatrical productions, all telling sensationalized versions of the Red Barn murder story.

By the start of Corder’s trial in early August, the whole country was familiar with the twisted story. Thousands of people flocked to Polstead to witness the proceedings, and nearly all of the inns and public houses in the county ran out of rooms. (The day before the trial, many visitors had no beds to sleep in at all.) Demand to watch the proceedings was high enough that tickets were required.

A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The crowd outside the courthouse numbered in the thousands. The scene was so jammed that the ticket-taker—even members of the court—had trouble reaching the front door. When the sheriff’s carriage arrived, it couldn’t squeeze through the crowd. The Lord Chief Baron had to be “carried off his legs on his way from his carriage to the bench,” Curtis writes. It was mayhem.

“Counsellors, magistrates, jurors, &c. &c. were wedged together, and two of the former gentlemen had their forensic wigs hooked off, and one was actually ungowned. Some lost their hats, some their pocket-books, and others their money—and not a few the lappets of their coats," according to Curtis.

Once everybody who could fit in the courthouse was settled, the counts against William Corder—all 10 of them, which included shooting, stabbing, and strangulation—were read. A model of the Red Barn was placed on a table in the courtroom and the Counsel for the Crown began to make its case against the young farmer.

The evidence certainly seemed damning. Maria’s stepmother was in the room when Corder and Maria had made plans to meet at the Red Barn. At the coroner’s inquest held shortly after the body was discovered, the constable denied ever telling Corder he had a warrant out for Maria’s arrest. Corder had waffled constantly whenever asked about Maria’s whereabouts. And in Corder’s London residence, police had found a French passport—a suspicious indication that he might have been planning to flee the country.

In a trembling voice, Corder defended his name and blamed the press for slandering his reputation and sealing his fate. Reading from a written statement, he declared: “By that powerful engine, the press, which regulates the opinion of so many persons in this country, and which is too often, I fear, though unintentionally, the slanderer and destroyer of innocence, I have had the misfortune to be depicted in the most humiliated and revolting characters! I have been described by that press as the most depraved of human monsters.”

Corder went on to claim that he had indeed argued with Maria in the Red Barn, but he did not kill her—rather, she had shot and killed herself. The young man claimed he had panicked and had “buried Maria as well as I was able.”

The jury deliberated for just 35 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. Corder nearly wilted to the floor as the judge read his sentence.

The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My advice to you is, not to flatter yourself with the slightest hope of mercy on earth …” the judge said. “That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be Hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!”

Days later, on August 11, 1828, a crowd of at least 7000 people gathered around the gallows and watched a visibly weak Corder step upon the scaffold. Earlier that week, he had confessed to a prison chaplain, claiming that he and Maria had gotten into an argument—possibly about their dead baby, who had never received a proper Christian burial—and had accidentally shot her in the face during a scuffle.

As Corder stared out at the crowd, the air fell still. “I am guilty—” he said, quivering. “My sentence is just—I deserve my fate—and may God have mercy upon me!”

A cap was then draped over his face, a rope was tied around his neck, and gravity did the rest.

 

William Corder’s corpse swung gently in the wind for an hour before being taken down and placed in a nearby hall, where the county surgeon sliced into the chest and folded back the skin to display the muscles of the chest. Then the doors were opened to the public. Thousands of spectators marched single-file to gawk at Corder’s remains.

The following day, the body became the centerpiece of an autopsy attended by doctors and medical students from across the county. Corder’s organs were removed and inspected and his body stripped of its skin, which was tanned and wrapped around the cover of a book chronicling his misdeeds.

In 1846, Punch magazine would cynically joke that “Murder is, doubtless, a very shocking offence; nevertheless, as what is done is not to be undone, let us make our money out of it.” Indeed, over the next century, the Red Barn murder continued to fascinate the public, becoming a profitable cottage industry for artists and entertainers, who wrote songs, poems, plays, and cheap penny-dreadfuls about the incident. One particular broadside, published by the printer James Catnach, sold more than a million copies.

A bust of William Corder
A bust of William Corder
St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, Moyse's Hall

Polstead would become a macabre pilgrimage site, where tourists—some 200,000 people are said to have visited the town in 1828 alone—eventually stripped the Red Barn bare. (The wood was reportedly sold as toothpicks.) Even poor Maria Marten’s Polstead resting place suffered from the grubby hands of souvenir-hunters, who mercilessly chipped away at her gravestone until it was little more than a stump.

Interest in the murder was so great that little physical evidence of the grisly happening remains. The book bound in Corder’s skin, however, is still stored at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. And the Cock Inn, where Polstead’s coroner carried out his inquest to identify the skeleton of Maria Marten, is still in operation. If you visit and grab a pint, you just may hear people singing an eerie ballad that is now canon.

Come all you bold young thoughtless men, a warning take by me;
And think of my unhappy fate, to be hanged upon the tree.
My name is William Corder, to you I do declare
I courted Maria Marten, most beautiful and fair.
I promised I would marry her upon a certain day,
Instead of that, I was resolved to take her life away.
I went into her father’s house the 18th of May,
Saying, my dear Maria, we will fix the wedding day.
If you will meet me at the Red Barn, as sure as I have life,
I will take you to Ipswich town, and there make you my wife;
I then went home and fetched my gun, my pickaxe and my spade,
I went into the Red Barn, and there I dug her grave.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

When Disco Demolition Night Nearly Demolished Chicago's Comiskey Park

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec was warming up on the mound when he noticed the rush of people on the field. Preparing for a second game in a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, the White Sox had lost the first by a score of 4-1. The crowd had been rowdy and insolent throughout, but this was something else.

As Kravec stood on the mound, thousands of attendees descended from the bleachers and slid down poles marking foul ball territory. They dug up dirt in the field and began running off with bases. A few tried removing home plate. Kravec soon joined his teammates in the dugout, where both the White Sox and the Tigers were staring in disbelief at the mayhem.

The source of their unrest was happening in center field. It was a bonfire made up of thousands of records, mostly disco, that the team had invited fans to bring with them for a reduced admission price. Management had expected perhaps 35,000 people. Nearly 50,000 showed up. On July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition Night would go down as one of the most infamous evenings in the history of Major League Baseball. It was not only the destruction that stirred controversy, but the concern that the demonstration had a far more disturbing subtext.

 

In the mid- to late-1970s, attendance at many major league baseball stadiums was down. Teams around the country tried a variety of stunts to stir interest, including Cleveland’s notorious 10-cent beer night in 1974 that sparked a mountain of misbehavior. The White Sox were in particularly dire need of something to reinvigorate their franchise. In 1979, an average of just 10,000 to 16,000 people were coming to their games, though Comiskey Park could seat 45,000.

Team owner Bill Veeck tried to turn the games into a spectacle. There was a scoreboard that could set off pyrotechnics and other attention-grabbing additions, but nothing seemed to stick. The action on field was equally tepid. Midway through the season, the Sox held a disappointing 35-45 record.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Veeck’s son, Mike Veeck, was assistant business manager for the team. Like many Chicago residents, he had heard local radio shock jock Steve Dahl on WLUP, an FM rock station serving the area. Dahl was prone to disparaging the then-popular genre of disco on air, playing records and then keying up an explosion sound effect. Dahl had lost his previous job on WDAI after it went all-disco, giving him an origin story of sorts for his contempt.

Dahl, of course, wasn’t entirely alone in his disco dismissal. A trendy and dance-friendly format, disco had been dominating airwaves and Billboard charts, with Donna Summer and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on heavy rotation and acts ranging from KISS to the Rolling Stones recording disco singles. Even 1977’s Star Wars scored a hit with a disco tie-in album. In the first half of 1979, 13 of the top 16 tracks were disco. Rock enthusiasts like Dahl thought the genre was inferior to their preferences and decried its widespread success.

Though Veeck had no particular opinion about disco, he saw an opportunity to partner with Dahl for a stunt. At Comiskey Park, attendees could get in for just 98 cents if they brought in one disco record for what was dubbed Disco Demolition Night. Once employees collected the records, Dahl would appear between the doubleheader with the Tigers and proceed to queue up an explosion.

Dahl agreed and promoted the appearance heavily on the air. The Veecks contacted Chicago police and asked for increased security as they expected up to triple their usual attendance as a result of the promotion—upwards of 35,000 people. With interest in the Sox low all season, it’s not clear that authorities took the request seriously.

They should have. Come July 12, people began lining up for the evening doubleheader as early as 4 p.m. A cursory glance at the crowd revealed that many of them were not baseball fans. There were a large number of teenagers as well as several attendees wearing concert T-shirts, a hint that the promotion had attracted people looking for a spectacle rather than a sporting event. Inside, many clung to their records instead of tossing them in the bins near the gates. As seats began filling up inside, thousands of people were armed with vinyl records. The scene had the makings of an active demonstration, not a passive entertainment.

As the White Sox and Tigers played their first game, spectators began tossing drinks and records onto the field. Chants of “disco sucks” filled the stadium. Firecrackers snapped in the air. When the game wrapped, Dahl emerged on the field in military fatigues, while a pile of disco records sat in center field. Inciting the crowd more, Dahl grabbed a microphone and let loose anti-disco invective before giving the signal to immolate the records. A fuse was lit and soon the pile was on fire.

Rather than pacify the crowd, the sight of the blaze seemed to embolden them. Kravec and the other players watched as people swarmed the field, sliding down poles and risking injury by jumping from the deck to the grass. Records were hurled, sticking into the ground. People tried to climb inside the skybox occupied by the wife and children of team manager Don Kessinger. Cherry bombs were ignited and exploded. The air took on a smoky atmosphere of flying projectiles, with an estimated 7000 people—almost the typical crowd of a regular season game—trampling the diamond.

Some players armed themselves with bats, their nearest available weapon. Announcer Harry Caray took to the public address system to call for order, which went ignored.

The crowd, however raucous, was largely nonviolent and no fights were reported. When police finally arrived 30 minutes later to restore order, 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. A vendor with a broken hip was the worst injury recorded. The main damage was to the field itself, which had been cratered by the explosion.

With no other alternative, the Sox were forced to forfeit the game, though the team wanted to call it a rain delay. The only rain had been from the beer bottles.

 

The official attendance was reported as 47,795, though Mike Veeck believed the crowd was as large as 60,000. Many had climbed over gates and overwhelmed ushers, crashing the stadium and getting in without paying admission. Disco Demolition Night had quickly turned from a purportedly clever marketing idea to a nightmare. Dahl would later admit to being more than a little scared by the whole ordeal.

The forfeit was the first by a major league team in five years. Soon, Bill Veeck would be out as president, selling the team in 1981; Mike Veeck didn’t get another job in baseball for 10 years—both situations reportedly due in large part to the near-riot that had transpired. But that would not be the only fallout from the stunt.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

As ushers admitted fans into the stadium, they noticed a number of the records being turned in were by black artists—not just disco, but soul, R&B, and other genres. Steve Wonder and Marvin Gaye were among the performers destined for the bonfire. Because disco was popular among minority groups including Latinos and the gay community, observers believed Dahl had stirred up something more sinister than a simple distaste for disco music.

“People started running up on me, yelling ‘Disco sucks!’ in my face, getting in my face, confronting me as a person that ‘represents’ disco, and there were thousands of people running around in this stadium buck wild,” Vince Lawrence, an usher at the stadium that night, told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2019. “I started going, ‘Wait a minute, why am I disco?’” Lawrence, who is black, was actually wearing a shirt endorsing Dahl’s radio station.

Later, Lawrence said he was surprised most of the media coverage had been about the damage done to the baseball field, not the undercurrent of the protest. “It was evident that it was seen as OK, because the next day it was in the paper everywhere, all over the news, but the biggest complaint about the issue was not, ‘Hey, why the heck is it OK to just actively destroy somebody’s culture?’ That wasn’t the story. The story was like, ‘Hey, the lawn on this baseball field got f***ed up.'"

In interviews, Dahl refuted any claims he had intended to stir up any racial animosity. He simply hated disco and decided to engage in the kind of promotional stunt common among disc jockeys at the time. But the controversy returned in summer 2019, when the White Sox offered a T-shirt “commemorating” the demolition stunt. The move was criticized for being in poor taste.

As a tool to diminish disco, Dahl and Veeck’s themed evening was somewhat successful. Radio stations took to playing less of it and record labels began to shy away from the genre, forcing it underground. Of course, it’s likely disco would have been a cultural fad regardless. But what is superficially an outrageous story about a sporting stunt gone awry has also been looked at as a rejection of what disco represented: a diversity in tastes and spirit. It's for that reason Disco Demolition Night remains an infamous black eye in baseball history.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER