The Devil at Lake Marion

It was the roaring 20s, a time of moral decadence.  An era best categorized by bootleggers, booze, flappers, and jazz.  Ladies’ dresses and hairstyles became shorter, music became louder, cars became faster, and liquor, which was now illegal, flowed more freely than ever.  The Great War was over, but the victory party that followed ceased to end.

Rarely was there a place in America that wasn’t touched in some way by the roaring 20s.  Minnesota, a state once thought of as a rural mecca with country values, became the nation’s top producer of illegal moonshine.  The trade was so prevalent across the countryside that it caught the attention of the feds and the likes of Al Capone.  All across the state, ballrooms and dance halls became the centers of 1920’s night life.  What were once quaint venues for weddings and ceremonies, were now filled with jazz music, dancing, and booze.

The Lake Marion Ballroom was a beautiful pavilion style dance hall on the shores of Lake Marion.  Cool breezes floated through the screened pavilion, and the full moon reflecting off the lake made it exquisite.  To the north was a small outcropping of rocks where mist from the waves could wash over those who sat atop them while listening to the music through the screened windows.  To top off the atmosphere was the popcorn stand that stood outside the ballroom entrance and filled the pavilion with the scent of freshly popped corn.  It was indeed a landmark of McLeod County.

To some the ballroom was a place of grandeur, yet to others it was a den of sin and decadence.  At a time when a segment of the population looked to tighten the noose around societal ills, the ballroom was often the sight of moonshine vendors, and it was rumored that “women from disorderly houses from the Cities were brought there for illegal purposes”.  It was also rumored that “the dances have been rough and that some of the dancers of both sexes get drunk; that the rooms of the hotel are all engaged in advance and that the cottages are broken into and the rooms occupied by revelers”.  If such ill repute was indeed prevalent at the pavilion, it is no wonder that such deeds would summon the presence of Satan himself.

It was Sunday, October 30th, 1921, the evening before Halloween.  For years October 30th was known as mischief night, the night when pranksters ran amuck with pleasure.  It was common to wake up on Halloween morning to find outhouses tipped over, unhinged gates, windows soaped, or to see property vandalized.  It was the perfect night for a sinister appearance by Satan himself, and what better place to get a good scare than in a pavilion full of people.

There are many versions of what happened, the following is one of them.

It was intermission at the Lake Marion Ballroom.  The musicians were off stage, taking a break, and the dancers were mingling among themselves.  The weather that night was blustery; it was humid, and a late season thunderstorm was passing through the area.  As the dancers reveled and laughed, a loud clap of thunder shook the pavilion and the rain started coming down.  Another earth shattering thunder, and then a scream from the crowd as a strange apparition appeared next to the mirrored column in the middle of the dance floor, and made its way to the bar.

The lights in the ballroom began to flicker, some claiming they gave off an eerie, un-earthly like color.  Some supposed witnesses recalled that the musicians instruments flew off the stage and splintered as they hit the ground.  Then, from the ceiling, a broomstick began dancing in mid-air and made its way to the stage.

A cry emitted from the crowd “The Devil is here to get his dues.  Repent on your knees.  Pray for forgiveness.”  Then suddenly, in a flash of smoke, fire, and brimstone, Satan himself was said to have appeared.  Some say he came from above, while others maintained he rose from the floor.  He did not speak, but made his way through the crowd.  As he walked by, a section of scaffold resting against a wall crumbled into a heap of iron.

People screamed, people fainted, and people scrambled over the top of one another in a race to the exits.  They jumped in their cars and drove away as fast as their old Model T’s would allow.  Many abandoned their cars and ran headlong into the darkness.  Some were transfixed on the spot, unable to move as the dark prince strolled by.  To those who stayed behind as witness, they say the devil strode out of the ballroom and walked across the water on the lake, disappearing from sight and leaving a scene of chaos in his wake.

The story began to evolve over the next few days, and it gained nationwide attention.  The story was told all over the state, in the Minneapolis paper, as well as a number of smaller publications.  It even hit the papers in Chicago, and some recall that the story was told as far east as New York.

Rumors of the perpetrator’s identity were widespread.  Some claimed it was a prankster, some claimed it was nothing but a ball of lightning and the onlookers were exaggerating the story, yet others maintained that it was the Devil himself, complete with horns, tail, and cloven feet.  Whatever it was, something indeed happened on that October night in 1921.

At a resort in Norwood, just a few days after the episode at Lake Marion, an intense game of poker was being played in a backroom where a well-known gambler was present.  While the players were making bets, tossing chips, and laying down cards, it is said that Satan again appeared.  How he appeared is unknown.  Perhaps it was with a puff of smoke, maybe a ball of brimstone and fire, or perhaps he simply strode through the door.  Whatever his means of appearing, it is said that he accosted the well-known gambler, and in a devilish voice proclaimed, “Now you old rascal.  I’ve got you!”  The events beyond that are a mystery.

Not long after these events, a letter to the editor appeared in the Hutchinson Leader.  Mrs. C.L. Bartlett of Bertha, Minnesota was skeptical, and was inquiring to the facts concerning the events, wanting to know what kind of evidence was available to prove that this was the Devil himself and not some prankster.  A week later a reply to Mrs. Bartlett’s inquiry appeared in the same publication by, of all people, a local Methodist Pastor.

Andrus Richardson was born in Chautauqua, New York in 1869.  Pastor Richardson moved around a lot, and in 1921, found himself in Hutchinson, MN.  On November 16th of that year he wrote a letter to the editor in regards to Mrs. Bartlett’s questioning of the Devil.  Interestingly, the pastor seemed to take offense that anyone would not believe the devil appeared.  He claimed that only a certain “class of people” went to these dances, and went on to list the events that made these dances so “rough”.  He described the scene that night, how the lights became lurid, how the women screamed, and how people left the pavilion stricken with terror; it was almost as if he was there himself.  He ends his letter stating that the hotel is now deserted, and that “dancing among that class of people has ceased”.  Lastly, he proclaims that many who witnessed the spectacle were confined to bed with hysteria, and that those who are hardest to convince it was a hoax were those who were witness to the evil dark prince.  At times while reading through his letter, one could argue that he is saying “job well done”.

To this day the Devil at Lake Marion stands as one of the best known legends in McLeod County.  Nearly a century has passed since the event, yet the story remains strong in the minds of all those who’ve heard the tale.  Who was it?  Was the Devil merely a man in disguise, was the entire episode just an overreaction to natural phenomena, or was it indeed a guest appearance from Satan himself?  Perhaps time will tell.  For now, however, the mystery behind the legend remains just that, a mystery.

Comments

  1. Why would the Devil appear and do nothing? That is the question. It would be a pointless exercise on his part. If he had taken souls, perhaps en mass, it would be a successful night. Otherwise a waste of his time

  2. Excellent rendition. I was born in 1954, well beyond the snarly incident told here, but first heard this story in the 1960’s as a teenager. My family lived in the small McLeod town of Lester Prairie, and my parents seemed to be believers that it, indeed, was Satan himself. Then, I reasoned with them that this was a ruse to encourage the sordid crowd from carrying on with such “unchristian” behavior. Morality can be very well,and, yet, rigidly defined, and people who do not adhere to the beliefs of the “righteous” as defined by their belief system will and sometimes do try use scare tactics to “discourage” the decadent behavior.

Speak Your Mind

*