Northwestern isn't the only conference school to have seen a significant student riot back in the good ole days, and the U-M fraternity numbskulls who trashed the resorts up north last month aren't the only U-M students to have gotten seriously out of hand. On Monday, March 16, 1908, the old Star Theater on Washington Street was the site of the what is probably the worst student riot in U-M history. Curiously, there is more than one account for the origin of the disturbance, and one of them has a connection to Michigan football.
This is the front page account from the Cornell Sun:
"STUDENT RIOT AT MICHIGAN.
Two Thousand Go on Rampage and Demolish Theater despite the Police-Militia Called Out.
Ann Arbor, Mich., March 17.
Two thousand Michigan undergraduates battered down the Star five-cent theatre here last evening, avenging an attack on a student in the College of Forestry there Saturday night and ending their attack on the building with a riot in which police, firemen and finally the militia took part. Twenty-two undergraduates spent the night in jail.
News of the 'trouble on Saturday night, when a special policeman inflicted painful wounds on a student who was said to have been the cause of slight disturbances, spread among the undergraduate body on Sunday and Monday and last evening reprisals against the theatre were planned. Marching through the student rooming district shouting "All out for the Star Theatre," the procession of students were joined by hundreds of others who poured out of the houses on the line of march. A crash of glass, as a brick tore through the front doors of the theatre, announced the arrival of the students and with a fusillade of rocks and clubs, pandemonium broke loose. Rails completed the destruction of the front of the building, the piano, seats and moving picture machine went by the board with the rest of the wreckage while the police, powerless in the hands of the mob, were not even able to retain possession of their helmets and uniforms.
In the height of the uproar, President Angell and several of the University deans appeared upon the scene but their pleadings for quiet could not be heard above the roar of the turmoil, and seeing that protest was useless the faculty members retired. With the police put to rout, the fire men were ordered out but had no sooner coupled their hose to the hydrants, than the students swept them off their feet, made away with the hose and reduced the fire chief to abject terms, as he feared to leave 'the city unprotected without the fire apparatus.
A hurry call was sent to Governor Warner asking that the militia, who were in readiness in their armory, be called out, and bugle calls aunouncing their preparation to march marked the end of the disturbance. Minor injuries were reported among police, students and firemen but no one was seriously hurt. The theatre, however, is a complete wreck.
Later—All the University of Michigan students arrested Monday night are at liberty. Fifteen of them had to furnish $1,000 bail each, after being led into Justice Doty's court and back to their cells handcuffed and under a heavy police guard. Three students pleaded guilty to a charge of loitering and were fined $4.65 each. The fifteen, for whom bail was furnished by Ann Arbor businessmen, will be given a hearing on Friday. There is no indication of a recurrence of Monday night's disturbance."
The Ann Arbor News printed an account of the event 34 years later on March 17, 1942:
This version differs from the Cornell account in several instances. The date of the riot is given as Tuesday, March 17, and the origin of the incident did not involve a "special policeman," but an usher at the theater. Moreover, the assault on the student which was supposed to have happened on Saturday, March 14, in the Cornell account occurred on the day of the riot in the AA News account.
In general, though, the overall nature of the incident in the two accounts is the same: there was an assault on a student for some alleged misbehavior by an employee of the theater, and a destructive student response followed, in spite of pleas by President Angell and other faculty members to halt the disturbance.
However, the online history section about the AA police department contains a very different telling of the event:
"One of the biggest events in the early years of the Ann Arbor Police Department was a student riot at the Star Theatre. This riot took place on March 16, 1908.
The riot occurred as the manager of the theatre and a pool room operator, approached a “star” University of Michigan football player and asked him to “throw” a game. The two men would bet heavily on the opposing team, therefore winning a great amount of money, of which the player would receive a share.
The football player refused and this information was kept quiet until the following spring. Somehow students learned about this and told the manager to close the theatre for good. Evidently the students felt so aggrieved that they did not want the theatre operating. The manager did not heed their warning and one week later the theatre was still in operation.
On the evening of March 16, the students assembled downtown and walked to the theatre. When they arrived, they demanded that the manager come outside and speak with them. The manager obviously felt the students wanted to do more than “talk” and ran out the back door of the theatre.
When the manager did not appear, the students began to throw bricks at the windows of the theatre. A building across the street from the theatre was under construction and there were truckloads of bricks sitting in front of the structure.
These bricks were promptly used to destroy the outside of the theatre and once this was done, their anger was turned on the interior. The riot lasted all night and futile efforts were made by police, fire and university officials to stop it. Sixty-two arrests were made and numerous officers received injuries along with torn, damaged and lost uniforms."
This is the only source I've come across for the story that the riot was precipitated by an attempt to bribe a U-M football player, and there's no verifying information provided in the aadl.org account, either. Given that the alleged bribery angle doesn't appear in the contemporaneous account in the Cornell newspaper or in the AA News version, I doubt it's the accurate explanation.
Regardless, it's a historical fact that on a mid-March night in 1908, several scores of Michigan students went on a violent rampage and essentially demolished a prominent local business. The fact that they were apparently let off from prosecution after they paid a then-subtantial amount of damages is interesting in light of the ski resort damage earlier this winter season.