1973, July 17: A Strange Theft

On Tuesday morning, July 17, 1973, workers with the Dowling Construction Co. returned to work at a demolition site in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, to discover something very inconvenient... their 5-ton wrecking ball was missing.

        In a short release from the Associated Press on the day after, July 18, it was explained that the ball had been hanging from a crane around 200 feet from the ground, and had been seen there on Monday at 5:00PM when workers left for the day... so it had vanished sometime during the night. Ignoring the difficulty of removing the ball without having been detected -- which would be difficult, to say the least -- Loren Dowling of the Dowling Construction Co. was quoted as saying: "I can't figure out what someone would do with a 5-ton metal ball."

        According to Reader's Digest's 1982 book, Mysteries of the Unexplained, the ball never turned up and the police were baffled by the whole situation.

A Few Mistakes Came Later

        It's such a simple, yet elegant mystery; the removal of an object so hideously big and awkward that it should not have been possible to do without someone becoming alert is indeed impressive and, as its presence in the Mysteries of the Unexplained implied, possibly paranormal.

        Some confusion has occurred with this particular event specifically due to Mysteries of the Unexplained, by the way. Apparently there was a whole set printing of the 1982 book that reported the size of the missing wrecking ball as 2-1/2 tons, rather than 5 tons... so depending on what copy of the book you had, the weight could have been reported as either of those. I'm not sure why or how this happened, but I've seen enough people discuss this matter and their confusion to know that the book did indeed report both of those weights in different editions. The correct weight, going by the earlier newspaper accounts, is 5 tons.

        Mysteries of the Universe also mis-reported the date of the event as just "1974," which a lot of other books then started repeating... but this is an error on the part of Mysteries of the Unexplained. Again, the original newspapers establish the correct date as being July 17, 1973.

        And one more thing about the Mysteries of the Unexplained listing about the mystery -- the authors choose to illustrate their short paragraph on this mystery with the following painting:

Rene Magritte
La reconnaissance infinie, by René Magritte, ca. 1933 [Larger version here]

...to which the authors added the caption: "Could anyone have stolen a five-ton steel ball, or did it simply float away? René Magritte's 1953 painting, 'The Infinite search,' suggests the mystery of such an event." Just for the record: the painting was created around 1933, not 1953, and the title -- 'La reconnaissance infinie' -- translates to 'The Infinite Recognition'... so the details here are as off as the year given for when the event happened.

        While 'La reconnaissance infinie' is an intriguing painting, it has the rather unfortunate effect of implying that it displays what the size of the missing wrecking ball would be, and that implied size is huge, which definitely helps with implying a paranormal aspect to the wrecking ball's disappearance.

Down To Earth

        So just how big would a five-ton wrecking ball be? Well, here's a picture of a four-ton wrecking ball for comparison.

4-Ton Wrecking Ball
A 4-ton wrecking ball in action. [Larger version here]

As you can see, the ball is not as large as the painting suggested... and even though this is a full ton smaller than the reported 5-ton ball, said wrecking ball would clearly not be much larger.

        In the earliest release of the Associated Press article, as it appeared in the Muncie Evening Press, it's reported that the police suspected a 'lowtruck' -- likely a mistype of "tow truck" -- might have been used to steal the ball; this detail is not repeated by any of the other newspapers that picked up the AP article. Given how large the ball actually was, this is not an unreasonably thought... and it sure beats being "baffled," as the police were described by Mysteries of the Unexplained.

        This same article, by the way, states that the construction company was engaged in the demolition of a former Boys' Club... and that the ball was left hanging only 20 feet above the ground, which makes sense. At 200 feet up, as reported by most newspapers that picked up the Associated Press release, the ball would have been suspended at the height of a 20-story building. That would be both a remarkable large crane, and a greater difficulty for thieves to steal the ball discretely. A former Boys' Club, however, would not likely be a twenty story building, so it makes sense the ball would much closer to the ground... adding to the plausibility of someone placing it on a truck without being caught.

        And now, for something just strange.

A Minority Report

        The Associated Press article was largely based on an article printed in the Indianapolis Star on July 18, 1973, and this earliest article and the AP release both agree on one one key detail: that Loren Dowling, who by name appears to be an owner of, or interested party in, the Dowling Construction Co., was quoted as saying "I can't figure out what someone would do with a 5-ton metal ball." This quote is literally why we know it was a five-ton ball that was stolen... which makes the next thing I found odd.

        On July 19, the Indianapolis Star printed another, shorter article about the strange theft; and this article was not picked up by the Associated Press, so was never seen anywhere else. Here's what it said:

"Fumbled The Ball

"A police report was in error Tuesday when it said a wrecking ball missing from a demolition site at 1949 East Troy Avenue weighed 5 tons. A spokesman for the Dowling Construction Co. said the ball weighed only 50 pounds."

A 50-pound ball would be really easy to steal, compared to the larger size! But Loren Dowling was very distinct about a 5-ton ball going missing. The only thing I can guess at here is that maybe Dowling had claimed the missing ball was larger so that he and the company could make a larger insurance claim, or that this second report is just wrong. I doubt I'll ever have an distinct answer one way or the other... so there's that.