In 1889, Derby, Connecticut opened the Sterling Opera House, a magnificent performance space—featuring two sweeping balconies, an orchestra pit, and a stained glass cupola—that entertained the country’s elite for almost 60 years.

But this historic building has seen many years, and with them came a lot of people using the space for less-than-ideal things.

Far below the feet of the smiling chorus girls and limelights that lit up its stage, the theater held a deep, dark secret…

Opened in 1889 in Derby, Connecticut, the Sterling Opera House had a long life as a renowned entertainment space until it staged its final performance in 1945. While its history is interesting, it’s the story of what’s under the opera house’s foundation that’s really worth delving into.

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The exterior boasted striking terra cotta detailing, while inside, a 60-foot stage hosted performers Harry Houdini, Lionel Barrymore, John Phillips Sousa, and Amelia Earhart, to name a few. In its heyday, the Sterling Opera House was a highly-regarded theater.

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The Sterling’s house could seat an audience of 1,200; its grand proscenium stage was framed by an enormous arch. 

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The Sterling Opera House is widely recognized as an architectural achievement, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1968.

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Concert posters from a century ago still line the walls of rooms directly beneath the stage. You can just imagine the incredible sounds that filled the theater during each performance!

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Below the house, performers changed in dressing rooms and stagehands prepped for performance. Bright pink kisses can still be seen where chorus girls left their marks on the wall for fun.

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But, there is much more to the chambers beneath the opera house than dressing rooms. Unknown corridors and cells hide criminal secrets that are seedy, at best, and murderous, at worst.

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Part of the Sterling’s basement served as a prison for some of the town’s most notorious criminals. One of them, Lydia Sherman, was a “black widow” murderess who was convicted of killing 10 people with arsenic. Sherman’s victims included three husbands and seven of her own children.

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Though the theater’s connection with Derby’s criminals is irrefutable historical fact, its reputation isn’t sullied. The 100-year-old opera house is as celebrated as ever, if not more, now that its dubious background has been brought out of the darkness and into the light of the public consciousness.

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Over the years, talk of restoring the Sterling Opera House has circulated, but only its exterior benefitted from restoration efforts in 2011. Hopefully, this national treasure will get the attention it needs to save it from total disrepair. With its bizarre history and beautiful aesthetics, the Sterling Opera House is one historical place we’d love to visit.

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