The Astor Place Riot occurred on May 10, 1849 at the now-demolished Astor Opera House in Manhattan, New York City and left at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured. It was the deadliest to that date of a number of civic disturbances in New York City which generally pitted immigrants and nativists against each other, or together against the upper classes who controlled the city’s police and the state militia.
The riot marked the first time a state militia had been called out and had shot into a crowd of citizens, and it led to the creation of the first police force armed with deadly weapons, yet its genesis was a dispute between Edwin Forrest, one of the best-known American actors of that time, and William Charles Macready, a similarly notable English actor, which largely revolved around which of them was better than the other at acting the major roles of Shakespeare.
In the first half of the nineteenth century theater as entertainment was a mass phenomenon, and theaters were the main gathering places in most towns and cities. As a result, star actors amassed an immensely loyal following, comparable to modern celebrities or sports stars. At the same time, audiences had always treated theaters as places to make their feelings known, not just towards the actors, but towards their fellow theatergoers of different classes or political persuasions, and theater riots were not a rare occurrence in New York.
In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, the American theater was dominated by British actors and managers. The rise of Edwin Forrest as the first American star and the fierce partisanship of his supporters was a first vestige of a home-grown American entertainment business. The riot was the culmination of eighty or more years – since the Stamp Act riots of 1765, when an entire theater was torn apart while British actors were performing on stage – when British actors touring around America had found themselves, because of their prominence and the lack of other visiting targets, the focus of often violent anti-British anger.
The fact that both Forrest and Macready were specialists in Shakespeare can be ascribed to reputation of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century as the icon of Anglo-Saxon culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, wrote in his journal that beings on other planets probably called the Earth “Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s plays were not just the favorites of the educated: in gold rush California, miners whiled away the harsh winter months by sitting around campfires and acting out Shakespeare’s plays from memory; his words were well-known throughout every strata of society.
The roots of the riot were multifold, but had three main strands:
(1) A dispute between Macready, who had the reputation as the greatest British actor of his generation, and Forrest, the first real American theatrical star. Their friendship became a virulent theatrical rivalry, in part because of the poisonous Anglo-American relations of the 1840s. The question of who was the greater actor became a notorious bone of contention in the British and, particularly, the American media, which filled columns with discussions of their respective merits.
(2) A growing sense of cultural alienation from Britain among mainly working-class Americans, along with Irish immigrants; though nativist Americans were hostile to Irish immigrants, both found a common cause against the British.
(3) A class struggle between those groups, who largely supported Forrest, and the largely Anglophile upper classes, who supported Macready. The two actors became figureheads for Britain and America, and their rivalry came to encapsulate two opposing views about the future of American culture.
It was ironic that both were famous as Shakespearean actors: in an America that had yet to establish its own theatrical traditions, the way to prove its cultural prowess was to do Shakespeare as well as the British, and even to claim that Shakespeare, had he been alive at the time, would have been, at heart at least, an American.
Macready and Forrest had each toured each other’s country twice before the riot broke out. On Macready’s second visit to America, Forrest had taken to pursuing him around the country and appearing in the same plays to challenge him. Given the tenor of the time, most newspapers supported the “home-grown” star Forrest. On Forrest’s second visit to London, he was less popular than on his first trip, and he could only explain it to himself by deciding that Macready had maneuvered against him. He went to a performance of Macready playing Hamlet and loudly hissed him. For his part, Macready had announced that he thought Forrest was without “taste.”The ensuing scandal followed Macready on his third and last trip to America, where at one point the carcass of half a dead sheep was thrown at him on the stage. The climate worsened when Forrest instigated divorce proceedings against his English wife for immoral conduct, and the verdict came down against Forrest on the day Macready arrived in New York for his farewell tour.
Forrest’s connections with working people and the gangs of New York were substantial: he had made his debut at the Bowery Theatre, which had come to cater mostly to a working class audience, drawn largely from the violent immigrant-heavy Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan a few blocks to the west. Forrest’s muscular frame and impassioned delivery was deemed admirably “American” by his working-class fans, especially compared to Macready’s more subdued and genteel style. Wealthier theatergoers, to avoid mingling with the immigrants and the Five Points crowd, had built the Astor Place Opera House near the junction of Broadway – where the entertainment venues catered to the upper classes – and the Bowery – the working-class entertainment area. With its dress code of kid gloves and white vests, the very existence of the Astor Opera House was taken as a provocation by populist Americans for whom the theater was traditionally the gathering place for all classes.
Macready was scheduled to appear in Macbeth at the Opera House – which, unable to survive on a a full season of opera, had opened itself to less elevated entertainment, and was operating with the name “Astor Place Theatre”. Forrest was scheduled to perform Macbeth on the same night, only a few blocks away at the huge Broadway Theater.
On May 7, 1849, three nights before the riot, Forrest’s supporters bought hundreds of tickets to the top level of the Astor Opera House, and brought Macready’s performance of Macbeth to a grinding halt by throwing at the stage rotten eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons, shoes, bottles of stinking liquid and ripped up seats. The performers persisted in the face of hissing, groans and cries of “Shame, shame!” and “Down with the codfish aristocracy!”, but were forced to perform in pantomime, as they could not make themselves heard over the crowd. Meanwhile, at Forrest’s May 7 performance, the audience rose and cheered when Forrest spoke Macbeth’s line “What rhubarb, senna or what prgative drug will scour these English hence?”
After his disastrous performance, Macready announced his intention to leave for Britain on the next boat, but he was persuaded to stay and perform again by a petition signed by 47 well-heeled New Yorkers – including authors Herman Melville and Washington Irving – who informed the actor that “the good sense and respect for order prevailing in this community will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performance.” On May 10, Macready once again took the stage as Macbeth.
On the day of the riot, police chief George Washington Matsell having informed him that there was not sufficient manpower to quell a serious riot, Caleb S. Woodhull, the new Whig mayor, called out the militia. General Charles Sandford assembled the state’s Seventh Regiment, along with mounted troops, light artillery and hussars, in Washington Square Park, a total of 350 men, who would be added to the 100 policemen outside the theater in support of the 150 inside. Additional policemen were assigned to protect the homes in the area of the city’s “uppertens”, the wealthy and elite.
On the other side, similar preparations took place. Determined to embarrass the newly ensconced Whig powers, Tammany Hall man Captain Isaiah Rynders, a fervent backer of Forrest who had been one of those behind the mobilization against Macready on May 7, distributed handbills and posters in saloons and restaurants across the city, inviting working men and patriots to show their feelings about the British, asking “SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?” Tickets to Macready’s May 10 show were handed out, free, as well as plans for where people should deploy.
By the time the play opened at 7:30, as scheduled, up to 10,000 people filled the streets around the theater. Among those who supported Forrest cause, one of the most prominent was Ned Buntline, a dime novelist who was Rynders’ chief assistant. Buntline and his followers had set up relays to bombard the theater with stones, and fought running battles with the police. They and others inside tried, but failed, to set fire to the building; many of the anti-Macready ticket-holders having been screened and prevented from coming inside in the first place. As the theater fell in on their heads, the audience was in a state of siege; nonetheless, Macready finished the play, again in “dumb show”, and only then slipped out in disguise.
Fearing they had lost control of the city, the authorities called out the troops, who arrived at 9:15, only to be jostled, attacked and injured. Finally, the soldiers lined up and, after unheard warnings, opened fire, first into the air and then several times at point blank range into the crowd. Many of those killed were innocent bystanders, and almost all of the casualties were from the working class; seven of the dead were Irish immigrants.Dozens of injured and dead were laid out in nearby saloons and shops, and the next morning mothers and wives combed the streets and morgues for their loved ones.
The New York Tribune reported that “As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community.”
The next night, May 11, a meeting was called in City Hall Park which was attended by thousands, with speakers crying out for revenge against the authorities whose actions they held responsible for the fatalities. During the melee, a young boy was killed. An angry crowd headed up Broadway toward Astor Place and fought running battles with mounted troops from behind improvised barricades, but this time the authorities quickly got the upper hand.
As a result of the riot, 22-31 rioters were killed and 48 were wounded, and 50-70 policeman were injured. Of the militia, 141 were injured by the various missiles.Three judges presided over a related trial, including Charles Patrick Daly, a judge on the New York Court of Common Pleas, who pressed for convictions.
The city’s elite were unanimous in their praise of the authorities for taking a hard-line against the rioters. Publisher James Watson Webb wrote:
The promptness of the authorities in calling out the armed forces and the unwavering steadiness with which the citizens obeyed the order to fire on the assembled mob, was an excellent advertisement to the Capitalists of the old world, that they might send their property to New York and rely upon the certainty that it would be safe from the clutches of red republicanism, or chartists, or communionists of any description.
According to Nigel Cliff in The Shakespeare Riots, the riots furthered the process of class alienation and segregation in New York City and America; as part of that process, the entertainment world separated into “respectable” and “working-class” orbits. As professional actors gravitated to respectable theaters and vaudeville houses responded by mounting skits on “serious” Shakespeare, Shakespeare was gradually removed from popular culture into a new category of highbrow entertainment. Though Forrest’s reputation was badly damaged, his heroic style of acting can be seen in the matinee idols of early Hollywood and performers such as John Barrymore.
Astor Opera House did not survive its reputation as the “Massacre Opera House” at “DisAster Place,” as burlesques and minstrel shows called it. It began another season, but soon gave up the ghost, the building eventually going to the New York Mercantile Library. The elite’s need for an opera house was met with the opening of the Academy of Music, farther uptown at 15th Street and Irving Place, away from the working-class precincts and the rowdyness of the Bowery. Nevertheless, the creators of that theater learned at least one lesson from the riot and the demise of the Astor Opera House: the new venue was less strictly divided by class than the old one had been.