The Astor Place Riot
A quarrel over the merits of American and British actors led to an astonishing outbreak of violence in New York.
Theatres in the nineteenth century were a place where citizens of all social classes could gather and where loud expressions of opinion and taste could burst into riotous disorder. In 1849 the issue was whether American actors, exemplified by 45-year-old star Edwin Forrest, had attained an excellence in their portrayal of Shakespearean characters that was the equal of British actors, such as the touring player, the venerable Edwin Charles Macready. The two men had a history of hostility dating back to earlier tours of England which had resulted in threats of lawsuits and nasty letters to newspapers. Back in the U.S.A., Forrest had pressed the question by following Macready’s troupe about the country and challenging him by performing the same roles. Throw in the anti-British sentiment espoused by American patriots and recent Irish immigrants and you have an explosive situation in the making. Worse yet, was Forrest’s appeal to working class toughs and street gangs who claimed to prefer his rugged “American” style of acting to the more refined techniques of his foreign rival.
On May 7, 1849, Macready’s performance of Macbeth was interrupted by elements in the audience who pelted the stage with fruit, pennies and rotten eggs, while ripping up seats, hissing, and crying “Shame!” Though the actors tried to continue, the show had to be cancelled. The elderly Macready vowed to return to Britain in high dudgeon but influential New Yorkers urged him to stay and assured him that the better natures of the townsfolk would prevail. Alas it was not to be; the lower orders resented the interference of the upper class and were bent on mayhem.
Three nights later, Macready attempted to put on the Scottish play once more, and once more sections of the audience were determined to drive him from the stage. But the real problems were outside the theatre where a mob of 10,000 had gathered, armed with stones and bottles. For them, opposition to Macready was a patriotic act — street posters had stirred them up, demanding “SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?” Someone attempted to set the theatre on fire.
Knowing that the local police were not up to the task, the Governor had summoned the state militia to protect the performance and to guard the residences of the well-to-do. When the mob would not disperse, a tragic decision was taken. In the words of a contemporary account:
At last the awful word was given to fire—there was a gleam of sulphurous light, a sharp quick rattle, and here and there in the crowd a man sank upon the pavement with a deep groan or a death rattle. Then came a more furious attack, and a wild yell of vengeance! Then the rattle of another death-dealing volley, far more fatal than the first. The ground was covered with killed and wounded—the pavement was stained with blood. A panic seized the multitude, which broke and scattered in every direction. In the darkness of the night yells of rage, screams of agony, and dying groans were mingled together. Groups of men took up the wounded and the dead, and conveyed them to the neighboring apothecary shops, station-houses, and the hospital.
The result was up to 30 dead, most innocent bystanders, and a sharpening of class hostility in New York.