For the desperate or the discontented it doesn’t take much to spark a riot. In this series we will be looking at some of the more unusual straws that broke the camel’s back.
The Astor Place Riot – May 10th 1849
Supporting one faction or another can raise tensions. We are all too familiar with dust ups between groups claiming to support their respective sporting teams but the genesis of the Astor Place riot sprang from factions supporting the claims of two rival actors, Edwin Forrest and William Macready.
Macready was reputed to be the finest English actor of his generation while Forrest was the first authentic American star. The two had a long standing rivalry. When Forrest appeared on the London stage in Hamlet, Macready sat in the audience and loudly hissed his performance, claiming that the American was without taste. Anglo-American relations were poor in the 1840s and the two rival actors became figure heads in the debate as to where American culture was to go- was it to follow slavishly the British route as favoured by the ruling classes or develop its own distinctive style as favoured by many of the settlers of non-English origin.
On 7th May 1849 Macready appeared at the Astor Opera House in a performance of Macbeth. Forrest’s supporters bought hundreds of tickets and disrupted the English actor’s performance by pelting the stage with rotten eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons, shoes, bottles of stinking liquid and ripped up seats. The performers gamely carried on but their words were drowned out amid shouts of “Shame, shame” and “Down with the codfish aristocracy”. Meanwhile, Forrest in a separate was cheered to the rafters when he declaimed Macbeth’s “What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug will scour these English hence”.
Macready was all for getting the next boat back to Blighty but was persuaded by some of his aristocratic supporters, including Washington Irving and Hermann Melville, to give one more performance, on the fateful 10th of May. Both sides made plans for the big day. The newly installed Whig administration, fearing that they had insufficient manpower to quell a serious disturbance called out the militia while the Forrest faction handed out free tickets to the show, printed handbills asking shall Americans or English rule this city and mobilised the mobs.
By the time the performance commenced at 7.30 up to 10,000 people were in the streets around the theatre. Teams of rioters bombarded the theatre with stones and tried unsuccessfully to set it on fire. In true theatrical tradition, despite the considerable damage caused to the building, Macready continued with his performance with the audience held effectively under siege and after the show was over managed to slip away in disguise.
By 9.15 the troops were called out. Despite issuing warnings which many bystanders claim were not heard they initially fired shots into the air and then into the crowd at point blank range. Many of those killed were bystanders and almost all were from the working classes. Dozens of dead and injured were laid out in nearby shops and salons and relatives began the gruesome task of claiming or identifying their loved ones.
The following night a meeting was held, attended by thousands, at which the actions of the authorities were blamed for the casualties and motions were passed seeking revenge. Intermittent rioting broke out that night but the authorities were eventually able to restore order.
In all between 21 and 33 rioters were killed and some 48 injured with around 50 to 70 policemen and 141 militia injured. The riots furthered the process of alienation and segregation in New York City, Shakespeare became the preserve of the elite rather than the working class and the Astor Opera House never really recovered its former pre-eminent position.