May 12, 1849 (Saturday)

Rainy again to-day.  Nothing new or strange, except a good deal of excitement concerning the late disgraceful riots in New York.

Accompanied Miss F—y C—t, librarian, to the Apprentices’ Library, this evening, and assisted in registering and marking new books.

Nathan first mentions helping Miss Fanny Clement at the Apprentices’ Library on April 21.

The riots, now known as the Astor Place Riots, left at least twenty civilians dead and perhaps another one hundred civilians, policemen, and militiamen injured. The violent disturbance had many causes including extreme patriotism, strong anti-British and anti-immigrant sentiments, class struggle, the machinations of the Democrats and the Whigs, the fomenting of the Know-Nothings, and the intense rivalry between Shakespearean actors Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready.

Forrest, the first American theatrical super-star, was the favorite of the Irish immigrants and the underclass. The English Macready was the favorite of the anglophile uppercrust.  The competition between the men went back to 1826 when the two made their New York debuts.  While touring England in 1846, the vain Forrest who was known for his muscular and robust performances, went as far as booing and hissing at Macready at the latter’s performances in Edinburgh. On May 7, 1849 Macready was scheduled to play Macbeth at the Astor Opera House while Forrest purposely scheduled himself in the same role on the same night at Broadway Theatre.  The emotional fires  did not need to be stoked, yet rumors were spread in the Bowery, in Five Points, and on the Elysian Fields across the river in Hoboken that Macready had insulted Forrest, his supporters, and, well, America itself.  Hundreds of tickets for Macready’s performance were purchased by the Know Nothings and Democratic leadership and distributed to Forrest’s followers.  Macready and his fellow actors were insulted, shouted down, and pelted with rotten food. Someone threw half a sheep’s carcass at Macready’s feet (what did the ticket taker think as the guy with the carcass passed through the turnstile?).  Incredibly, the actors finished the performance in pantomime. After the performance, Macready was ready to head back to England, but his “friends,” including Herman Melville and Washington Irving, convinced him to remain.

Macready attempted to perform again at the Astor Opera House on May 10.  This time, an estimated 10,000 people came to protest.  Many ticket holders were refused entry and violence ensued. Rocks and cobbles were thrown at the building and at policeman.  Razing the theatre by fire was threatened.  New York mayor C. S. Woodhull called out the militia to quell the riot.  After firing a warning volley, the militia fired into the crowd multiple times.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on May 12 that all but one of the victims were merely spectators.  Macready, disguised, managed to escape and left for England via Boston.

Astor Place Opera House Riots

Astor Place Opera House riots, May 10, 1849 (source: NYPL Digital Library)

Sources:

“Astor Place Riots”  The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, 3rd edn., Gerald Bordman and Thomas S. Hischak, eds., Oxford University Press 2004. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Simmons College Libraries.  8 May 2011  <http://0-www.oxfordreference.com.library.simmons.edu/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t149.e0173&gt;

“Astor Place Riot.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astor_Place_Riot : accessed 8 May 2011.

Cliff, Nigel. The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Random House, 2007.

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