163 years ago, May 10, 1849, a theatrical riot, one of the bloodiest public disturbances in the antebellum period, broke out at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City at 13 Astor Place in which several people were killed and many more wounded.
To understand the cause of the riot it is necessary to put the environment of the city in proper historical context.
In 1849, the United States and especially in New York City, bitter feelings toward the British over the Revolution and the War of 1812 were still fresh in public memory. In American minds, British actors represented the tyranny of aristocracy; and the New York Irish, in particular, loathed the British for their repressive measures against the Irish in their homeland, and in general, resented their wealth and pompous upper class snobbery.
This pent-up animosity and class warfare, which had been brewing for some time between the upper class and the poor and neglected, reached its tipping point on the night of May 10, 1849.
The protagonists of this class warfare pitted American Shakespeare actor, Edwin Forrest against William C. Macready, a British actor, also a Shakespearean actor, who publicly expressed contempt for American audiences. The two couldn’t have been more different. While Macready played to a refined polite upper class audience at New York’s Astor Place Theater, Forrest preferred working audiences at the Bowery Theater, which predominantly catered to immigrant groups, including the Irish, Germans, and Chinese. Astor Place, moreover, was a luxurious Opera House, requiring a dress code, including kid-gloves (especially for Italian operas), while charging patrons a $1 a ticket, four times the price of what other New York theaters were charging.
The hostility between these two belligerent thespians weathered a stormy history. When in London, Forrest was often booed and jeered by theatergoers hired by Macready, while Forrest usually returned the favor, such as in Edinburgh, when he booed Macready himself during one of his performances.
Their ongoing feud was well known among theatergoers, representing a welcome source of entertainment.
When Macready went on an Ameican tour in 1848, Forrest followed suit and the two continued to exchange insults when their paths crossed. On his scheduled trip to New York City, the working class saw a perfect opportunity to vent their animosity toward this uppity Englishman. Most of the working class were organized in various clubs and gangs, especially the Irish or the Bowery B’hoys led by Tammany Hall's Captain Isaiah Rynders -who turned up in such large numbers it could have easily been mistaken for a military police battalion.
During the performance of May 7, 1849, these groups discharged a number of verbal attacks, such as `huzzah for native talent’’ and ``three groans for the English bulldog’’ while hurling rotten eggs, potatoes and chairs.
Enraged, Macready decided to head back to England, but stayed only because a group of petitioners begged him to stay; among the group of petitioners, which published their letter in the New York Herald on May 9, 1849, were Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Cornelius Mathews, Evert Duyckinck and 43 other prominent citizens.
A Footnote: Melville lived in a house on Fourth Avenue, near the corner of 11th Street, three short blocks from the Opera House, and less than a five-minute walk.
To counter this petition signed by Melville and other prominent residents, leaders of the Native American Party posted handbills all over the city, asking: ``WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE IN THIS CITY?, while New York City gangs posted placards calling for their supporters to the ``English Aristocratic Opera House’’ pressing them to`` burn the damned den of the Aristocracy.’’
The theater refused to sell tickets to the threadbare scruffy patrons who tried to enter. Some managed to sneak in anyway and let loose a battery of stinging insults toward Macready as soon as the curtain was raised. They were quickly arrested. But the real trouble was only beginning. An angry mob estimated between 10-15,000, which had gathered outside, began heaving rocks and smashing windows. With an unarmed police force, New York City Mayor Caleb Smith Woodhull had little choice but to call in the National Guard with orders to fire at the crowd if necessary.
At first, the militia just fired in the air, but as stones continued to be thrown in their direction-they fired a spray of bullets directly into the crowd until they dispersed. By the time it was over, 22 people (at least by some estimates) were killed and more than 100 wounded.
The New York Herald on May 11, 1849, wrote the following firsthand account of the riot: ``The house itself was filled to the dome. A great portion of the assemblage in the theater consisted of policemen who had been distributed all over the house in detached parties. Macready’s appearance was a signal for a great explosion of feeling. Hisses, groans, shouts of derision assailed him, intermingled with loud cries of ``Out with him!’’, ``Out with him!’’
The Astor Place riots were significant from a social perspective in that it woke people up to the class combat rupturing the city that needed to be addressed. As The Philadelphia Public Ledger wrote:``There is now in our country, in New York City, what every good patriot hitherto had considered it his duty to deny-a high and a low class.’’
The New York Herald in its editorial "Mobocracy’’, took a more militant stand in suggesting that mobs ``must be not only encountered, but crushed into utter and helpless impotency," while Horace Greeley's New York Tribune argued the reason for the riot were due to economic hardship, most notably high unemployment, poverty, and discouraged immigrants feeling left out of the American dream.
Dennis Berthold, writing in the journal ,``American Literature’’ (September, 1999) noted that ``The Astor Place riot gave credence to conservative warnings about mobs, anarchy, and "Red Republicans," and forced theoretic democrats to confront the reality of class conflict in America.’’
After the dust had finally settled, the most substantial consequence of the Astor Place riots were the reforms put into operation for the poorly trained and often unarmed police department. Beginning in 1853, officers were given uniforms and in 1857, the state legislature created the Metropolitan Police for the city of New York, Brooklyn (which was independent from New York at the time) and Westchester County.
May 10, 2012