In the history of New York, there are many riots of note. There is the Police Riot, the Dead Rabbit Riots, the Flour Riot of 1837, and several others. The reason for the sheer amount of riots is actually a combination of factors, all of which are fairly straight forward. Poverty, lack of policing, the crowding of people together into small locations, all have played their part to create the metaphorical powder-keg, and all simply needed one event, large or small, to light the fuse. One of the more peculiar events that touched off a riot was a pair of competing productions of Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth.
There were three key items that played into the creation of this riot. The first was the very public feud between two leading actors of the day, American Edwin Forrest and Englishman William Charles Macready. The Second was the jingoistic fervor stoked by the likes of the Nativists. The third was the ever-growing chasm between the rich, who looked towards Europe for their cultural cues, and the lower classes, who, as previously implied, thought that American culture should be dictated by Americans. These three items played off of one another, leading to an explosion of violence that left over twenty people dead.
The actors set the stage long before appearing in New York, beginning over a public disagreement about the interpretation of the character of Hamlet sometime in the early to mid 1840′s, where Forrest, whilst in the audience at a production in Edinburgh, stood up and hissed Macready. Forrest had believed the Macready had hissed Forrest’s performance of Macbeth while in London, but there is little evidence of this. However, several members of the British press did document Forrest’s hissing, and criticized him thoroughly in the press, and harmed his European reputation greatly. From that point on, the two were rivals.
Both tried to get under each other’s skin, with Macready stocking the audiences in Europe with his friends and fans wherever Forrest played, and jeered him. And when Macready undertook an American tour of various productions, Forrest (whose reputation was far greater in America) would book a show in a different theater in the same town, undercutting Macready’s take in any given town, and often getting less press than Forrest would get.
It was this act of these two actors performing the in two separate theaters that led them to New York City in May of 1849. Macready’s production of Macbeth was at the Astor Place Opera House (located on Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 8th Street), and Forrest was performing Spartacus at the Bowery Theater (which resided the area between Elizabeth, Canal, and Hester streets).
Enter the Nativists, who, none to keen on the English, started handing out placards like the one to the right here. Creating an environment of “Us vs. Them”, and keen to stoke the hatred of the English, the Nativists used the Macready/Forrest feud for their own political gains. The Nativists used the opportunity to point out the class differences between those that visited the Astor Place Opera House and those who frequented the Bowery Theater. For them, real Americans were the hard-working lower and middle classes, and for them, only American products, even American productions of Macbeth, would do.
In a strange twist of history, the Nativists were helped out by the ever-increasing Irish population of New York, who also could never resist the urge of tweaking the nose of the English. While the Nativists would typically spurn the Catholic immigrants in most cases, when it came to Macready and his production of Macbeth, the Irish and the Nativists were of the same mind.
On May 7, 1849, when Macready took the stage, he would soon learn that the audience was filled, not only with the upper class of New York City, but several of the Bowery B’hoys. Apparently, the manager of the Opera House, in order to compete against the Bowery Theater, gave away promotional tickets, resulting in two important facts. For one, the size of the audience was now larger than the theater could hold. For two, most of the promotional tickets had been taken by people intent on disturbing the theater.
The first act went as scripted, but at the beginning of the second, Macready found himself jeered and taunted, and several dozen of the audience began pelting him with rotten eggs, copper pennies, potatoes, lemons, and rocks. Macready fled the stage.
The next two nights, he refused to go on stage. This only served to stoke the jeering of the working class men who had wanted to taunt the Englishmen, and now had made habit of appearing outside of the Astor Opera House. Seeking to defuse the situation, on May 10, Macready decided that he should perform. The police were called to maintain order, and the ticket holders were vetted before going in, but still the Nativists had made it inside. By the time the curtains were drawn, there were anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 outside the theater, and a handful more of rioter on the inside. The soon surged the stage, but the police were able to remove them from the premises, to the cheers of those outside.
By now, those who frequented the Opera house were looking toward a solution, a method to disperse the large crowd outside the theater. The Seventh Regiment was called in, and arrived on scene at 10pm. An order was given to shoot over the heads of the crowd, but when carrying out this order, the regiment fired into the crowd instead. Eighteen died on site, and another four would die from their wounds in the following days. The mob soon fled.
Over the course of the subsequent weeks, public opinion was divided as to who was responsible. Did the regiment over-react? Was the city government more keen on protecting the interests of the wealthy ? Were the various gangs to blame?
Ten of the rioters were tried in September, 1849, in the Court of General Sessions, New York before Judge Daly. After a trial lasting fifteen days, the jury found all ten guilty. Sentences varied from one month in prison to one year and a fine of $250.00. The members of the regiment were never charged.
However, the Astor Opera House would forever be remembered as a place of mob violence. It never recovered from its reputation, and closed in 1850.