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Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House (1849)

The Astor Place Riot (10 May 1849) is one of the odder events in the history of violence in America. Apparently precipitated by a rivalry between actors Edwin Forrest and William Macready (it was referred to as the “Forrest and Macready riots” in actor Joseph Jefferson’s autobiography), the riot was built less on their rivalry than it was on a greater rivalry between the U. S. and England.

In 1849, Americans were feeling stung by the English. In 1832, Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans had described Americans as backward, backwoods, illiterate, and inelegant. In 1839, Frederick Marryat’s published diary described backwoods Americans as backward and provincial. In 1842, Charles Dickens had disappointed Americans eager for his description of his travels through their country by publishing American Notes, in which Americans appeared as backward, backwoods, and provincial. His Martin Chuzzlewit appeared in 1843 through 1844; in its American scenes, the citizenry is pretty much backward, backwoods, provincial, and obsessed with money and honor. It had been a pretty hard decade for English-American relations.

It had also been a pretty hard decade for Forrest and Macready. Each was the reigning tragedian in his own nation—Forrest in America, and Macready in Ireland—and both were ripe to cross swords whenever they crossed paths. According to Joseph Jefferson—a popular comedian who worked with both men—both were volatile, with tempers that could flare quickly. Forrest could be a diva: Jefferson once had to talk him into performing when a rehearsal of Metamora—Forrest’s most famous part—went wrong. (The performance itself featured a prop knife sailing out to hit an unsuspecting orchestra member, bloodthirsty warriors tripping on a bow and tumbling across the stage, a stage fire getting out of hand during a melodramatic moment, and a sudden and undignified end to the play.) Macready could be a bit of a terror to other actors, who mocked him for his “Macready tantrums”; he was, apparently, one of those actors unable to adlib:

As soon as Macready entered the theater he began to assume the character he was going to enact. He would remain in his dressing-room absorbed with the play; no one was permitted to enter; his dresser was not allowed to speak to him, but stood outside ready to open the door just before it was time for the actor to go upon the stage. If the mechanism of the play remained intact, he became lost in his character and produced grand effects, but if by some carelessness he was recalled to himself, the chain was broken and he could not reunite it. He now realized that his acting would be tame, and then his rage knew no bounds; he would seize the unlucky actor who had “ruined him,” shake him, throw him aside, and rushing to his dressing-room fall exhausted upon the sofa. (Joseph Jefferson. The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson, ed. Alan S. Downer. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1964; pp. 35-36)

Jefferson once actually set Macready’s wig on fire when a scene was blocked wrong in rehearsal and Jefferson had to pass too close to Macready with a lit torch: “[T]his could have been avoided if he had but moved six inches further up the stage when he saw me coming; but no, he had never shifted from that spot before, why should he do so now? I believe if I had singed his very eyebrows he would have stood his ground.” (p. 37)

Personalities and national pride combined badly when the two actors appeared in each other’s theaters. Macready may have begun it in 1827, making a remark seemingly derogatory to the U. S. when stage business went wrong during a performance in Baltimore. Forrest flared up when his British performances, in the early 1840s, were met with stinging criticism from a critic who Forrest assumed was influenced by Macready. Forrest attended a performance of Macready’s Hamlet, which one contemporary describes as “bad … lachrymose and fretful; too fond of a cambric pocket-handkerchief to be really effective.” (George Henry Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting; in Laurence Hutton. Curiosities of the American Stage. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891. Reproduced New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968; pp. 274, 277) The waving handkerchief and an apparent dance performed by Hamlet annoyed the already irritated Forrest, who hissed. And the battle was on.

Macready’s appearance at the Astor Place Opera House in 1849 provided an opportunity for theater managers to play up the rivalry between actors and nations. It had started in 1848, when Macready began his tour of the U. S. and Philadelphia audiences protested him, cheered him, and pelted him with pennies and rotten eggs and the occasional bouquet. After a week where Forrest and Macready acted in different Philadelphia theaters—often in the same part in the same play on the same night—the rivalry traveled south, to Baltimore, then paused while Macready toured the South and Midwest.

In April 1849, as Macready made his way back to New York, Forrest issued letter after letter condemning him. When Macready reached New York, Forrest was in his second week at the Broadway Theater, and the rivalry started up again. New York audiences were primed to hear insult when Macready opened his mouth. New York toughs were primed to defend the honor of their insulted nation. “English” Macready would pay for insulting an American actor. The situation was, of course, more complicated than that. Economic class appears to have been a factor, judging by some newspaper accounts. So, probably, was immigration: New York had large numbers of Irish immigrants trying to make their way through a country that considered them ignorant and low. Macready was Irish. Perhaps Americans saw a chance to strike out against a changing world in striking a blow against the supposed tyranny of England; perhaps frustrated immigrants saw their chance to strike out; perhaps Macready’s Irishness was an unconscious factor; perhaps it wasn’t. Certainly a number of Irish immigrants were involved, judging by the list of fatalities.

Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House” is a slightly tabloid-y investigation into what happened on May 10, 1849. It’s vivid, slightly turgid, and unapologetically pro-Forrest. And more than a little anti-military: the writer seems convinced that the authorities facing an unruly mob panicked. The panic was, apparently, understandable, as authorities hadn’t had much recent practice: while authorities in the City of Brotherly Love had dealt with “the most disgraceful outrages,” in New York “[f]or ten years, there had not been one serious riot.” (p. 19) Good thing, given what happened in 1849.

My copy of this pamphlet is apparently a variant edition with a beige cover: other copies described by online booksellers have covers of blue-gray paper. My copy is missing its back cover, on which the illustration of the riot which serves as a frontispiece is reproduced. I’ve also transcribed several dozen newspaper accounts of the Riot and the events leading to it. Readers wishing to have a more thorough understanding of the Riot will want to read Nigel Cliff’s highly entertaining The Shakespeare Riots (NY: Random House, 2007).

Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House is available here, with transcriptions of newspaper pieces on the actors and the Riot.

Account and the transcriptions are available as an ebook at Barnes & Noble and amazon.

Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House (1849)

Edwin Forrest, William Macready, and the Astor Place Riot in contemporary newspapers

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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