The 1849 Astor Place Riot Revealed Splits In Urban Society

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McNamara, Robert. "The 1849 Astor Place Riot Revealed Splits In Urban Society." ThoughtCo, Oct. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/astor-place-riot-1773778. McNamara, Robert. (2017, October 3). The 1849 Astor Place Riot Revealed Splits In Urban Society. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/astor-place-riot-1773778 McNamara, Robert. "The 1849 Astor Place Riot Revealed Splits In Urban Society." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/astor-place-riot-1773778 (accessed October 18, 2017).

The Astor Place Riot was a violent episode involving thousands of people confronting a detachment of uniformed militia in the streets of New York City on May 10, 1849. More than 20 people were killed and many more injured when soldiers fired into an unruly crowd.

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Bloody Street Fight Provoked By Opera House Actors

Lithograph showing the Astor Place Riot of 1849 in New York City
The Astor Place Riot Showed Deep Splits In American Society. Library of Congress

Astoundingly, the riot appeared to have been sparked by the appearance at an upscale opera house of a famous British Shakespearean actor, William Charles Macready. A bitter rivalry with an American actor, Edwin Forrest, festered until it led to violence which mirrored deep societal divisions in the rapidly growing city.

The event was often called the Shakespeare Riots. Yet the bloody incident certainly had much deeper roots. The two thespians were, in a sense, proxies for opposite sides of a growing class division in American urban society.

The venue for Macready’s performance, the Astor Opera House, had been designated as a theater for the upper class. And the pretensions of its moneyed patrons had become offensive to an emerging street culture embodied by “B’hoys,” or “Bowery Boys.”

And when the rioting crowd hurled stones at members of the Seventh Regiment and received gunfire in return, there was more happening below the surface than any disagreement over who best could perform the role of Macbeth.

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Actors Macready and Forrest Became Enemies

The rivalry between the British actor Macready and his American counterpart Forrest had started years earlier. Macready had toured America, and Forrest essentially followed him, performing the same roles in different theaters.

The idea of dueling actors was popular with the public. And when Forrest embarked on a tour of Macready's home turf of England, crowds came to see him. The transatlantic rivalry flourished.

However, when Forrest returned to England in the mid-1840s for a second tour, crowds were sparse. Forrest blamed his rival, and showed up at a Macready performance and loudly hissed from the audience.

The rivalry, which had been more or less good-natured to that point, turned very bitter. And when Macready returned to America in 1849, Forrest again booked himself into nearby theaters.

The controversy between the two actors became symbolic of a divide in American society. Upper-class New Yorkers, identified with the British gentleman Macready, and the lower class New Yorkers, rooted for the American, Forrest.

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The Prelude to the Riot

On the night of May 7, 1849, Macready was about to take the stage in a production of “Macbeth” when scores of working class New Yorkers who had bought tickets began filling the seats of the Astor Opera House. The rough-looking crowd had obviously shown up to cause trouble.

When Macready came onstage, protests began with boos and hisses. And as the actor stood silently, waiting for the commotion to subside, eggs were thrown at him.

The performance had to be canceled. And Macready, outraged and angry, announced the next day that he would be leaving America immediately. He was urged to stay by upper class New Yorkers, who wanted him to continue performing at the opera house.

“Macbeth” was rescheduled for the evening of May 10th, and the city government stationed a militia company, with horses and artillery, in nearby Washington Square Park. Downtown toughs, from the neighborhood known as the Five Points, headed uptown. Everyone expected trouble.

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The May 10th Riot

On the day of the riot, preparations were made on both sides. The opera house where Macready was to perform was fortified, its windows barricaded. Scores of policemen were stationed inside, and the audience was screened when entering the building.

Outside, crowds gathered, determined to storm the theater. Handbills denouncing Maccready and his fans as British subjects imposing their values on Americans had enraged many immigrant Irish workers who joined the mob.

As Macready took the stage, trouble began in the street. A crowd tried to charge the opera house, and police wielding clubs attacked them. As the fighting swelled, a company of soldiers marched up Broadway and turned east on Eighth Street, headed to the theater.

As the militia company approached, rioters pelted them with bricks. In danger of being overrun by the large crowd, the soldiers were ordered to fire their rifles at the rioters.

More than 20 rioters were shot dead, and many were wounded. The city was shocked, and news of the violence traveled quickly to other places via telegraph.

Macready fled the theater through a back exit, and somehow made it to his hotel. There was a fear, for a time, that a mob would sack his hotel and kill him. That didn’t happen, and the next day he fled New York, turning up in Boston a few days later.

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Legacy of the Astor Place Riot

The day after the riot was tense in New York City. Crowds gathered in lower Manhattan, intent on marching uptown and attacking the opera house. But when they tried to move northward, armed police blocked the way.

Somehow calm was restored. And while the rioting had revealed the deep divisions within urban society, New York wouldn’t see major rioting again for years, when the city would explode in the 1863 Draft Riots at the height of the Civil War.