No. 522
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 17, 2021

The Astor Place Riot

August 15, 2011
...
...

The following tale comes from that classic collection of mostly first-hand accounts of supernatural encounters, "Lord Halifax's Ghost Book."  It was related to Lord Halifax in 1920 by his nephew, Charles Dundas.  Dundas had recently heard the tale from a renowned Royal Air Force pilot named Edward Villiers.  (Later Sir Edward Villiers.)  It is one of the briefest stories in the "Ghost Book," but
More...
Strange Company - 5/17/2021

`
LOOK OUT FOR "SOAPY" SMITHSt. Louis DispatchSeptember 23, 1897(Click image to enlarge) e reported himself in good health and money."   New information showing that Soapy Smith did go to St. Louis to check up on his ailing wife, Mary, after leaving Skagway.  Below is the transcription of the article from the St. Louis Dispatch, September 23, 1897. LOOK OUT FOR “SOAPY” SMITH ― The Smooth Man
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/11/2021

Born in 1870 and completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths), the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday this week. What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 5/17/2021
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
More...
Executed Today - 11/13/2020
The crack of gunfire startled the residents of 88 Merrimack Street, a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 10:00, the night of  August 31, 1876. The boarders rushed to Lulu Martin’s room on the third floor, where the shot was fired. The door was locked; they heard a man inside shouting, “Go for the police! She has shot me! I will hold her! Break open the door!”A group of men broke in
More...
Murder By Gaslight - 5/15/2021

Along with Bertie Whitehead, Abby’s half-sister, May 13th was also the birthday of Helen Craig, famous stage actress best-remembered for Johnny Belinda. Helen Craig, who played Abby in The Legend of Lizzie Borden was born May 13, 1912, a month after Titanic sank. Helen Craig was not a great beauty by Hollywood standards, but a very fine actress. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0185871/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Her portrayal of Abby Borden as a mean, greedy glutton, more than any other thing, has affected the way most people think of Abby Borden. Sadly it was not an accurate portrayal. Helen did some television in her later career, most notably The Waltons. She died in New York City in 1986. She was married to stage and film actor John Beal who played Dr. Bowen in Legend of Lizzie Borden. They are seen together in the publicity photo below.
More...
Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/13/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
More...
Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Hid the Girls' Skirts | Shot Down in His Office

The Astor Place Riot

Astor Palace Riot

New York, New York, May 10, 1849 - The night of May 10, 1849, New York City experienced the largest public disturbance it had seen to date. The Astor Place Riot left at least 25 people dead and 120 more injured. What was the burning issue that led to this night of carnage? It was the question of, who was the better Shakespearean actor: England’s William Charles Macready, or America’s Edwin Forrest.

Edwin-Forrest-Macbeth

Edwin Forrest as Macbeth

Americans had always had a strong affinity for Shakespeare.  Settlers travelling west always took a King James Bible; if they had a second book it was, more often than not, the works of Shakespeare. Though the theatre was a much rowdier place than today—alcohol and prostitutions a given—when Americans went to the theatre, they wanted Shakespeare.  When Pennsylvania born, Edwin Forrest, emerged as talented Shakespearean actor, American theatregoers were ecstatic.  Here was an actor who not only played Shakespeare, but looked and acted like an American.  Strong, handsome, and athletic, Forest played the familiar roles, with a forceful style that resonated with American audiences wherever he went. Edwin Forrest was the first American star

macready

William Charles Macready as Macbeth

On his first trip to England, Forrest’s acting style was well received there too. While in England, Forrest met and became friends with William Charles Macready, that country’s foremost Shakespearean actor. While the two men developed a warm friendship, privately, neither had anything positive about the other’s acting.

When Macready came to America, Forrest followed him from city to city, performing the same play, inviting comparison. Forrest thought of it as friendly rivalry, but Macready did not take it that way.  When Forrest toured England again, he was not as well received and he blamed Macready’s influence. In London, Forrest went to see Macready perform Hamlet, and, allegedly, hissed him loudly from the first row.

In 1849, Macready opened another American tour by performing Macbeth at New York’s Astor Place Opera House, while Forrest was playing the same role a few blocks away at the Broadway Theater. This caught the attention of the gangs of New York who, in 1849, had more power than respectable people were willing to admit.

The gangs in the Bowery and Five Points neighborhoods were involved in theft in all its forms, prostitution, blackmail, extortion; and they provided muscle for various political factions. But more than anything else, the gangs loved to fight. Under normal circumstances, the Irish gangs would fight each other—e.g. The Dead Rabbits would fight the Plug Uglies, who would fight the Roach Guards, etc. But when challenged by their arch enemies, the nativist—anti-immigrant—Bowery Boys, all of the Irish gangs would fight together. On rare occasions, when the conflict was downtown versus aristocratic uptown, or England versus America, all of the gangs would fight together. Macready’s performance provided just such an occasion.

During Macready’s first performance at the Astor Place, the gangs bought up hundreds of tickets and filled the theatre with rude boys (pronounced b’hoys.)  When Macready stepped on stage, they booed and hissed, pelting him with eggs, rotten fruit, and other garbage, until Macready left the stage. He decided to cancel his tour, then and there, and return to England, but New York’s literary elite, including Washington Irving, persuaded him to perform again.

6a00e398244402883300e5538383a58833-800wi

This riled the gangs even more. They were now led by the instigation of nativist journalist and dime novel author Ned Buntline, and Tammany Hall boss, Isaiah Rynders, who was anxious to embarrass the newly elected Whig mayor, Caleb S. Woodhull. They covered the city with fliers calling on workingmen to oppose English rule in New York City.

Three nights after the first performance, the theatre was again filled with gang members, threatening to disrupt the performance, but it was also filled with policemen who managed to quell the rowdies enough for Macready to finish the show. However, outside the theatre, a crowd of 10,000 people had amassed and were hurling bricks and rocks at the building. It was too much for the police, the mayor sent for the state militia –two companies of infantry, a light artillery troop, and forty cavalry men.

The troops fired above the crowd and when that produced no results, they fired into the crowd. When the smoke cleared hours later, 25 men were dead and more than a 120 wounded. Macready, barely escaping with his life, managed to board a train to Boston.

Both Forrest and Macready continued acting but their paths never crossed again. Neither man was ever again able to generate the passionate response of that night in 1849.

 

 


Sources:

  • Cliff, Nigel. The Shakespeare riots: revenge, drama, and death in nineteenth-century America. New York: Random House, 2007
  • Duke, Thomas S.. Celebrated criminal cases of America . San Francisco, Cal.: J.H. Barry, 1910..