My first historical theater experience was at 16, when my mom took me to see Jason Robards star as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O’Neil. The dialogue was deep, fast-paced, dramatic, the characters themselves characteristically downmarket. The play, in brief, revolves around a classic crew of bottom-of-the-barrel drunks, has-beens who never were, pimps who claimed they were bartenders and their sleazy whores in a bar at the bottom of a flophouse in lower Manhattan in 1907. Harry Hope, the benevolent proprietor of the Greenwich Village Saloon, had not been outside the establishment in the years since his sainted wife had met her maker.
My virgin column for Riot Material covers an actual historical tragedy connected to a deadly riot at the Astor Place Opera House on the island of Manhattan. The riot took place on May 10, 1849, and is now the location of Cooper Union College. That evening, the mayhem had its roots in a professional feud between two Shakespearean actors from opposite sides of the Atlantic. The fuss was over who was the superior in expressing the great Bard’s lines.
The early years of the American theatrical stage was dominated by British actors. Bad blood had been festering in this arena for over 80 years. In 1765, an entire stage was destroyed during The Stamp Act unrest as British thespians performed. There was a raging anti-British sentiment by lower class native Americans and the growing members of Manhattan’s Irish immigrants.
The actors connected to the fatal Opera House event were Edwin Forrest, the first genuine American star, and the Brit, William Charles Macready. They had been feuding for several years. They often simultaneously performed the same play at different theaters. Supposedly, Forrest had actually gone to a London performance of Macready doing Hamlet and hissed him in a resounding voice.
On May 7, 1849, many Forrest supporters had seats in the top tiers of the Astor Place Opera House, where Macready performing Macbeth. They used the vantage point to throw rotten eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons, shoes, bottles of stinking liquid, and ripped-up seats to the stage. The performers were forced to pantomime as the “great unwashed” shouted, “down with the codfish aristocracy.” Meanwhile, at Forrest’s May 7 performance, the audience rose and cheered when he spoke Macbeth’s line, “What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug will scour these English hence?”
After this much-maligned show, Macready announced his intention to immediately leave for London on the next boat. However, he was persuaded to stay and perform again by an infamous petition signed by 47 well-heeled New Yorkers — including authors Herman Melville and Washington Irving — who informed the actor that “the good sense and respect for order prevailing in this community will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performance.” What is bred in the well-classed bone will bear out in flesh and motivate foul and reckless intentions.
The following day, a cadre of New York City upper market fathers implored the new Whig mayor, Caleb S. Woodhull, to cancel the remaining Macready performances, but to no avail. Rumors abound that the Astor Place producers bribed him.
Enter the notorious rabble-rouser Ned Buntline, a well-known figure within New York City police circles, inventor of the “dime novel” and a power within the American Committee (also known as the Order Of United Americans). He produced a widely distributed handbill designed to inflame the unwashed hordes, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
On May 10, 1849, an unruly crowd of over 10,000 gathered outside the Astor Place Opera House. These masses contained various street toughs and other riff-raff who loved nothing more than to create wide-ranging mayhem over anything that contributed to anti-British sentiments. There were also many women and young children in their amongst.
Egged-on by some of the gang leaders, a number of the more boisterous citizens began to dig out stones from the newly paved streets and began to heave them at the Opera House windows. The police were called to quell the ensuing madness, to absolutely no avail. Desperate to quell the riot, the police chief, George Washington Matsell, had previously informed the mayor that there was not sufficient manpower to quell a serious melee. Woodhull called out the militia. General Charles Sandford assembled the state’s Seventh Regiment in Washington Square Park, along with mounted troops and light artillery. A total of 350 men would be added to the 100 policemen outside the theater in support of the 150 inside. Additional policemen were assigned to protect the homes in this area of the city’s wealthy elite who were called “uppertens”.
While the riot raged on, Macready managed to finish the play before slipping out of the theater in a disguise.
Fearing they had lost control of the city, the authorities called in the troops, who arrived at 9:15, only to be jostled, attacked, and en-masse injured. Finally, the soldiers lined up and, after warnings — which were unheard over the screaming crowd — opened fire. First into the air and then several times at close range into the crowd. Many of those killed were innocent bystanders, and almost all of the casualties were from the working class. Seven of the dead were Irish immigrants. Dozens of the injured and dead were laid out in nearby saloons and shops, and the next morning mothers and wives combed the streets and morgues to locate their kin.
The next day a meeting was called in City Hall Park. It was attended by thousands. Speakers shouted out for revenge against the authorities whose actions they held responsible for the fatalities. During this affair, a young boy was killed, and an angry crowd headed up Broadway toward Astor Place and fought running battles with mounted troops from behind improvised barricades. The authorities this time quickly got the upper hand. 31 rioters were expeditiously killed. 48 were wounded. 50 to 70 policemen were injured along with 141 of the militia.
The New York Tribune reported, “As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a Place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community.”
The Astor Place Opera House did not survive its reputation as the “Massacre Opera House” at “Disastor Place,” as burlesques and minstrel shows players thereafter called it. It began another season, though not long after — like so many in the riots it inspired — it gave up its Banquo-tidian ghost.