Bloodshed Over a Shakespeare Play

Some of Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth have plenty of violence, interesting twists and murder. But the violence in the plays is fiction. One of the bloodiest American riots, though, was over a Shakespeare play. It’s called the Astor Place Riot, and took place in 1849.

Two actors were involved. One was British, William Charles Macready (1793-1873). The other was an American, Edwin Forrest (1806-1872).  Macready was the more famous and significant of the two. Among his accomplishments was establishing that actors should wear period appropriate costumes. He visited the United States in 1826, 1843 and 1848-49. One of his accomplishments was escaping from the 1849 riots with his life.

Forrest was the most accomplished actor in the young U.S. His performances drew rave reviews and became a matter of national pride. He went to Britain in 1836. He seems to have had a reasonably good welcome, but he committed what for the time was an indefensible offense. At a performance, and for some unknown reason, Forrest loudly hissed Macready. The British press condemned Forrest. 

Astor Place was a premier cultural venue, with performances patronized by New York City’s cultural elite. Astor was in an affluent neighborhood, not too far from the Bowery Theater, which catered to lower social classes, the ‘b’hoys’ in the parlance of the day. Macready was scheduled to perform at Astor.

Macready had earlier that year performed in Cincinnati. Patrons in the gallery of the theater there tossed half a dead sheep on the stage. One wonders which half, and how half a dead sheep is carried into a theater.

At the March 7th performance of Macbeth at Astor Place, Macready was greeted with boos, hisses and showers of eggs and pennies. Fans of Forrest had bought tickets and prepared this rather warm reception. The performance was stopped before any violence broke out. Indignant, Macready was going to leave for home immediately. However, he was persuaded by fans to stay and perform the role again. The performance was set for March 10th.

Macready’s too warm reception in the play was orchestrated by some of New York City’s Irish immigrants, who generally hated the British. The situation was portrayed as Americans versus British and the Forrest-Macready feud was an excuse, not a cause. 

The precautions taken indicate that the Astor Place managers and the city authorities were expecting problems. The night of the second performance, there were 150 police inside the building and an additional 100 outside.  Windows had been boarded up, and Macready supporters made sure to buy up all available tickets. The 7th Regiment of New York Volunteers was standing by in nearby Washington Park. The 7th ranks came mostly from the upper classes in the city; its nickname was ‘the Silk Stocking Regiment.’ There were about 350 of these troops.

By the play’s opening at 7:30 p.m., a crowd estimated at 10,000 had gathered. The attendees were prosperous theater-goers, and the crowd outside was largely immigrants and Irish. The crowd filled the streets around Astor Place and began throwing volleys of stones at the building. They brawled with the police and the fighting surged back and forth. The gentry type folks inside attending the performance must have been terrified.

The troops of the 7th arrived at Astor Place about 9:15 p.m. and deployed. The militia was met with volleys of stones. The officers warned the crowd and shot over their heads, but the mob kept throwing stones, injuring soldiers. After several warnings, the volleys of stones were met with a volley of bullets fired into the crowd with devastating effect, causing the crowd to run for it. Somewhere between 25 and 30 of the rioters were killed, and 48 wounded. More than 50 police officers were injured, and those volleys of stones injured 141 of the soldiers. 

Forrest had no part in the riot or the aftermath, but his rivalry with Macready was blamed for the carnage.  His career never recovered. Macready returned to Britain, and never returned to the United States.

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