Joe Bruno on the Mob – The Astor Place Theater Riots of 1849

One of the worst riots in New York City history took place on May 10, 1849, and it started over an impassioned disagreement over who had the better Shakespearian Actor, the United States, or hated mother England.

British actor William Macready was considered to be the most accomplished actor on both sides of the Pond. Yet Macready, who called himself an aristocrat, was a snob, who looked down on America in general, and their inferior actors in particular. One of those actors who caused Macready to sniff in superiority was Philadelphia-born Edwin Forrest, a self taught thespian, who was the darling of the rough and tumble New York City crowd. To make matters worse for Forrest and his followers, the New York City aristocracy much preferred the foreigner Macready to the home-grown Forrest.

In 1848, Forrest, on a mission to prove to the world he was the equal of any actor alive, traveled to London, England to play Hamlet. Even though he dined with Macready the night before, when Forrest took to the stage, he was brutally hissed by the audience. Forrest’s performance was panned viciously in the London newspapers and repeated in the American press. Forrest blamed this on Macready and by the time he arrived back in the United States, there was a global feud ready to explode.

Two New Yorkers were instrumental in fanning the flames of discontent concerning the rude treatment of their home boy Forrest in England. One was Captain Isiah Rynders, who owned the notorious Empire Club on Park Row and was the boss who controlled all the vicious gangs in the Five Points area. The other was E. Z. C. Judson, who wrote under the pen name of Ned Buntline. Both men hated the English, and in the weekly newspaper “Ned Buntline’s Own,” Buntline turned a mere heated actor’s dispute into an international incident.

The tension mounted, when it was announced in the New York press that Macready would make a four-week “farewell” appearance in America, commencing on May 7, 1849. His first show was scheduled to be at the new Astor Place Theater on Astor Place in Manhattan. As soon as Macready graced the stage with his presence, Rynders rose from his seat, and in concert with hundreds of his gang thugs in attendance, they peppered Macready with rotten eggs, ripe tomatoes and old shoes. Macready, incredulous at the blatant disrespect for his great talents, thundered off the stage. He canceled the rest of his four-week engagement and vowed never to appear in the United States again.

This caused great consternation among the blue-bloods of New York City society. Quickly they assembled a petition with 47 signees, that included Washington Irving and Herman Melville, begging Macready to stay and continue his tour. Macready, against his better judgment, caved in and agreed to give it one more try. The news hit the papers that on May 10, just three days after he was crudely chased from the stage, Macready would appear as Macbeth, again at the Astor Place Theater. Oddly enough Forrest was also opening that night, playing Spartacus in “The Gladiator,” in a playhouse a mile south of the Astor Place Theater. The newspapers played up the rivalry, and the British crew of a docked Cunard liner said they would make their presence known at Macready’s performance, lest an unruly American mob again tried to insult their boy.

This incited Captain Rynders to plaster New York City with thousand of posters saying, “Workingmen, shall Americans or English rule this city? The crew of the English steamer has threatened all Americans who shall dare to express their opinion this night at the English Aristocratic Opera House! We advocated no violence, but free expression of opinion is to all men!”

New York City mayor Caleb C. Woodhull anticipated a riot and he sent 350 policemen, under the command of Police Chief G.W. Matsell, to the Astor Place Theater to quell any possible disturbance. In addition, General Sanders, of the New York Militia, assembled eight companies of guardsmen and two troops of Calvary to patrol the area around the playhouse.

When the show started, all 1800 seats had been sold, with the pro-Macready crowd vastly outnumbering the pro-Forrest crowd. It was estimated that more than 20,000 people stood outside the theater, making Astor Place from Broadway to the Bowery one large sea of discontent.

At 7:40 the play started and the first two scenes played without any interruption. But when Macready strode majestically on stage for the third scene, all hell broke loose. Captain Rynders and his gangs hooted and hollered and hissed at Macready. Outside, the angry crowd, sensing the animosity inside, started to bum-rush the theater. They threw rocks and stones, breaking all the theater’s windows, and just because they could, the mob smashed all the street lamps in the area.

The police attacked the angry mob with clubs, but to no avail. The mob screamed “Burn the damned den of aristocracy.” The police was getting the worst of the riot, and at 9 pm, the first of the militia arrived. They too were pelted by bricks and stones. Ned Buntline was at the head of the angry mob chanting, “Workingmen! Shall Americans or Englishmen rule? Shall the sons whose fathers drove the baseborn miscreants from these shores give up liberty?”

Chief Matsell, himself hit with a 20-pound rock in the chest, gave the order for the militia to shoot into the crowd. And they did just that, hitting men, women and children, and even a lady who was sleeping in her bed 150 yards from the theater. When the dust cleared hours later, 22 people were killed and 150 were injured. Five of those injured, died within five days. 86 rioters were arrested, including Ned Buntline, who received a year in jail and a $250 fine. Captain Rynders escaped without arrest or injury, only to torment the city for many years to come.

The lawmen were not without their own injuries. Over a 100 policemen and militia were injured by rocks and stones, and another 6 were shot. But none died. The next night another mob tried to burn down the Aster Place Theater, but they were beaten back by a new battalion of militia that had been brought into the city in case of further disturbances.

On the night of May 12, another crowd assembled at the New York Hotel, where Macready was staying, screaming for him to come out and be hanged like a man. But Macready somehow slipped away. He boarded a train to New Rochelle, and then to Boston. From Boston, he sailed to England, never to set foot in America again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: