Why you should care
Because friction between highborn and low, native and newcomer, is nothing new.
Illuminated by hissing gaslights, the distinguished English actor William C. Macready commanded the stage of the Astor Place Opera House, delivering his lines from Macbeth in a plummy, upper-class accent. Then, from out of the darkness came a barrage of eggs, rotten potatoes and other smelly projectiles launched by working-class audience members — many of them recent Irish immigrants who didn’t think much of the highbrow Brit striding the boards.
Following the rowdy performance, Macready threatened to cancel his American tour and return to London, but wealthy Anglophile theater patrons promised protection for the next performance. And so it was that three days later, on the evening of May 10, 1849, 200 policemen were on hand in the ornate theater in lower Manhattan with another 125 policemen outside, trying to control a crowd that was swelling with each passing scene and act.
Inside the theater, hecklers heaved a dead sheep onto the stage at Macready’s feet, and it was game on.
Improbably, the stage for the tense standoff had been set four years earlier in London when critics had flamed the King Lear of America’s foremost tragedian, Edwin Forrest, who detected the hidden hand of Macready, his former friend and current rival, behind the scorching reviews. The American actor had gone public with suspicions in newspaper interviews, complaining about the London theatrical establishment’s shabby treatment of him. Then he went to great pains to schedule his own production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play to coincide with Macready’s third American tour. Forrest’s venue, the Broadway Theatre, was just a block from the opera house.
But there was more at work than a tiff between thespians: The rivalry exposed deep divisions in New York society. At the time, New York’s elite adored Macready’s intellectual, European style of acting, while the working classes cheered Forrest’s visceral delivery. “Although the cantankerous feud between Macready and Forrest centered on ‘who is the best Shakespearean actor of the day’ on the surface,” says Jim Volz, professor of theater at California State University at Fullerton, “it was more likely a very bitter social class [conflict] between upper-class New Yorkers and lower-class Irish immigrants who despised the English — and British actor Macready — and supported the American-born Forrest.”
In the 1800s, New York was the primary immigrant entry point to the U.S. — a crossroads of the world. The Irish potato famine, which began in 1845, unleashed a fresh flood of newcomers who added more churn to the the city’s boisterous mix of races, classes and ethnicities. The changing demographics launched the nativist movement, which valued the rights of “natural born citizens” over immigrants. Generally, “natural born citizen” referred to white Protestants, who were alarmed by the growing number of Catholics in their midst. Normally, the nativists and the immigrants fought among themselves. However, the rivalry between Macready and Forrest put the wealthy in the crosshairs of both groups.
In addition to the police, the city for the first time deployed the local militia to keep the peace. Known as the “silk-stocking brigade,” the militia recruited its members from the city’s upper ranks and served the interests of the wealthy rather than the immigrant population. Some cynics assumed that the part-time soldiers, who were armed with rifles, were summoned to protect the mansions north of Astor Place.
Meanwhile, immigrant and nativist gangs were spoiling for a fight. They gathered at Five Points — a squalid neighborhood below Canal Street — and marched about a mile north to the theater. While the play progressed, they battled their way through the streets as police attempted to suppress the mob, which eventually reached 15,000.
Inside the theater, hecklers heaved a dead sheep onto the stage at Macready’s feet, and it was game on. When the police tried to evict the rowdies, the crowd outside began to lob bricks and paving stones at the opera house while others attempted to burn the building to the ground. When the crowd would not disperse, the militia opened fire, leading to a real-life tragedy far grimmer than Macready’s Shakespearean play.
By the time order was restored, 22 people lay dead (nine more later died of their wounds), and 48 others were seriously injured, along with 50 to 70 policemen. In terms of carnage, some historians place the Astor Place Riot second only to the Draft Riots of 1863, when 125 people were killed.
After the bloodbath, the opera house never overcame its epithet “DisAster Place.” The building was torn down in 1890 and replaced by Clinton Hall, which still stands on the site. Compared to the bloody 19th century, though, New Yorkers these days are more likely to confine their class conflicts, native-immigrant tensions and tragedies to the theater.