"There was a combination of exciting causes—the feeling against England and Englishmen, handed down to us from the Revolution, and kept fresh by the insults and abuse of British writers on American manners—the injury committed against Forrest, with Macready as its presumed cause, and this was increased by the fact of Macready playing at the aristocratic, kid-glove Opera House."
In a time when duels settled "matters of honor," insults, perceived or real, could easily lead to violence. When New Yorkers felt that one of their own was injured by "a combination of the aristocracy against the people, and in support of English arrogance," even by just one man, violence did erupt. Twenty-two died, and thirty were injured in a night of rioting brought on by a spat between two actors who came to represent their respective countries to opposing forces.
Taken from "Account of the Fatal Riot at the Astor Place Opera House." (New York: H. M. Ranney, 1849). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
On the night of the 10th of May, 1849, the Empire City, the great metropolis of the Union, was the scene of one of those horrors of civilization, which for a time make the great heart of humanity stop in its beatings. In the darkness of night, thousands of citizens were gathered in a central square of the most aristocratic quarter of New York—gathered around one of its most conspicuous and munificent edifices, the Astor Place Opera House.
Around this edifice a vast crowd was gathered. On the stage the English actor Macready was trying to play the part of Macbeth, in which he was interrupted by hisses and booings, and encouraged by the cheers of a large audience, who had crowded the house to sustain him. On the outside a mob was gathering, trying to force an entrance into the house, and throwing volleys of stones at the barricaded windows. In the house the police were arresting those who made the disturbance—outside they were driven back by volleys of paving stones.
In the midst of this scene of clamor and outrage, was heard the clatter of a troop of horse approaching the scene. "The military — the military are coming!" was the exclamation of the crowd. Further on was heard the quick tramp of companies of infantry, and there was seen the gleam of bayonets. A cry of rage burst from the mob. The appearance of an armed force seemed to inspire them with a sudden fury. They ceased storming the Opera House, and turned their volleys against the horsemen. Amid piercing yells and execrations, men were knocked from their horses, the untrained animals were frightened, and the force was speedily routed, and could not afterwards be rallied to perform any efficient service.
Now came the turn of the infantry. They marched down the sidewalk in a solid column but had no sooner taken up a position for the protection of the house, than they were assailed with volleys of missiles. Soldiers were knocked down and carried off wounded. Officers were disabled. An attempt to charge with the bayonet was frustrated by the dense crowd seizing the muskets, and attempting to wrest them from the hands of the soldiers. At last the awful word was given to fire. There was a gleam of sulfurous light, a sharp quick rattle, and here and there in the crowd a man sank upon the pavement with a deep groan or a death rattle.
Then came a more furious attack, and a wild yell of vengeance! Then the rattle of another death-dealing volley, far more fatal than the first. The ground was covered with killed and wounded—the pavement was stained with blood. A panic seized the multitude, which broke and scattered in every direction. In the darkness of the night yells of rage, screams of agony, and dying groans were mingled together. Groups of men took up the wounded and the dead, and conveyed them to the neighboring apothecary shops, station-houses, and the hospital.
What was the catalyst of the events that caused the death of twenty-two victims, either shot dead upon the spot or mortally wounded, so that they died within a few days; and the wounding of some thirty more, many of whom will be maimed for life? At its root, it was a matter of honor, at least to those moved to action. In their minds, America had been insulted--in the person of one Edwin Forrest, an actor.
Born in 1806, Forrest was by 1849, a successful stage actor. In a time where Americans were very sensitive about their place in the world, they were cognizant of any perceived slight from Europeans, whom the Americans thought pompous and haughty. In this case, instead of "buy American," the sentiment was "watch American." These New Yorkers were proud of their "Native Tragedian," as he was described, and were ready to fight any foreigner, or foreign sympathizer, who slandered him, and, by extension, the United States of America.
The villain in this tragedy was William C. Macready, an English actor of great eminence, who entertained audiences both sides of the Atlantic. At first friendly, a feud started between the two men when Forest visited Great Britain, and accused Macready of sabotaging his tour. The fireworks started when Macready returned to America to play theaters in the Northeast.
The causes of the rivalry were spelled out in "The Boston Mail" of October 30, 1848:
"Although Macready saw fit on his opening night in New York, on being called out by some friends, to slur a 'certain penny paper' that had 'dared' to express an opinion regarding his talents and conduct, we shall not by any means give him the retort churlish; we only pity his ignorance of the institutions of this country, and hope for his own credit’s sake that he will not, when he gets home, write a black book about American manners, etc., but if he does, that he will spare us in the production of his brain.
"The reader will no doubt ask, what fault we find with Mr. Macready. Has he not the same right as other men have, to do as he pleases? We answer yes. He has a right to come to this country in the exercise of his profession; he has a right to demand a dollar from every person who witnesses his acting, and if managers of Theaters are willing to accede to his arbitrary proposals, he has certainly a right to make them. We complain not of any of these.
"Our charges against Macready are based upon more important grounds. It is his conduct in his own country in relation to Mr. Forrest, that we are about investigating; his in-hospitality, his crushing influence, his vindictive opposition, and his steadfast determination to ruin the prospects of that gentleman in England, that we bring to his door.
"Let him deny them if he can. Every true American takes a pride in that which represents his country’s interests, industry, and enterprise, and from the smallest commodity gathered from his soil to the loftiest labors of his genius, his ambition goes with it, and the strong arm of his power will protect it in every clime. Mr. Edwin Forrest is titled the American Tragedian—he is justly entitled to that honor—he has acquired it by his own labors; from a poor boy in a circus, he has arisen to be a man of fame and wealth, all of which he has lastingly gained by enterprise and talent, and secured both by economy and TEMPERANCE.
"Every American-born man is willing that Mr. Forrest should wear this title, and when he visited England they were anxiously interested in his success. Macready had previously been in this country, and played engagements in every city, and made a fortune. He was extolled by the press, and treated as a gentleman by the citizens of every place he visited. But instead of returning this kindness, he acted openly towards Mr. Forrest as his determined foe. We speak by card, and write upon the very best information, viz., the highest authority. In Paris Mr. Macready and Mr. Forrest met The latter was anxious to appear on the French boards; but Macready threw obstacles in the way, and this was the first time that the two parties were enemies.
"Mr. Forrest had letters of introduction to Mr. Mitchell from his friends in London, but Macready was jealous, lest Forrest should prove to be the great star, and he cautioned Mitchell not to allow Forrest to appear. The result was that Mr. Mitchell refused to see Mr. Forrest. The parties returned to London. The hypocrisy of Macready is apparent in his note of invitation to Mr. Forrest to dine with him. The latter, knowing the intrigue that had been carried on in Paris between Macready and Mitchell, refused, as every high-minded man should, to dine with him.
"This is a very different version to that recently given by some of Macready’s friends—if friends he have—that Forrest was offended because he was not invited to dine; as if such a man as Mr. Forrest could take offense at such a trifle, when at the same time he was invited to dine with many of the leading nobility of England, but especially of Scotland, where he passed several months as their guest.
"The next mean act towards Forrest, brought about through the influence of Macready, was when Mr. F. appeared at the Princess’s Theater in London. Mac had been endeavoring for a long time to effect an engagement with some London manager, but was unsuccessful The success of Forrest stung him, and he resolved to 'put him down.' It was said at the time that he or his friends actually hired men to visit the theater, and hiss Forrest off the stage, and Forrest was consequently received with a shower of hisses before he was heard. This mean conduct was followed up by the press, by which Forrest was most outrageously assailed, and not Forrest alone, but his country, which is proud to own him as one of her sons.
"Forrest and Macready next met in Edinburgh, and from this city were sent forth the grossest calumnies against Forrest. Macready was playing at the Theatre Royal in 'Hamlet'—Forrest was present during the beginning of the piece. Mr. Forrest applauded several times, and, as we are informed by an eyewitness, he started me applause when some brilliant effect had been given to a passage, so that the whole house followed him. But now comes Forrest’s great sin—that giant sin which Mac will never forgive—the sin of hissing Macready for dancing and throwing up his handkerchief across the stage in the 'Pas de Mouchoir.'
"Mr. F. not only hissed, but the whole house hissed, and yet Macready dared to write to London, that Forrest had singly and alone attempted to hiss him from the stage. To show that Mr. Forrest was not alone in this matter, we are able to state that two weeks afterwards Hamlet was repeated, when the whole house again hissed Macready’s dance across the stage. Out of this simple incident Macready contrived to create a great deal of sympathy for himself. He is, or was, part proprietor of the London Examiner; or if not sole owner, he possesses the body and soul of its theatrical critic, Foster, who does all kinds of dirty work for his master.
"Macready gave the cue to Foster, and Forrest was denounced by the Examiner and other papers, in which Foster or Mac had any influence. A false coloring was put on this affair, and Mac appeared to the world as a persecuted man, whereas Forrest was the one who met with persecution at every corner—in Paris, in London, in Edinburgh, and in London a second time.
"We have now given a plain statement of facts, and such as cannot be controverted. It proves that actors, like Macready, Anderson, and others, find it very hard scratching in their own country, and much better pickings here. It is to be hoped, however, that we Americans will finally become awakened to the mercenary motives of such artistes, and when we have any surplus of dollars to spend, that we will be generous and just to our own home genius."
It must not be supposed that this was the first manifestation of patriotic indignation on the part of the friends of Mr. Forrest, on account of his treatment in England. It was a deep and intense feeling, and was ready to burst out on any fitting occasion. It was determined that Mr. Forrest should be avenged, and that Macready should not be permitted to play before a New York audience. There was a combination of exciting causes—the feeling against England and Englishmen, handed down to us from the Revolution, and kept fresh by the insults and abuse of British writers on American manners—the injury committed against Forrest, with Macready as its presumed cause, and this was increased by the fact of Macready playing at the aristocratic, kid-glove Opera House. Far be it from us to justify these feelings—it is our duty simply to state the fact of their existence.
However, Macready found an opportunity to play in New York. The night came—the house was crowded, and there was an ominous looking gallery. When Macready appeared upon the stage, in the character of Macbeth, he was assailed by a storm of hisses, yells, and a clamor that defies description. He stood his ground firmly, and the play went on, but not a word could be heard by the audience. The clamor rose higher and higher, and as hisses and threats, cat-calls and yells, were not enough to drive the obnoxious actor from the stage, less legitimate means were resorted to. Rotten eggs were thrown, pennies, and other missiles; and soon, still more outrageous demonstrations were made, and chairs were thrown from the upper part of the house, so as to peril life. The play concluded for the evening.
In response, a number of influential citizens, men of wealth and standing, with Washington Irving at their head, wrote a formal request to Mr. Macready that he should play out his engagement, and pledging themselves that the public should sustain him; and it was determined and announced that he should appear on Thursday evening, May, 10th. This announcement, as may be supposed, excited the indignation of those who had driven him from the stage. It was a combination of the aristocracy against the people, and in support of English arrogance, and it was determined that Macready should not play, and that he and his supporters should be put down at all hazards. The lessees of the Theater were informed that the re-opening of the Theater with Mr. Macready, would be the signal for riot; the magistrates of the city were informed of it, and were implored to avert the calamity by refusing to allow the house to be opened; but the lessees insisted upon their legal rights, and demanded the protection of the authorities, and the fatal decision was made which made New York, a few hours afterward, one wide scene of horror.