This conflict occurred on May 10, 1849 at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, New York City. When it was over an estimated lay 25 people lay dead and more than 120 injured when militiamen fired into an unruly crowd that had gathered in front of this theatre. Incredibly, the riot was triggered by the appearance at this venue of a famous British Shakespearean actor, William Charles Macready. It seems that he was as involved in a bitter rivalry with an American actor, Edwin Forrest, and each man was revered by a contingent of diehard fans.
However, the root cause of this bloody clash was not the actual enmity of the thespians, but the deep divide between two distinct social classes in American urban society of those times, namely upper class New Yorkers, who were Anglophiles and identified with the Englishman, Macready, and the lower class New Yorkers, mainly Irish immigrants who were strongly opposed to the British and supported the American, Forrest.
On the night of March 7, 1849, when Macready appeared on stage in the lead role of “Macbeth” he found himself confronted by scores of working class New Yorkers who greeted him with boos, hisses and thrown eggs. The show was stopped and the next day Macready informed the press that he would be leaving America immediately but he changed his mind when his upper class New Yorker followers urged him to stay and continue performing at the opera house. Accordingly, “Macbeth” was rescheduled for the evening of May 10th, and to forestall any more trouble, Mcready’s supporters bought up all the seats and theatre management boarded up the windows and took other precautions to keep the anti Mcready faction out. Additionally the New York authorities ordered a the Seventh Regiment, New York Volunteers (aka “ the Silk Stocking Regiment,” and “Blue Bloods” because it was largely comprised of members of the New York’s upper classes) to stand by in nearby Washington Square Park. It included mounted troops, light artillery, and hussars, a total of 350 men who 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 the area of the city’s “upper tens”, i.e., the wealthy and elite.
Meanwhile, the opposition crowd began to gather at a spot called “The Five Corners further downtown. It was led by a Tammany Hall man named, Isaiah Rynders. He was considered to be the de facto leader of the Five Points street gangs and one of those behind the mobilization against Macready on May 7th. Rynders had distributed handbills and posters in saloons and restaurants that urged people to come to the Astor Opera House that fateful evening that asked, “SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?”
By the time the play opened at 7:30, it was reported that as many as 10,000 people mostly from the Irish and other working class immigrants loyal to Tammany Hall filled the streets around the theater. Rynders and his followers had set up relays to bombard the theater with stones, and fought running battles with the police. They and others inside tried (but failed) to set fire to the building. It was sheer chaos. 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.” When the 7 th Regiment and other troops, arrived at 9:15, they were immediately met by stones and other objects thrown by the protestors but they held their ground and after several warnings, opened fire, first into the air and then at point blank 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. Between 2O and 30 rioters were killed, and 48 were wounded. 50 to 70 policemen were injured as 141 militiamen.
This is a part of a series about 18th and 19th century racial and ethnic riots in the city of New York. The terms Negro and Black are used here in their historical context.
Photo: Astor Place Riot courtesy wikimedia user Beyond My Ken.