When New York City Rioted Over Hamlet Being Too British
In the deadly Astor Place Riot, how to perform Shakespeare served as a proxy for class warfare
When Major-General Charles Sandford recalled the scene at the Astor Place Theatre on May 10, 1849, it was with a sentiment one would not normally associate with a night at the theater. “During a period of thirty-five years of military service,” wrote the general, “I have never seen a mob so violent as the one on that evening. I never before had occasion to give the order to fire.”
Sandford, a general in the New York militia, was describing one of the most violent public outbursts in New York history, an explosion of class tensions brought about by a bitter feud between two popular Shakespearean actors.
Young, talented Edwin Forrest was all bravado and macho on stage, and American audiences loved him—he embodied self-satisfied proof that America had finally achieved cultural independence from its British forebears.
William Charles Macready, an established, classically trained actor known to portray Hamlet with fey handkerchief-waving, was rigid and English. And one of the few things working-class Americans could agree on, despite their diversity, was that they all disliked the English – Irish immigrants brought resentment across the Atlantic, American nativists were skeptical of anything foreign, and most lower classes considered “English” to be a shorthand dig against the tone-deaf wealthy and their frequently British sympathies.
Shakespeare himself escaped anti-English sentiment; to the contrary, Americans loved the Bard’s stories, but wanted no part of foreign stage direction, and preferred Forrest’s new muscular aesthetic to the traditional British formality epitomized by Macready. Actors may seem an odd proxy for political and economic anxieties, but traveling performers were often the most accessible representative of their countries, and an easy coathook for cultural stereotypes.
The actors once enjoyed a cordial and professional rivalry, but it became progressively, publicly nasty after Forrest hissed his competitor from the box seats at a performance in Edinburgh, Scotland – an offense bordering on scandal at the time. Calling Macready’s Hamlet “a desecration of the scene,” Forrest refused customary contrition, horrifying the starched upper class (and delighting Americans with his brash defiance). And since actors in the antebellum period received the sort of loyalty and enthusiasm we now associate with professional sports teams, fans happily amplified the conflict.
Macready’s supporters ensured Forrest’s performances abroad received tepid coverage from the British press, sabotaging his obsession with global fame, and Forrest made it hard for his rival to play in the states without a competitive booking or a rowdy house. At a Macready performance in Cincinnati, patrons in the gallery went so far as to throw half a dead sheep onstage.
As Forrest and Macready sniped in the press, the sensational back-and-forth came to symbolize class warfare in America: the wealthy, Anglophile establishment (labeled the “Upper Ten,” a one-percenter nickname referring to the city’s 10,000 wealthiest residents), against the broad masses; native-born Americans against a rising tide of immigrants; and low-wage workers against nearly anyone better off.
Why the uproar? A recent wave of immigration into the U.S. had sent wages down, causing tension between native-born Americans and the new arrivals (many of them Irish Catholic), who were often derided as unskilled oafs and blamed for the moral and physical squalor of rough urban neighborhoods. Working-class New Yorkers, who felt politically disenfranchised by the wealthy on one side and immigrants on the other, powered nativist groups to victory in the 1844 city elections.
Not to mention that the War of 1812 was close enough in American memory to drive the nail in the coffin as far as mainstream affection for England was concerned; the war was popularly viewed as a turning point after which the nation finally freed itself from British cultural control and embraced exceptionalism.
The theater at Astor Place sat in the wealthy Broadway neighborhood, within shouting distance of the working-class Bowery. And if the Bowery Theater, where Forrest had made his debut, was where the neighborhood street toughs known as “b'hoys” went to holler and throw peanuts as they enthusiastically watched Shakespeare (sometimes shouting lines along with the cast, or clambering onstage to try on Richard III’s crown themselves), the Astor Place Theatre was emphatically the opposite: all velvet seats and white-gloved society posturing, with a dress code that all but required one to arrive by expensive carriage.
And so, when Macready arrived in New York to play the Astor Place Theatre in the spring of 1849, it was considered, in the words of an account written later that year, “the signal for an outbreak of long-smothered indignation.”
At a performance on Monday, May 7, the audience pelted Macready with a cascade of rotten eggs, pennies and shouting. Frustrated, the actor decided to cut his losses and leave town – but was persuaded to stay by his backers, who assured him of their support and a safe stage. Macready agreed to remain and to perform Macbeth that Thursday evening.
The b’hoys, feeling taunted by a Brit in their backyard, made assurances of their own. Overnight, handbills signed by the “American Committee” papered New York, asking: “WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE IN THIS CITY?"
On the morning of Macready’s performance, the New York Herald conceded that tensions ran high, but predicted optimistically: “The conduct of the rioters, on Monday night, has roused the feelings of order and propriety in the community, to such an extent as will render all attempts at riot utterly ineffectual and impracticable."
They were spectacularly incorrect.
At curtain, some 200 police officers posted themselves inside the theater at Astor Place, with 75 more outside, where the crowd soon swelled to more than 10,000 people. Inside, tempers rose when it became clear that the house had been oversold, giving ushers the opportunity to weed out the riffraff and still fill the hall (tickets sold by Macready’s agents bore a special identifying mark). Forrest supporters who had managed to get into the theater found themselves cherry-picked for arrest during the first act of the play, with the crowd loudly cheering as they were dragged off one by one. The prisoners promptly set their holding cell on fire.
One man was heard to yell: “I paid for a ticket and they wouldn’t let me in, because I hadn’t kid gloves and a white vest, damn ‘em!”
Outside, the crowd grabbed loose cobblestones from a construction site nearby and assaulted the theater with volleys of rocks, breaking windows, bursting water pipes and darkening streetlights.
Police and New York state militia tried in vain to push the crowds away from the theater. General William Hall told the mayor that it was time to either open fire or retreat, for he would not have his men stoned to death while they carried guns. The soldiers were ordered to fire over the crowd’s heads. When this did nothing to discourage the incessant hail of stones, they lowered their sights and shot again, firing into the mob. In the end, only the threat of cannon fire managed to disperse the crowds, and when the chaos cleared, 18 lay dead and dozens more injured, many of them bystanders. More than 100 rioters were arrested. The Herald described the dead in follow-up coverage: some of them Irish, some “born in this State;” men and women; carpenters, clerks, printers, laborers. “All were unanimous,” the paper declared, “that they lived in trying times and a very dangerous neighborhood.”
When the dust settled on the Astor Place Riot, perhaps the most unsettling takeaway was that the damage and bloodshed had offered no lasting catharsis for the aggrieved, and only deepened the gulf between have and have-not. It was the most significant loss of civilian life in New York since the Revolution, and would remain the city’s most violent incident until the 1863 draft riots.
In the coming days, agitators swore vengeance, protestors wanted city authorities indicted for daring to fire on American civilians, and armed military cautiously patrolled all the while. A threatened second riot was quelled. A few days after the riot, a jury relieved police and militia of responsibility for the shootings, circumstances having “justified the authorities in giving the order to fire.” Five more people died of their wounds within days, bringing the total to 23 dead. The riot’s ten primary instigators, including the journalist and author Ned Buntline (famous for his later affiliation with Buffalo Bill Cody), were convicted, fined and jailed in September 1849.
Forrest continued in outsized ego, drawing out a dramatic public divorce from his English wife and performing until his death in 1872 – returning to the stage in part so that the American public, which had so enthusiastically supported him in his early career, might do so again by paying his alimony. William Macready retired from the stage in 1851, writing in his diary with evident relief that “I shall never have to do this again.”