One of the strangest and deadliest riots in New York history took place on May 10, 1849 outside an opera house in Manhattan. Although its proximate cause—a jingoistic dispute between the egos of two actors—no longer commands our attention, the riot has many lessons to teach us today. For it was a combustible mixture of media incitement, reckless demagoguery, and opportunism that lit the fuse for an explosion that would claim around thirty dead and one hundred twenty wounded.
Our tale begins with the careers of two competing Shakespearean actors: one an American, the other an Englishman. Edwin Forrest (1806—1872), the American, was a popular stage actor of his day; he and his partisans became embroiled in a feud with a British actor named William Macready (1793—1873). Readers should recall that in the days before cinema, the theater was far more significant to the public than it is today. In the 1840s, the popular culture of the relatively new American republic was divided between an Anglophilic upper class, and a nativist lower class that was struggling to find its own voice. To some extent, these divisions had always existed; but by the 1840s, the cleavages had become pronounced.
The administration of Andrew Jackson had openly favored the interests of America’s lower-class, native element, much to the horror of the East Coast elites. The spirit and mentality of the so-called “Know Nothing” Party, which would coalesce in the 1850s, was already beginning to take shape in some sectors. In addition, by the 1840s, New York City was host to a large population of Irish immigrants. Many of these new arrivals were refugees of Ireland’s Great Famine, which lasted from about 1845 to 1852; understandably, these immigrants were ferociously anti-British, and were quick to make common cause with nativist elements (despite the fact that native jingoists had no love for Catholic immigrants).
The American theater scene in the 1840s was still largely dominated by British actors and managers; Edwin Forrest was one of the few Americans in a profession perceived to be not American enough. He drew his “fanbase,” if we may use a modern word, from New York’s working poor, immigrants, and gang elements centered around the Five Points area. It should also be noted that the period from 1814 until the American Civil War was one of constant jockeying and rivalry between the United States and Britain. The apparently unstoppable American expansion across the continent—as witnessed by the Mexican War and later the acquisition of rights to the Oregon Territory, where Britain had competing interests—was observed in London with both trepidation and suspicion.
The newspapers of the era took sides and fanned the flames of hostility. When Edwin Forrest toured Britain, it is said that he loudly hissed one of Macready’s performances. As always happens in such situations, the press found that there was no better way to gain attention and sell newspapers than to stoke the fires of antagonism with anecdotes, both exaggerated and entirely fictitious. Editors and columnists cared nothing about their social responsibility to safeguard public order; they grew addicted to the sense of power that the manipulation of public sentiment brings; and they crouched in wait for any incident that might be used for their own enrichment. And in the spring of 1849, when William Macready decided to perform at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, they found it. The opera house, which no longer exists, was then located at the corner of Eighth Street and Lafayette Place.
Macready appears to have been unaware of the hostility that was being stoked against him by New York’s yellow press (to use an expression from a later era). On May 7th, Macready was to appear onstage as Macbeth; at the same time, his rival Forrest would be performing as Macbeth at the Broadway Theater. The dueling performances were advertised widely enough in advance for battle-lines to be drawn up. One of the managers of the Astor Opera House, a man named Niblo, stupidly distributed more tickets than there were seats, thus guaranteeing a crowd of angry patrons. Macready contacted the New York police chief about providing security, and he was given assurances that such would be forthcoming; but in the event the men sent were unable to deal with the situation.
A huge, foul-tempered crowd formed outside the Astor Theater on the night of May 7. When the play began, Forrest’s partisans in the packed theater were able to bring it to a halt by pelting the stage with noxious liquids, fruits, and vegetables. The experience was a humiliating one for Macready, and he decided to discontinue his tour and leave America immediately; however, in what turned out to be a misguided decision, he was persuaded to stay by a group of well-heeled New Yorkers, evidently embarrassed by the behavior of their countrymen. His next performance of Macbeth at the Astor would be May 10. By this time the authorities realized that a potentially explosive situation was on their hands; mayor Caleb Woodhull decided to call in the New York state militia—including mounted troops and light artillery—to provide extra security. In all there were about 350 militiamen present, along with a hundred police.
Forrest’s supporters, meanwhile, were making their preparations. He had sympathizers in the local Tammany Hall political machine; and these demagogues and opportunists made sure that handbills were distributed all over the city, urging “working men” to resist “British rule in this city.” As night approached on May 10, there was a jittery crowd of about ten thousand men milling about in front of the Astor Theater. The performance began at 7:30 pm, but the theater was attacked with volleys of stones hurled by the mob. When it was over, Macready escaped the besieged theater in disguise; but the crowd, craving more violence, would not be placated.
The militiamen, probably not knowing how to respond and lacking inspired leadership, prevaricated. Finally, around 9:15 pm, they formed lines and unleashed a volley over the heads of the seething mob. The next volley was fired directly into the crowd. When the smoke had cleared, between 22 and 31 of the rioters were dead (the precise total has never been determined); among the militia, about 140 were injured by rocks and other missiles thrown at them. There were some running street battles fought the next day, but these did not see any casualties. An account of the riot written in 1873 contains the following anecdote:
A lawyer of Wall Street, noted for his philanthropy and kindness, resided in Fourth Avenue, and being informed by a friend, late in the evening, that men were lying dead and wounded in Astor Place, he hastened down to see if he could be of any assistance to the poor creatures. Reaching Lafayette Place, he saw in the dim light a line of soldiers drawn up, though he saw no mob, only a few scattered men , who seemed to be spectators. Suddenly he heard the order to fire, and the next moment came a flash and report. He could not imagine what they were firing at; but suddenly he felt his arm numb, and the next moment he grew faint and dropped on the sidewalk, his arm broken to shivers. The brother of a well-known banker was shot in Broadway by a random bullet; and a man, while stepping out of a car in Third Avenue, was shot dead. Other innocent persons fell victims, as they always must, if they will hang on the skirts of a mob from curiosity. Men anxious to witness a fight must take the chances of getting hurt.
General Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War, who was living at that time near Astor Place on Second Avenue, himself heard the volleys of shots ring out. When he ventured out on the street to see what was happening, a bullet grazed his ear. When his wife asked him what was happening, the enraged general said, “Am I a man to be frightened, madam? It is volley firing, madam, volley firing! They are shooting down American citizens!”
One of the most astute comments about the riot was made by George Walling, the former New York City Chief of Police, who served in law enforcement for thirty-eight years. He was an eyewitness to the events of May 10. His memoirs, Recollections of a New York City Chief of Police, provide the following details:
A sewer was being constructed on Fourth Avenue, and the pavements, in consequence, had been torn up. At Macready’s next performance the cobblestones became effective weapons in the hands of the mob. Where the Bible House now stands was a stone-yard. The stone clippings which the rioters found there furnished sufficient ammunition to pelt the military police. The main attack came from Fourth Avenue, the police being stationed there, as well as on Astor Place, Broadway, Eighth Street and Lafayette Place. I was in charge of the amphitheatre entrance to the theatre, on Astor Place. There were six men under me. The stones came from the mob in volleys. Several soldiers were struck down, one or two of them being seriously injured. I carried them within the theatre. There the scene was one of terror and confusion. Shower after shower of paving stones was hurled against the windows. The stones, however, fell in the midst of the frightened audience, which became positively terror-stricken.
Walling had no doubt that the riot had been incited by organized agitators and miscreants:
My experience has satisfied me that the concerted actions of a mob have rarely anything spontaneous about them. In most cases the so-called “uprising” has much premeditation in its composition. In order to bring about the Astor Place riot, handbills were distributed, and an endeavor had been made to set two elements of our foreign population against each other—the English and the Irish. Some of these handbills bore an appeal to the Irish, headed, “Will you allow Englishmen to rule this country?” Others were addressed to Englishmen, calling upon them to “sustain their countrymen.” The latter were circulated among the English sailors. Both handbills were pasted side by side upon walls, boxes and all available places. Astor Place was designated as the rendezvous for both factions. Mr. Matsell furnished me with copies of both handbills, and I at once sought the printer. The first place I visited was a job office in the old Tribune Building. There the proprietor informed me that from some peculiarity in the type he suspected they were printed at an office in Ann Street. Thither I went, and at once asked, as if I were sure of the whole matter: “For whom did you print these handbills?” “I don’t know; I can’t tell you,” was the reply. “A man called with the copy, gave me instructions to print the bills, paid me in advance and ordered me to deliver them, with the copy, at No. 25 Park Row.”
George Walling, a policeman who was involved in the events of May 10, 1849
These realities are just as true today as they were in 1849; instead of handbills and newspapers, we have the internet and social media. As Walling states, riots and disturbances only rarely happen spontaneously. They are usually the products of deliberate planning and orchestration. The planning begins with a sustained campaign of vilification by one group against another. There are some who seek to foment discord and cleavages in our republic by opportunistically taking advantage of grievances real or imagined; they cloak their incitement with various mantles, but the goal is always the same. Such people, and the groups they represent, are often given platforms by a dishonest media that deliberately seeks to fan the flames it kindles; it cares only about its own interests, and nothing about what is socially responsible for the nation. No sincerely patriotic citizen can afford to avert his eyes from these realities. Incitement and demagoguery are just as much a threat to peaceful order in the present day as they were in 1849.
Read more about conduct and leadership in Lives of the Great Commanders: