Astor Place Riots, 1849

Probably there never was a great and bloody riot, moving a mighty city to its profoundest depths, that originated in so absurd, insignificant a cause as the Astor-place riot. A personal quarrel between two men growing out of professional jealousy, neither of whom had any hold on the affections of the people, were able to create a tumult, that ended only by strewing the street with the dead and wounded.

Mr. Forrest, it is true, had a certain professional popularity, but nothing to awaken a personal enthusiasm for him. Viewing the matter in this light, some have thought, there was a mysterious underground influence at work, that has never yet been discovered. But one needs not to go far to find the causes that produced it.

In the first place, ever since our revolt from England, especially since the second war with her, in which the contest for the supremacy of the seas was decided, the spirit of rivalry between the two countries has been intense and often bitter. No matter what the contest was, whether between two boats, or two bullies in the ring, it at once assumed the magnitude of a national one, and no matter how conducted, the winner was always charged with unfairness. It so happened that Forrest and Macready were the two popular tragic actors on either side of the Atlantic. If they had stayed at home, nothing would have been thought of it, but each invaded the domain of the other, and laid claim to his laurels. Of course criticism followed, national prejudices were aroused, and national peculiarities ridiculed. The press took sides, and fanned the excitement. Among other things, it was currently reported that when Forrest was in London, Macready went to see him act, and publicly hissed him. This was generally believed, and of course it alone would insure the latter an unwelcome reception from Forrest’s admirers here, should he ever appear on our stage.

Apparently unconscious of this hostility toward him, Macready came over in the spring of 1849, and at once made an engagement at the Astor-place Opera House, corner of Eighth Street and Lafayette Place. He was to appear as Macbeth; and the play was announced sometime beforehand. Forrest at the same time had an engagement at the Broadway Theatre. On the 7th of May, the following two significant placards appeared side by side in all the streets.

Astor Place Opera House.
This evening will be performed
Macbeth … Macready. Lady Macbeth … Mrs. Pope.Broadway Theatre.
This evening will be performed
Macbeth … Mr. Forrest. Lady Macbeth … Mrs. Wallack.

This public exhibition of rivalry stimulated the hostility of those opposed to Macready, and there were some fears of disturbance; but nothing serious was anticipated in fact, it was rather a good advertisement, and promised full houses. Niblo, one of the managers of the Opera House, unwisely gave out tickets for more people than the building would hold, and when, before evening, he found they were taken, he was alarmed. It looked as if they had been so eagerly bought up for other purposes than merely to hear Macready. He therefore went to the Chief of Police, and requested the presence of a force in case any disturbance should be attempted. It was promised, but as it turned out, most of it came too late to be of any service.

A tremendous crowd assembled in front of the building long before dark, and the moment the doors were open, a rush was made, and the human tide poured in, and flowing swiftly over the house, soon filled every part of it, except the boxes. These filled up more slowly; but long before the curtain rose, the house was packed to repletion, while the amphitheater and parquets were crowded with hard looking men a dense mass of bone and muscle. The fashionable portion of the audience in the boxes began to feel anxious, for not only were all the seats occupied, but all the aisles and every foot of standing room. Some were in their shirt sleeves, others were ragged and dirty, while all had their hats on. Such an audience had never before been seen in the Opera House, and it boded no good. Still, this heterogeneous mass was orderly, but it was noticed that at short intervals telegraphic signals were made by those nearest the stage to those in the wings of the amphitheater, and answered, indicating a thoroughly arranged plan. The time before the play was to commence passed slowly, but the hard looking crowd seemed very patient. Occasionally, to vary the monotony, some joke would be passed around, and once a man who was above called out to those below, imitating the English pronunciation: “I say, Jim, come ‘hup ‘ere! ‘ere’s some of Macready’s hangels’haint they sweet ‘uns?” If a lorgnette was leveled from one of the boxes, those noticing it below would put their thumbs to their noses and gyrate with their fingers in return. On the whole, however, the strange looking crowd were orderly, although the quiet had an ominous look.

But at half past seven, the hour for the play to commence, that regular stamping, common to most theatres, began. But in this case, it did not continue for a little while and then die away, but beginning in a low rumble, every moment gathered strength and grew louder, till it rolled like thunder through the building, shaking the very walls, and making the glasses in the great central chandelier jingle, as though knocked together by invisible hands. As the mighty sound echoed through the recesses and dressing rooms behind the scenes, Niblo became agitated, and stepping forward on the stage, peered behind the edge of the curtain, and surveyed the strange scene. Turning to Mr. Bowyer, of the chief’s bureau, who was by his side, he said: “This looks rather dubious, Mr. Bowyer.” “Yes,” he replied, “the ‘Boy’s’ are here certainly. What made you sell so many tickets? People are making a tremendous rush at the doors yet, and the house is full; over full already.” Niblo then turned to his partner, and said: “What do you think, Mr. Hackett. Is there going to be a disturbance?” “I don’t know,” he replied; “you must ask Mr. Bowyer.”

The latter, putting his eye to the crack, took a careful survey of the audience, and remarked: “There is mischief in the parquets and amphitheatre, but probably no actual violence will be attempted; the ‘boys’ will make a noise, and endeavor to prevent the play from proceeding, but possibly they will do nothing further; they seem to be patient and good natured, but Mr. Macready may expect a rough reception.”

Macready, who had been dressing, now approached and also took a peep from behind the curtain. His gaze was long and searching. The scrutiny did not satisfy him, and he turned away and began to pace backward and forward in one of the wings, moody and thoughtful. The stamping had ceased while the orchestra was playing, but it now commenced again, apparently louder than ever. Lady Macbeth in full dress now came on the stage, pale and agitated. She also took a peep from behind the curtain. The spectacle frightened her, and turning to Mr. Hackett, she whispered, rather than exclaimed, “My God! Mr. Hackett, what is the matter? Are we to be murdered tonight?” “My dear Madam,” he replied, “keep calm, there is no cause for alarm; everything will go on smoothly;” but his pale face and anxious look belied his words. It seemed now as if the house would come down under the continuous, furious stamping. Hackett turned to Bowyer, and asked if the chief had come. The latter replied he did not know; and another silence followed in the group behind the curtain, while they stood and listened to the thundering tramp, tramp, that rose like muffled thunder. At length Hackett asked: “How many policemen are there in the house?” “I don’t know,” replied Bowyer. “But the chief should have known,” retorted the former. “What do you want the police to do, Mr. Niblo?” quietly asked Bowyer. The latter hesitated a moment, when the attaches of the theatre came crowding forward in alarm, and asking by their scared looks what it all meant.

Macready and Mrs. Pope, in full costume, were at this time standing apart, talking together, evidently discussing the best course to be pursued. The uproar seemed to grow louder, and prudence dictated a suspension of the play; but Macready, after a moment’s hesitation, determined to risk it, and suddenly gave the signal to raise the curtain. The bell tinkled, and the curtain slowly rose, revealing the gorgeous scene and the actors standing in a blaze of light. Instantly the tumult ceased, and a deep sudden hush succeeded. Those roughs were evidently taken aback by the dazzling splendor that burst upon them. It was a new revelation to them, and for the moment they seemed to forget the object of their coming, and to be wholly absorbed in the vision before them.

The first scene passed off quietly, and the fears of a disturbance were allayed. In the second, taking Duncan for Macbeth, the crowd began to hiss, but soon finding their mistake ceased. It was evident that some one better posted than the mass had control of this wild element, so eager to be let loose. At length Macbeth came on, and was received with deafening cheers by those in the boxes. As these died away, a hiss ran through the amphitheatre and parquets, followed by cat calls, cock crowing, and sounds of every imaginable description. Macready had hardly uttered a single sentence, before his voice was totally drowned in the uproar. Forced to stop; he quietly folded his arms and faced the storm, expecting it would soon blow over. Finding himself mistaken that if anything it grew louder and fiercer, his disdain turned into foolish anger, and advancing to the footlights, and throwing all the contempt and scorn into his face that he was master of, he deliberately walked the entire breadth of the stage, gazing haughtily as he did so, into the faces of the roughs nearest him, who were bawling their throats hoarse. This did not mend matters any, as he easily could have foreseen, had he known this type of American character better. He then attempted to go on and out bellow, if possible, the audience. But it was like shouting amid the roar of breakers. Nobody heard a word he said, still he stuck to it till he got through that portion of the act. It was now Lady Macbeth’s turn, and the appearance of a woman, it was thought, would command that respect which in America is almost always accorded to one. But her reception was worse than that of Macready, for not content with shouts and yells they heaped disgusting epithets on her, and were so vulgar in their ribaldry that she flew in affright from the stage, “blushing,” it was said, “even through the rouge on her face.” Macready, however, showing, if nothing else, good English pluck, determined to go on. But he had scarcely finished the first sentence, when some potatoes struck the stage at his feet; then rotten eggs, breaking and spattering their sickening contents over his royal robes; while howls that seemed to come from the lower regions arose on every side. It was Pandemonium broke loose, and those in the boxes, thoroughly alarmed, jumped to their feet and stood as if paralyzed, gazing on the strange spectacle below. Macready’s passions were now thoroughly aroused, and he stubbornly stood his ground. Suddenly a chair hurled from above, and evidently aimed at his head, struck the stage at his feet and broke into fragments, followed by the shout, “Go off the stage, you English fool! Hoo! Three cheers for Ned Forrest!” which were given with a will. Then came another chair, narrowly missing Macready’s head, who, now alarmed for his personal safety, fled from the stage, and the curtain fell. But the bedlam that had been let loose did not stop. Hoots, curses, threats of vengeance, and the confused sounds of a mob given wholly over to passion, struck terror into all hearts; and Macready, fearing a rush would be made for him behind the scenes, left the theater by a private door, and jumping into a carriage was rapidly driven to his hotel. The manager, alarmed for the safety of the building, attempted to announce his departure to the audience, but in vain. They would not listen to him, and as a last resort he chalked in large letters on a board, “Macready has left the theater” and hoisted it before the footlights. This had the desired effect, and the headlong crowd, with shouts and laughter, began to tumble out. Once in the street, they sent up a loud hurrah, and dispersed in groups to their various drinking places, to talk over their victory and damn all Englishmen.

The fact that the mob refrained from damaging the theater, shows that they did not desire destruction; they had only done in their rough way what other men deemed respectable, and even legislators, have often done, and almost as boisterously, to prevent an obnoxious person from being heard. They certainly had many respectable precedents for their course, and Mr. Macready should have done what others have been compelled to do given up the attempt and waited for a more propitious time. That a man has a right to play or speak, is true; but men of all grades have always asserted the right to show their displeasure of the acting of the one or the sentiments of the other. Not that there is any excuse for such conduct as we have described, but it can be hardly called a serious riot, although by whomsoever committed is unquestionably riotous in its character.

Of this contemptible, disgraceful interference of his friends in his quarrel, Forrest had nothing to say he kept a studied silence. How a man with any self respect could have refrained from denouncing it, and repudiating all sympathy and connection with it by a public card, it will be difficult for men of ordinary sensibility to imagine.

Macready now determined to throw up his engagement altogether, but after much consultation and deliberation changed his mind. A letter was addressed to him by many of the most wealthy and prominent citizens of the city, in which they expressed their regret at the treatment he had received, and urged him not to yield to such a lawless spirit. They promised that he should be protected in his rights, and hoped he would give the city an opportunity to wipe out the stain that had been put upon its character. This he unwisely consented to do, and the next Thursday was fixed for his appearance in the same play. When the placards announcing it were pasted up, there appeared immediately alongside of them another, announcing the appearance on the same evening of Forrest, in the Broadway Theatre, in the character of the “Gladiator.”

In the meantime other posters appeared, and among them the following in startling capitals:

Shall Americans Or English Rule In This City?The crew of the British steamer have threatened all Americans who shall dare to offer their opinions this night at the English Aristocratic Opera House.Workingmen! Freemen! Stand Up To Your Lawful Rights.”

It will be observed, that this artful appeal was like a two-edged sword, cutting both ways. It aimed at the same time to stir up the hatred of the lower classes against the upper, by the word aristocratic; and the national hatred of the English, by calling it the English aristocratic Opera House to be guarded by English sailors. Both parties now began active preparations for the eventful night the rioters by increasing and organizing their forces, and setting on foot plans to get possession of the house; the friends of Macready, to prevent this from being done, and at the same time secure sufficient aid from the authorities to suppress all open violence. To keep the rowdies from occupying the house, tickets were sold or given away only to those known to be friendly to Macready; while to suppress violence, three hundred police were promised, to be supported if necessary by two regiments of soldiers, who were ordered to be under arms at their quarters, ready to march at a moment’s notice.

As the day advertised for the play approached, the excitement deepened, and serious trouble seemed unavoidable. On the appointed evening, a strong body of police was quietly placed inside of the house, with definite instructions how to act. In the meantime, an immense crowd had assembled in front of the building, and, when at last the doors opened, a rush was made for them. But the police kept the crowd back, and only those who had tickets were admitted. When the house was fairly filled, the doors were closed and fastened. In the meantime the windows had been barricaded, with the exception of one, which was overlooked. This the now disappointed rabble assailed with stones, sending them through it, in among the startled audience. They tried also to break down one of the doors, but the policemen’s clubs stopped them. Then commenced a series of yells and shouts, mingled with horrid oaths and threats as the baffled wretches surged around the building. Finding nothing else to vent their rage on, they attacked the lamps in the neighborhood, breaking them to pieces, and putting out the lights.

In the meantime, the play inside, with this wild accompaniment without, commenced. Notwithstanding all the care that had been taken, a large number of roughs had succeeded in procuring tickets, showing that some professedly respectable men had been in collusion with them. Although the rioters inside were in a minority, they were not daunted, and being determined that the play should not go on, commenced stamping and yelling so, that Macready’s voice from the outset was completely drowned.

The police in disguise had mingled all day with the rioters, and ascertained what the mode of action inside the house was to be. At a certain point in the play, a signal was to be given, on seeing which the entire body was to make a rush for the stage and seize Macready. The Chief of Police arranged his plans accordingly, and imparted them to the force under him. He therefore made no effort to stop the noise, but waited for the expected signal. At length it was given, and the entire body of rioters rose with a yell and sprang forward. But at that moment, the chief gave his signal, which was lifting his hat from his head. Every eye of those determined policemen had been intently watching it, and as it now rose, they sprang with a single bound upon the astonished rowdies, and before they could recover from their surprise, most of them were outside of the building, while the ringleaders were kept back and caged inside.

The play now went on, but it was a spiritless affair. Every ear was turned to hear the muffled roar of the voices outside, which every moment increased in power as the mighty multitude kept swelling in numbers.

The after piece was omitted, and Macready escaping through a private door, hastened to his hotel. It seemed for a time that the building would be torn down; but at length, a regiment of the National Guard, preceded by a body of cavalry, was seen marching steadily up Broadway. The crowd parted as it advanced, and as it turned into Eighth Street, the sharp word of command, “right wheel,” rang out distinct and clear over the uproar. The rioters, instead of being intimidated, rushed to a pile of paving stones that unfortunately happened to be near, and arming themselves with these, began to pelt the horses, which soon became unmanageable, so that the cavalry force had to retire.

The infantry then advanced, but were received with such a deluge of stones that they, too, fell back to Broadway. Here they rallied, and at the order forward, moved steadily on the mob, and forced their way to the front of the Opera House. While forming line here on the sidewalk, they were assailed so fiercely with paving stones, that the soldiers fell rapidly. The rioters were in close quarters, and the heavy stones, hurled at such a short distance, were almost as deadly as musket balls. Captain Pond soon fell wounded, when the second in command told the sheriff that if he did not give the order to fire, the troops would be withdrawn, for they couldn’t stand it. Recorder Talmadge, unwilling to resort to such a desperate measure, attempted to harangue the mob. He begged them, in God’s name, to disperse and go home if they did not, the soldiers would certainly fire on them, etc. The only reply was hoots and yells of defiance, and paving stones. The Recorder then forced his way up to General Hall, standing at the right of the battalion, and said: “You must order your men to fire; it is a terrible alternative, but there is no other.” The General asked for the Mayor, for he was doubtful of his authority to do so, without his order. “He won’t be here,” replied Talmadge. General Sandford then said: “Well, the National Guards will not stand and be pounded to death with stones; nearly one-third of the force is already disabled.” After a little more hurried conversation, the sheriff said, “If that be so, you have permission to fire.” The uproar all this time was deafening, and the order, “Ready!” of General Sandford, could hardly be heard; but the sharp, quick rattle of steel rose distinctly over the discord. Still terribly repugnant to shoot down citizens, General Hall and Colonel Duryea made another attempt to address the crowd, and begged them to cease these attacks. “Fire and be d–ned!” shouted a burly fellow. “Fire, if you dare take the life of a freeborn American for a bloody British actor! D–n it, you dassent fire!” and he boldly bared his breast to the leveled muskets. “Fire, will you?” yelled another, as he hurled a paving stone at General Sandford, wounding his sword arm. “Hit ’em again!” shouted a third, who saw the well directed aim. Still averse to shedding blood, General Hall told the soldiers to elevate their pieces over the heads of the people, and fire at the blank wall of Mr. Langton’s house opposite, hoping thus to frighten the mob. But this only awakened derision, and the leaders shouted, “Come on, boys! they have blank cartridges and leather flints!” In the meantime, the police, who had mingled with the mob, and were making arrests, began to force their way out, in order to escape the fire that now seemed inevitable. The troops moved across the street, and faced toward the Bowery, obeying the word of command promptly, and marching with great steadiness, although the pelting they received was murderous. To retreat would be pusillanimous, to stand there and be pelted to death worse still; and General Hall finally gave the order to fire point blank, but to aim low, so that men would be wounded, rather than killed. The command fell clear and distinct, “Fire!”

A single musket shot on the extreme left was the only response. They were too near their muzzles almost touching the hearts of the men, and it seemed terribly murderous to fire. “Fire!” shouted General Sandford.

Three more musket shots, only, followed. “Fire!” Duryea then cried out, in ringing tones. A swift volley ran along the line, shedding a momentary glare on the wild faces of the mob, the streets, and adjoining houses, and then came the report. This time the dead in their midst told the rioters that it was child’s play no longer, and they fell back. But getting a new supply of paving-stones, they rallied, and once more advanced on the troops. A second volley, more murderous than the first, sent them crowding back on each other in terror. The troops now wheeled, and formed line again in front of the Opera House. It had got to be eleven o’clock, and more troops were ordered up, with two cannon. The mob, though dismayed, still refused to retire, and hung sullen and threatening as a thunder-cloud on the skirts of the military, and a third volley was poured into them. The rioters now separated, and fell back into the darkness, when the troops were ordered to fire the fourth time, in different directions–one wing down Eighth Street, and the other into Lafayette Place. This last volley, judging from the testimony of reliable witnesses, was altogether needless. The conflict was over.

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.

Great excitement followed; an indignation meeting was called in the Park, coroners’ juries stultified themselves, and a senseless outcry was made generally. Twenty-two were killed and thirty wounded. It was a terrible sacrifice to make for a paltry quarrel between two actors about whom nobody cared; and in this light alone many viewed it, forgetting that when the public peace is broken, it matters not how great or insignificant the cause, it must be preserved; and if the police or military are called out to do it, and are attacked, they must defend themselves, and uphold the laws, or be false to their trust. The authorities have to do with riots, not their causes; put them down, not deprecate their existence, or argue their justice.

If public indignation had been turned against Forrest, it would have been more sensible. He knew perfectly well that if his friends persisted in their determination to attack Macready, the second night, blood would be spilt. It was his quarrel, and yet he deliberately kept his lips closed. He neither begged them for their own sake, nor for his, or as good citizens, to forbear, and let his rival alone; nor after it was known that many had been killed, did he express a single word of regret; apparently having no feeling but gratification, that even at such a fearful sacrifice his hated rival had been driven from the field. But responsibility is not so easily shaken off, and in real life as well as in tragedy, conscience will force a man to cry:

“Out! damned blood spot! Out, I say!”

Macready left the country, and the excitement died away; but the painful memories of this absurd yet deadly riot will remain till the present generation has passed from the stage.

We cannot close this account more fitly than by relating an anecdote of General Scott connected with it, that has never been made public. He was living at the time in Second Avenue, nearly opposite Astor Place. He was occupying the upper part of the house that evening, and his wife the lower. When the first volley over the heads of the people was fired, he hastened down, and sent off a servant to ascertain what it meant. Before the latter returned, he heard a second volley. Hurrying below, he dispatched a second servant to find out what was going on, and went back to his room. A third volley smote on his ear, and deeply agitated he hurried below, and began to pace the room in an excited manner. His wife, observing how much he was moved, remarked pleasantly: “Why, General, you are frightened!” This was rather a staggerer to the old hero, and he turned and exclaimed: “Am I a man to be frightened, madam? It is volley firing, madam volley firing. They are shooting down American citizens!” The old chieftain had heard that firing too often on the field of battle, to be ignorant of its meaning. He had seen ranks of living men reel and fall before it; nay, stood amid the curling smoke when his staff was swept down by his side, calm and unmoved, but here he was unmanned. Over the ploughed and blood-stained field, he had moved with nerves as steady as steel, and pulse beating evenly; but now he paced his safe and quiet room with his strong nature painfully agitated, and all because American citizens were being shot down by American citizens. The fact speaks volumes for the nobleness of his nature, and that unsullied patriotism which sheds tenfold luster on his well-earned laurels.


Headley, Joel Tyler. The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873: including a full and complete account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863. New York: E. B. Treat, 1873.

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