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STRANGE HISTORY: The Astor Place Riot Of 1849

Ring in the new year with a new edition of STRANGE HISTORY! We like to periodically highlight odd episodes from the past, from vampire panics to poisoned hooch, with an eye toward inspiring your next gaming session, short story, or NPC.

This time we’re heading back to 1849 New York City, when a rivalry between two famous Shakespearean actors culminated in a riot that left dozens dead, hundred more wounded, and Manhattan a smoking wreck. Too wild for fiction, potentially too weird to be true, this is STRANGE HISTORY!

What bloody man is that

William Macready. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even before movies and television, actors were prominent parts of their societies. Theatrical actors in the nineteenth century often wielded outsized influence; some, like Sarah Bernhardt and Lillian Russell, were household names with large, enthusiastic followings. Two of the most popular male actors of the times—each with legions of loyal, diehard fans—were Edwin Forrest and William Macready.

William Macready came from a family of British actors, entering the stage before the age of twenty in his father’s production of Romeo and Juliet in 1810. He rose to fame for his expressive, authentic portrayals of heroes and villains alike, and fellow actors admired him for his dedication to rehearsing and staging plays accurately.

Long friendships with literary icons like Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton added more polish to his cultured public image. Tours of the United States in the 1830s and ‘40s made Macready famous on both sides of the Atlantic.

Edwin Forrest, on the other hand, was the first truly famous American actor. Young, more muscular, and “a vast animal” in his acting technique, he brought an intoxicating brawniness to the stage. The United States, still forming its own culture and struggling to separate itself from the colonial past, embraced him as unapologetically American.

Ironically, with American theatre in its infancy Forrest achieved this prestige by playing the great tragic roles—King Lear, Mark Antony, and, infamously, Macbeth—of William Shakespeare, Britain’s greatest playwright.

Something wicked this way comes

Macready and Forrest crossed paths multiple times in the years before the Astor Place Riot. Forrest first came to Britain in 1836, acting in theatres across the country and introduced to high society by his refined British wife, the actress Catherine Sinclair. At their first meeting Macready and Forrest hit it off, but Forrest quickly grew to believe that Macready was secretly working to undermine his popularity in England.

This suspicion festered for years as both men toured on either side of the Atlantic.

The feud reached a new level of vitriol in 1845, when Forrest publicly “hissed” Macready during a performance of Hamlet starring Macready. Hissing an actor was a serious social taboo and the British press tore Forrest apart for his rudeness. More vitally for our story, he lost the love and respect of the British public.

His injured pride was soothed back home in the States, where people and papers alike agreed that he was the superior actor to the supposedly fussy, cold Macready. Jealous of Macready’s popularity and too prideful to apologize, Forrest began plotting revenge.

By the time Macready returned to America a few years later, their grudge had grown into an international vendetta. The United States of the 1840s was famously anti-British, with newspapers eagerly heaping scorn upon Queen Victoria, British noblemen, and famous public figures to sell copies.

Anything “British” was spat upon and despised, particularly by lower-class citizens and immigrants, particularly the waves of newly-arrived Irish. Edwin Forrest epitomized the loud, poor, rough-and-tumble Americans who loved him, while William Macready, the most famous British actor of his generation, embodied everything they hated.

Full of sound and fury

When Macready returned to the States in 1849, Forrest and his supporters were ready. He was booed in every theatre he played, pelted with rotting fruit and foul liquids, and even had to dodge half a sheep carcass thrown onto the stage in Cincinnati. Macready had become a living personification of British elitism and snobbery—“an easy coathook,” as Smithsonian Magazine puts it, “for cultural stereotypes.” He braced for the worst as he returned to New York City, scheduled for a run at the elite Astor Place Theatre.

Courtesy of Shakespeare & Beyond.

By the time he arrived in May 1849 to play the titular role in Macbeth, Forrest’s devotees had pasted the city with posters containing slogans like, “WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE IN THIS CITY?” At his first performance the volatile audience threw rotten eggs and beer at Macready, shouting over every line he spoke and forcing him to act out the entire playin pantomime.

A few days later, he returned for a second show. Close to 300 police officers patrolled the inside and outside of Astor Place, the house was oversold and packed, and around 10,000 people teemed in the streets outside.  

Macready’s reception was even worse this time around. Forrest’s fans had hidden themselves among the audience and promptly began throwing spoiled milk at the stage, fights broke out between them and Macready’s admirers, and the cell the cops were using to hold rowdy prisoners was set on fire. Macready fled the stage and slipped out the theatre’s back door in disguise.

Outside, the mob bombarded Astor Place with bricks and cobblestones, shattering windows and ripping pipes from the walls. The state militia, ordered out to suppress any disorder, fired into the crowds, killing 18 and wounding dozens more. The rioting continued for several days, driving the casualty count into the hundreds with over a hundred more arrested.

The consequences of the Astor Place Riot were complicated. The virulent anti-Anglo feelings of the 1840s would peak in the next decade, with the birth of nativist political parties like the Know Nothings. Edwin Forrest’s career, which had thrived on the controversy and headlines generated by his feud with Macready, declined swiftly after a messy divorce scandal in the early 1850s.

Macready himself retired from acting in 1851, never to return to the stage again.

The Astor Place Theatre, haunted by the notoriety of the riot and unable to fill its seats, closed within a few years (although the building survives as the Center for Fiction, formerly the New York Mercantile Library). And Macbeth, already famous as a supposedly cursed play, gained even more notoriety as a result of the riot.

There you have it, folks. An actors’ spat escalates into an explosive, deadly commentary on British-American relations and ends in rampaging, chaos, and death—only on STRANGE HISTORY!

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