Actor jealousy led to 23 shot dead by NY militia
1849 The Astor Place Riot
Twenty-two men and one woman (a passer-by named Bridget Fagan) were killed by police and militia bullets in a riot in New York city. The rioters had gathered to protest the presence of famed visiting actor William Charles Macready (1793 - 1873), a patrician Englishman who had been scornful of Americans and their way of life.
The protesters were mainly partisans of popular American actor Edwin Forrest (1806 - 1872), Macready’s allegedly jealous rival. Here is John Coleman's eyewitness account of the hissing Macready received while playing Hamlet in Edinburgh (Edwin Forrest retaliating against Macready for a slight he had received in London). This was the first incident in a running battle which led to the New York riot, one of the worst catastrophes in theatrical history.
On this day, a crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 New Yorkers assembled in Astor Place to protest the Englishman's presence in their city, although only a few hundred mainly young men were actual rioters.
On May 7, many New Yorkers had been outraged by a disturbance at the Astor Place Opera House, in which Macready had been pelted with “four or five eggs, a great many apples, nearly-if not quite-a peck of potatoes, lemons, pieces of wood, a bottle of asafoetida”, as he wrote in his diary that night.
A petition condemning the behaviour of Forrest’s supporters, signed by 48 prominent New Yorkers, including Washington Irving and Herman Melville, was immediately sent to Macready and published in local newspapers. Macready was offered protection from his supporters and agreed to perform as Macbeth on May 11, but the decision turned out to be fatal for the many rioters who died that night.
Tagged: theatre, theater, history