May 10, 1849: The Astor Place Riot takes place at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, New York City, United States. The riot left at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured. It began as a rivalry between two actors, William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest. At the time, theaters were the main gathering places in most cities and towns and actors had an extremely loyal following, just as they do today. Theaters were a place where the public could make their feelings known, not just about the actors, but other patrons’ tastes and political opinions were also debatable. Riots were not unheard of; although they weren’t common, neither were they rare.
In the early to mid nineteenth century, American stages were dominated by British actors and managers. Edwin Forrest was the first major American star and he gathered a great following. Since the Stamp Act of 1765, Americans were less enchanted with British anything rather than home-grown Americana. British acting companies had still dominated American theater eighty years later only because America had yet to produce a rival – until Forrest. Both were Shakespearian actors not because Shakespeare was British, but simply because his plays were the best plays to be performed and had been for hundreds of years.
Three main points of contention led to the riot which destroyed the theater were the popularity of the actors themselves. Macready was had the reputation of being the greatest actor of his generation. He was performing in Macbeth at Astor Place House. Forrest was America’s greatest actor and had been performing Hamlet at nearby Broadway Theatre. There was a growing sense of disaffection from Britain by the mainly working-class Americans and immigrants who supported Forrest. And lastly, the class struggle between the lower classes who were growing fond of their American life and upper crust Anglophiles who still believed the best was to be found out of Britain. Both actors had each performed in the other’s country twice before. On this tour, Forrest followed Macready around to outperform him in a Shakespeare roll.
Three days before the riot, Forrest supporters purchased hundreds of tickets in the cheap seats of the Astor Opera House. On this night, they brought the performance to halt when they began to pelt the stage with anything they could throw. On the same night, Forrest supporters were also watching his performance and cheering him on. Macready had previously announced his intention to leave for England on the next boat but he was asked to stay by 47 wealthy New Yorkers. When he took the stage on this day, a riot broke out. The police could not control the crowds and the militia was called out. They shot into the crowd. The elite venue began to be called the Massacre Opera House or the DisAstor Place and was out of business within a few years.
Fans don’t boo nobodies. – Reggie Jackson
My fans want my shirt. They can have my shirt. They put it on my back. – Elvis Presley
I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends. – Mickey Spillane
Virtue is also an art, and its adherents can be divided into the practicing artists and the mere fans. – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Also on this day: I Think I Can – In 1869 the First US Transcontinental Railroad is completed.
Before Hillary – In 1872, Victoria Woodhull was nominated to run for the US Presidency.
Longest Bridge in the World – In 1969, Lake Pontchartrain Causeway opened.
J. Edgar Hoover – In 1924, he became the sixth director of the FBI.
The People’s Art – In 1824, the National Gallery in London opened.