"By the pricking of my thumbs / something wicked this way comes" -- Macbeth
PODCAST England's great thespian William Macready mounted the stage of the Astor Place Opera House on May 10, 1849, to perform Shakespeare's Macbeth, just as he had done hundreds of times before. But this performance would become infamous in later years as the trigger for one of New York City's most violent events -- the Astor Place Riot.
The theater, being America's prime form of public entertainment in the early 19th century, was often home to great disturbances and riots. It was still seen as a British import and often suffered the anti-British sentiments that often vexed early New Yorkers.
Macready, known as one of the world's greatest Shakespearean stars, was soon rivaled by American actor Edwin Forrest, whose brawny, ragged style of performance endeared the audiences of the Bowery. To many, these two actors embodied many of America's deepest divides -- rich vs. poor, British vs. American, Whig vs. Democrat.
On May 10th, these emotions overflowed into an evening of stark, horrifying violence as armed militia shot indiscriminately into an angry mob gathering outside theater at Astor Place. By the end of this story, over two dozen New Yorkers would be murdered, dozens more wounded, and the culture of the city irrevocably changed.
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The Bowery Boys #164 The Astor Place Riot
The riot immortalized on a cigarette card. (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
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In the end, I just decided to simplify it in the headline, but I think either are acceptable
CORRECTION: In the podcast, I mention that John Jacob Astor lived in the line of stately buildings today known as Colonnade Row. Although he built them, he never lived here. However he moved his family into them, including his grandson John Jacob Astor III. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Washington Irving also lived here.
The Astor Place Opera House in 1850 and its approximate location as it looks in 2004
After the riots, the opera house quickly lost its cache. High society moved uptown to the Academy of Music (not so far away actually, on 14th Street, near Union Square). The interior of the theater was eventually demolished and sold to the New York Mercantile Library and renamed Clinton Hall.
This was torn down in 1890 and replaced with the 11-story structure that stands there today.
Many considered the demons of Astor Place purged when Cooper Union was finally constructed in 1859, a decade after the riots. In this image, we're looking up Third Avenue and the final remnant of the Bowery. The Third Avenue Elevated has already been built here:
(In the podcast, I note that a photograph -- actually a daguerreotype -- exists of Mr. Macready. I admit, that I only read that they exist but I was unable to find one. Once I do, I'll replace the image below.0
Edwin Forrest: In portrait and in daguerreotype
Most images above courtesy the New York Public Library (except where otherwise noted). We thank them again for being an invaluable resource for New York City history!