A riot sparked by dueling performances of Macbeth? Hard to believe, but it happened 160 years ago in Astor Place. Today, skate rats are the most menacing crowd you’ll find there.
That same night, American-born Edwin Forrest (at left, a daguerreotype by Mathew Brady), who started his career in theaters on the nearby Bowery for working-class crowds, was also scheduled to play Macbeth a few blocks away. Once friendly, the actors were now rivals.
On May 7, Forrest’s fans—whipped up by newspaper stories and anti-English sentiment—arrived at Macready’s opening performance and proceeded to bombard the stage with eggs and shoes.
Macready wanted to go back to Britain, but prominent New Yorkers, like Herman Melville and Washington Irving, persuaded him to stay.
Before the May 10 performance, Forrest’s fans went into riot mode. About 20,000 men amassed outside the opera house, tossing rocks through windows and attempting to set it on fire. While police tried to quell the crowd outside, Macready finished the show and took off.
The rioters did not. National Guardsmen were called in to restore order. They fired on rioters as well as innocent bystanders. After it was finally brought under control, the riot had claimed 22 lives.
Tags: Astor Place Opera House, Astor Place Riots, Astor Place Theater, Bowery theater in the 19th century, Edwin Forrest, Famous Riots, Macbeth, New York in the 19th Century, Riots in New York City, William Charles Macready