11 Daly 3 (1849)
Astor Place Riot
During the 1840s, attending plays was a major form of public entertainment and crowds of people congregated in the streets outside the theaters sometimes in support or in opposition to particular actors, who had huge numbers of fans, but often to express their opinions on many aspects of life, including class differences and political opposition. These “staged” riots were commonplace at the time. But the Astor Place Riot, in the course of which 23 people died, brought an end to this type of gathering.
Ostensibly, the riot occurred because of a major rivalry between two Shakespearian actors: the English actor, William C. Macready, and an American actor, Edwin Forrest. As architectural historian Sarah Bean Apmann noted:
In the popular imagination, this rivalry transcended acting and was reflective of the class divisions in urban America. Macready was identified with England and its aristocracy and thus embraced by the upper class of New York. Working-class native-born and Irish immigrant New Yorkers, usually at odds, found common ground in their appreciation of Edwin Forrest and disdain for the elite and Macready.
The facts of the case, as recited by Judge Charles Daly, are as follows:
In the autumn of 1848, William C. Macready, a well-known and eminent English tragedian, came to this country to play a farewell engagement. Some hostility existed between him and Edwin Forrest, an equally well-known and eminent American tragedian, arising, as Macready assumed, from the unfriendly course of Forrest toward him while Macready was playing in this country in 1844, and, as Forrest claimed, from the course pursued toward him by Macready while the latter was playing in England, which hostility was greatly augmented by Forrest having hissed Macready, in Edinburgh, for introducing something of his own in playing the character of Hamlet. When Macready was announced to appear in the city of New York, in 1848, it was anticipated that some opposition would be manifested toward him by the friends of Forrest, but Forrest dissuaded them from any such attempt. Macready went through his engagement without interruption, and, upon his benefit night, injudiciously, in a speech to the audience, referred to the project of a party or faction to excite hostile feelings against him, and of its failure, in language which had the effect of arousing an active opposition to him on the part of the friends of Forrest. He was attacked by a Boston newspaper while performing in that city, and, upon his subsequent appearance in Philadelphia, a riot in the theater was prevented only by the strenuous exertions of the manager and the presence of a strong police force. At the close of this engagement, Macready, in his speech to the audience, referred to the ungenerous treatment he had received at the hands of an American actor, and Forrest replied, in a card in a Philadelphia newspaper, charging Macready with instigating persons to write him down in the newspapers while he was in England, and procuring his friends to go to the theater to hiss and drive him from the stage; in which card he applied to Macready such epithets as “superannuated driveler,” “poor old man,” and spoke of the disturbed state of his guilty conscience; to which card Macready rejoined by another, denying the truth of Forrest’s statements, and threatening an action for libel. No further attempt was made to oppose Macready, although he continued to be assailed in the newspapers, until his re-appearance at the Astor Place Opera House, in May, 1849, where, upon the first night of his appearance, he was prevented from performing by the hisses and demonstrations of a number of persons acting in concert, who displayed banners, with inflammatory appeals, in different parts of the house. As he persisted in performing, the demonstrations against him became more violent; chairs and missiles were thrown upon the stage, and he was compelled to desist from his attempt. As the hostility against him was supposed to proceed from a very limited number of persons, who had organized together to drive him from the stage, it elicited strong expressions of condemnation on the part of several of the public newspapers, and forty-eight prominent citizens signed and published a letter requesting him to reconsider his determination not to perform, and assuring him that the good sense and respect for order in the community would sustain him upon the subsequent nights of his performance; in consequence of which letter he was announced to appear on the evening of May 10th, 1849. This letter had a very different effect from what its signers anticipated, and greatly intensified the opposition. It was regarded as a challenge or defiance, by a few representing the wealthier classes, to the less prominent part of the community, and national prejudices and antipathies were aroused by appeals through certain newspapers, prominent among which was a weekly publication denominated Ned Buntline’s Own, conducted by E. Z. C. Judson, one of the defendants, and by the posting and distribution of incendiary handbills throughout the city. Through these means, and from a report, which spread extensively, that the officers and crews of the British vessels and steamers in the harbor would assemble at the theater to sustain Macready, the excitement became general throughout the city, and, a serious disturbance being apprehended, the mayor advised the managers of the opera-house to close it for that evening, and abandon any further attempt of a public performance in the city on the part of Macready. The managers, however, insisted upon their right, under their license, to open the theater and perform, and the public authorities, in recognition of it, took measures to prevent any disturbance of the peace by stationing a strong police force in and around the opera-house; and arrangements were made with the major-general commanding the uniformed militia to have an efficient military force in readiness to sustain the authorities, if necessary. Long before the opening of the opera-house, huge crowds assembled about and in front of it, and upon the opening of the doors the theater was speedily filled by persons having tickets, and without any disturbance or disorder. When Macready appeared the whole audience rose, and, the great bulk of those present being friendly to him, he was received with cheers and waving of handkerchiefs, mingled with the groans and hisses of the few who were opposed to him. The noise continuing, a placard was displayed from the stage, requesting those in favor of order to remain quiet, which was complied with. About ten or fifteen persons, however, in the parquet, and some in the gallery, continued their opposition by hissing and angry demonstrations, and, as they would not desist, they were arrested by the police. Order was temporarily restored, and the play proceeded, but with occasional interruptions and hisses. Meanwhile the crowd upon the outside of the theater had largely augmented, and a group of young men, about twenty in number, were especially active in fomenting disturbance, conspicuous among whom was the defendant Judson, with whom many of the young men frequently conferred, and who appeared to be acting as their leader. Judson was heard to say, “It is a shame that Americans should be served so!” and after a conference with three of the young men, in a low tone, Judson called out, “Now, boys, whatever you have to do must be done quickly!” and one of the young men shouted, “Now, boys, for a shower!” to which Judson, in his assumed capacity as a leader, called out, “Hold, until you are all ready!” and immediately a volley of stones was discharged against the walls and windows of the opera-house, upon which the police arrested several of the participants, but not without resistance on the part of others. In the interior of the house the play was proceeding, when it was suddenly interrupted by a large paving stone, which came through one of the windows and fell among the audience, followed by other stones, smashing the panels of the doors and falling in the lobby and other places. The wildest scene of confusion ensued in the interior of the theater, which was heightened by the cry that it was on fire under the parquet, which proved to be the fact; and through this timely warning the fire was speedily extinguished. Notwithstanding the activity of the police in making arrests, the attacks upon the opera-house were continued outside with increased violence. A large number now united in assailing it with stones, breaking the windows and attempting to force the doors at the entrances, which attacks were resisted by the police, and the doors were barricaded from the inside, when a proposition was made, but not carried out, to enter the building from the rear by ladders, a plan devised by the prisoner Judson, who had had ladders brought there for that purpose, with the design of entering the building in that way to put a stop to the performance and drive out the audience. The crowd on the Eighth Street side of the theater, as described by the witnesses, was wild with excitement, and at the front, upon Astor Place, were wrought up to the highest pitch, heaving to and fro like the waves of the ocean, the number of persons being variously estimated at from ten to twenty thousand. Stones and missiles were flying in all directions, and the police, after vainly endeavoring to allay the disturbance, and deserted by the mayor, who fled from the scene, were compelled to keep compactly together for their own security. The recorder and the sheriff, who were upon the spot promptly, placed themselves at the head of the police and kept them together, who were now assailed with stones, missiles and cries of derision from every quarter, in their unavailing attempt, as a body, to disperse the crowd, and some of them were very severely injured.
As it was apparent that the police force was insufficient to protect the building or to quell the riot, which had increased to alarming proportions, the sheriff, with the advice of the recorder, dispatched a messenger for the military. The major-general had ordered the Seventh Regiment of Infantry, known as the National Guard, and a troop of horse, to assemble at the arsenal, fully equipped, but, owing to the shortness of the notice, a force of but two hundred and seven men, in all, had assembled when the call came for their services; and this body, under the command of Colonel Duryea, and accompanied by Major General Sandford and Brigadier-General Hall, hastened to the scene of disturbance. Upon entering Astor Place, the troop of horse, which was in front, was assailed by a shower of stones and brickbats, which was so continuous and rapid that nearly every man in the troop was injured. Their horses became unmanageable, and, being thrown into confusion, they individually galloped off, leaving the infantry alone to contend with the rioters. The small body of infantry was speedily wedged in by the pressure of the crowd upon either side, and assailed by opprobrious epithets and paving stones, an ample supply of which was at the command of the rioters, from a large pile in the street, the pavement having been recently taken up to put down water pipes. The military, however, being kept together in good order and efficiently commanded, forced their way through the crowd and cleared the rear of the theater, the rioters retreating before them as they advanced, and, having effectually cleared Eighth Street, a cordon of police was thrown across it, to prevent any further access to it by the rioters. The military then passed through Eighth Street to Broadway, accompanied by the recorder and the sheriff, and turned into Astor Place, to force back the crowd from that side of the theater, the rioters retreating before them until the military had reached to about the center of the opera-house, when the crowd, either from the pressure behind, or from the determination to resist, remained stationary, and commenced assaulting the military with showers of paving stones and brickbats, by which nearly the whole of the first platoon were injured, and also the colonel commanding, the recorder and several others. At this moment a pistol was fired from the crowd, which wounded one of the captains, whereupon General Sandford, and General Hall, who accompanied him, called out repeatedly to the crowd to fall back and disperse, or that they would be fired upon, but were answered only by derisive cries, and by the crowd rushing forward upon the military, during which the commanding general was knocked down, together with several soldiers in the front rank, the whole body being forced back toward the opera-house, followed by continuous showers of stones. At this juncture the order was given to charge bayonets, and the attempt was made, but it could not be done; the pressure of the crowd was so close that the muskets of several of the soldiers were forcibly taken from them by some of the more active of the rioters. The commanding general now apprised the recorder and the sheriff that it would be impossible for the military to maintain themselves without firing, and the sheriff, with whom that discretion was supposed to be lodged, after repeated calls to the rioters, on his part and that of the recorder, to fall back, or that they would be fired upon, which were received with defiant shouts of “Fire, if you dare!” gave the order to fire. General Hall suggested to fire over the heads of the crowd, which order was given, and the military fired in that manner. It was followed by a shout, “They have only blank cartridges! Give it to them again!” and another volley of paving stones followed, by which the recorder and several others were struck, and one or two severely injured. The order was then again given to fire, and to fire low, which was done, when exclamations were heard that men had been shot; and for the first time the mob gave way, and the military advanced, driving the rioters before them. The latter rallied again at the corner of Lafayette Place and advanced upon the military, discharging a volley of stones, by which several of the soldiers were hurt severely, when another order was given to fire, which was executed, and proved so effectual that the bulk of the rioters fell back and dispersed, keeping up, however, for some time, an attack upon the military, with stones and brickbats, until the latter, without firing again, got complete possession of the ground, and order was restored. Twenty-three persons were killed upon the spot by the fire of the military, or died afterward of their wounds, and twenty-two were wounded, independent of injuries and severe wounds received from paving stones by many of the police and the military. Many of the killed and wounded were merely spectators, who had taken no part in the riot, or persons who were passing at the time. A woman walking with her husband, on Broadway, was shot dead; a man was killed instantly by a musket ball while stepping from a Harlem railroad car; an eminent merchant was wounded in the neck by a ball while standing in the Bowery, and another person was severely wounded by a shot in St. Mark’s Place, two blocks off from the scene of the riot; a Mr. Gedney was shot dead while looking at the riot from the corner of Astor and Lafayette places, and his own brother was in the platoon by which the volley had been fired.
A very full investigation of the riot was instituted by the coroner’s jury, who found that the persons killed came to their death from gun-shot wounds fired by the military, by the order of the civil authorities, and that, in the opinion of the jury, the circumstances existing at the time justified the authorities in giving the order to fire upon the mob. An investigation was also instituted, before the Hon. John W. Edmonds, presiding justice of the Supreme Court, as a committing magistrate, to inquire into the cause of the riot, by whom it was instigated, aided or abetted, and, upon the information thus elicited, additional arrests were made. As the recorder, the Hon. Frederick A. Tallmadge, had participated as a magistrate in quelling the riot, his place as presiding judge of the Court of Sessions was filled by the Hon. Charles P. Daly.
The trial took place at the September Term, 1849, before Judge Daly and Aldermen Wood and Kelly. Jonas P. Phillips, Assistant District Attorney, John McKeon, District Attorney, and James R. Whiting, former District Attorney, appeared for the prosecution. Counsel appeared for the prisoners, respectively, as follows: James M. Smith for Judson; E. Blankman for Bennett; John D. Sherwood for Matthew; E. Boudinot for Hosack; George I. Cornell for Adriance; Richard Busteed for Douglass; John M. B. Scoles for Norris; J. M. Mason for McLaughlin; Augustus Schell for Green; and H. Morrison for O’Neill.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury retired, and after an absence of about three hours, returned a verdict of guilty against all of the defendants.
Charles P. Daly. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of Common Pleas for the City and County of New York, Volume 11
Sarah Bean Apmann. The Astor Place Riot, 8/25/ 2016
Northeast Public Radio. Remembering New York City’s Opera Riots, May 13, 2006 The Astor Place Riot