Tag Archives: Edwin Forrest

A Witness to Violence: Colonnade Row and the Astor Place Riots of 1849

On May 10, 1849, Astor Place erupted into bloody violence as crowds took to the streets and battled it out — over a Shakespearean actor. It was the first time in American history that a state militia trained its muskets upon the very population it had been sworn to protect.

Courtesy NYPL

Yet of the many structures today surrounding Astor Place, only Colonnade Row (at 428–434 Lafayette Place) still remains from that dreadful day. From between its columns that May night, residents observed the horrifying violence firsthand. These old buildings, distinctive for their Corinthian columns, seem especially weathered when compared with the dazzling Astor Library across the street, home to the Public Theater since 1967.

(Colonnade Row, it should be noted, is also something of an off-Broadway landmark. The Astor Place Theatre, located in the basement, has been home to the flamboyant Blue Man Group spectacle for so long that the original performers have since turned gray.)

Vauxhall Gardens (Courtesy NYPL, lithography by George Haywood)

In 1805 this area was home to Vauxhall Gardens, an outdoor recreational venue that functioned something like a privately run park. But the city was expanding north, and wealthy fur trader–turned–real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor understood high society’s desire for more refined residential quarters.

In 1826 Astor sliced a street right through Vauxhall Gardens and named it after the Marquis de Lafayette.

Upon the western side of Lafayette Place (now Lafayette Street) he commissioned an upscale housing complex originally called La Grange Terrace, named for the marquis’s estate back in France.

An image of Colonnade Row from 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As historian Alvin F. Harlow later observed, Astor “was ridiculed for his folly in building such mansions on the very outskirts of town, but he was right.”

Completed in 1833, La Grange Terrace was quite a large and lavish address, boasting nine residences (today’s Colonnade Row contains only four of these original houses) that attracted notable members of high society—a relation of Washington Irving, the father-in-law of President John Tyler, even Astor’s own grandson. They were among the toasts of the town, hosting dinner parties in their twenty-six-room(!) mansions, and enjoying such state-of-the-art luxuries as central heating and indoor plumbing.

Some residents of La Grange Terrace were home on the evening of May 10, 1849, the night that all hell broke loose.

Inside the Astor Place Opera House for the Ball of the New York Fire Department (Courtesy NYPL)

Located just up the block between Astor Place and 8th Street, the Astor Place Opera House had opened two years before as a place for the city’s elite to gather, flaunt their good fortune, and take in an evening of (often imported) culture. Indeed, this was the case on the night of May 10, when they gathered to witness a highly antici- pated performance of Macbeth, starring William Charles Macready, England’s most famous tragedian.

For years Macready had been engaged in high-profile thespian warfare with New York’s most celebrated hometown actor, Edwin Forrest, a charismatic star whose rugged, brawny performances endeared him to working-class audiences.

Below: William Macready in costume, painted by John Jackson

At first, the publicity surrounding their rivalry was a boon to both actors and to ticket sales wherever they performed. Both Macready and Forrest toured the United States in separate productions, many times visiting cities just days apart from each other. Audiences would attend both shows and argue for days about the superiority of one performance over the other.

Soon, however, it seemed these boisterous theatrical arguments were about something larger than the delivery of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Tensions were simmering about something deeper than any actor or performance, but rather that which they represented.

Forrest’s popularity among the Bowery crowd, especially the new Irish immigrants seeking to survive on the lowest rung of New York life, emboldened them against Macready. Macready’s fans, meanwhile, were eager to associate themselves with the fineries of English society. To Macready’s rarified audiences, Forrest represented the growing dangers of the impoverished immigrant class in the rapidly expanding city.

Below: Edwin Forrest, in a later photographic portrait by Mathew Brady

As the actors’ public feud grew more heated, so too did the ire of their respective audiences. And here, in May of 1849, both actors were performing in the same city at the same time. Tensions were high.

On May 7, Forrest supporters had disrupted a performance of Macbeth at the Opera House, pelting the stage with wilted vegetables and rotten eggs. Scorned and embarrassed, the English actor vowed never again to perform in New York and packed his bags to head back to London.

Prominent city leaders (including Washington Irving, a frequent guest at La Grange Terrace) convinced him to stick around for his final, highly anticipated performance three days later. Macready begrudgingly acquiesced.

That night, May 10, thousands of anti-Macready rioters packed into Astor Place, pushing up against the police forces gathered around the theater.

Tensions mounted as the crowds swelled, raising their voices—and then the stones started flying. Protestors pulled cobblestones from the street, pelting the police officers while screaming to burn the theater to the ground.

Inside, the audience tried to keep its focus on Macready, who gave a fine performance, given the circumstances, the drama of the evening enhanced by the growing sense of danger in the air. Once the show was over, Macready wisely disguised himself and made a quick exit through the back of the theater, never to perform in America again.

As darkness fell, the police struggled to contain the crowd and needed backup. The state militia marched from Washington Square and gathered inside the stables of La Grange Terrace, ready to disperse the agitated crowd that filled the square.

The soldiers fired shots into the crowd, seemingly without a distinct target. Anger turned to panic as thousands pushed and shoved, pulling in and trampling innocent bystanders in their path. By the time the crowd finally dispersed, at least twenty-five people had been shot and killed, some from stray bullets that hit them inside their homes.

This violent episode signaled the beginning of the end for Astor Place as an elite destination. Soon, ritzy developments opened farther north near Union Square, Gramercy Park, and later, Madison Square, and the old Opera House was torn down.

In the 1850s Astor Place saw the opening of two institutions that would give it a new educational purpose: the private lending library owned by the Astor family (opened in 1853) and the Cooper Union institution of higher learning (in 1859).

The remaining structures from the 1930s (Courtesy NYPL/Wurts Bros)

Unsurprisingly, La Grange Terrace experienced a spectacular fall from grace. It played various roles over the next several decades, functioning as various hotels and boardinghouses, before five of the nine houses were demolished in 1902.

The other four continued into the twentieth century as curious relics of a bygone era. In 1965 they were among the inaugural structures to be saved by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Even with battered old columns, this landmark tells a marvelous story of New York—from blue bloods to Blue Men.

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The Astor Place Riot: Massacre at a busy crossroad as a Shakespearean rivalry ignites New York class struggles

“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.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #164 The Astor Place Riot

The riot immortalized on a cigarette card. (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

The Old Astor Place Opera House.

____________________________________________________________________

And we would like to again thank our new sponsor Squarespace!  Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio.  For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to squarespace.com and use offer code BOWERY.
 ____________________________________________________________________

BOWERY BOYS MERCHANDISE IS ON ITS WAY! More details on Monday. But here’s a preview. [Official Bowery Boys Store]
 ____________________________________________________________________

RIOT OR RIOTS?  You may have noticed in our podcast that we go from calling it the Astor Place Riot and the Astor Place Riots.  We both saw primary references to both the singular and the plural.  Though it was just one riot which occurred on May 10, the incidents on May 7 and May 11 constitute smaller riots or disturbances that lead up or were the result of the May 10 event.  The word ‘riot’ is even funny as it starts as a riot and ends as a massacre.

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

Inside the Astor Opera House, one of the most lavish spaces in all of New York in the 1840s.  Curiously, this illustration depicts a ball for the New York Fire Department.  Many members of the volunteer fire departments  actually set upon the opera house as part of the angry mob.

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:

William Macready:
(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!