No. 653
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 27, 2024

The Astor Place Riot

August 15, 2011
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The archives of the Humble Oil & Refining Company are about the last place where you’d expect to run across a first-rate poltergeist account, but it just goes to show that we live in a funny old world.  In 1948, a folklorist and historian was browsing through the company’s papers when he came across a letter that had absolutely nothing to do with oil.  It read:Jan [illegible] '
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Strange Company - 5/27/2024
Included in yesterday’s trip to Fall River was a stop at Miss Lizzie’s Coffee shop and a visit to the cellar to see the scene of the tragic demise of the second Mrs. Lawdwick Borden and two of the three little children in 1848. I have been writing about this sad tale since 2010 and had made a previous trip to the cellar some years ago but was unable to get to the spot where the incident occured to get a clear photograph.  The tale of Eliza Borden is a very sad, but not uncommon story of post partum depression with a heartrending end. You feel this as you stand in the dark space behind the chimney where Eliza ended her life with a straight razor after dropping 6 month old Holder and his 3 year old sister Eliza Ann into the cellar cistern. Over the years I have found other similar cases, often involving wells and cisterns, and drownings of children followed by suicides of the mothers. These photos show the chimney, cistern pipe, back wall, dirt and brick floor, original floorboards forming the cellar ceiling and what appears to be an original door. To be in the place where this happened is a sobering experience. My thanks to Joe Pereira for allowing us to see and record the place where this sad occurrence unfolded in 1848. R.I.P. Holder, Eliza and Eliza Ann Borden. Visit our Articles section above for more on this story. The coffee shop has won its suit to retain its name and has plans to expand into the shop next door and extend its menu in the near future.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 2/12/2024
When these photos from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York were taken at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery at the end of May in 1899, Memorial Day didn’t exist. “Decoration Day,” however, was an established holiday celebrated every May 30. The idea was to visit the final resting places of thousands of […]
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An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: […]
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Early American Crime - 12/17/2021
John Wesley Elkins.11-year-old John Wesley Elkins was slight of stature—four feet eight inches tall, weighing 73 pounds. He was intelligent and well-spoken, and he had never caused trouble until the day he murdered his parents. At 2:00 am, on July 24, 1889, while his parents were sleeping in their Iowa farmhouse, he shot his father in the head and then beat his mother to death with a club.
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/25/2024
CHIEF OF CONSThe Morning Times(Cripple Creek, Colorado)February 15, 1896Courtesy of Mitch Morrissey ig Ed Burns robs a dying man?      Mitch Morrissey, a Facebook friend and historian for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, found and published an interesting newspaper piece on "Big Ed" Burns, one of the most notorious characters in the West. Burns was a confidence man and
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Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately … Continue reading
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
Hid the Girls' Skirts | Shot Down in His Office

The Astor Place Riot

Astor Palace Riot

New York, New York, May 10, 1849 - The night of May 10, 1849, New York City experienced the largest public disturbance it had seen to date. The Astor Place Riot left at least 25 people dead and 120 more injured. What was the burning issue that led to this night of carnage? It was the question of, who was the better Shakespearean actor: England’s William Charles Macready, or America’s Edwin Forrest.

Edwin-Forrest-Macbeth

Edwin Forrest as Macbeth

Americans had always had a strong affinity for Shakespeare.  Settlers travelling west always took a King James Bible; if they had a second book it was, more often than not, the works of Shakespeare. Though the theatre was a much rowdier place than today—alcohol and prostitutions a given—when Americans went to the theatre, they wanted Shakespeare.  When Pennsylvania born, Edwin Forrest, emerged as talented Shakespearean actor, American theatregoers were ecstatic.  Here was an actor who not only played Shakespeare, but looked and acted like an American.  Strong, handsome, and athletic, Forest played the familiar roles, with a forceful style that resonated with American audiences wherever he went. Edwin Forrest was the first American star

macready

William Charles Macready as Macbeth

On his first trip to England, Forrest’s acting style was well received there too. While in England, Forrest met and became friends with William Charles Macready, that country’s foremost Shakespearean actor. While the two men developed a warm friendship, privately, neither had anything positive about the other’s acting.

When Macready came to America, Forrest followed him from city to city, performing the same play, inviting comparison. Forrest thought of it as friendly rivalry, but Macready did not take it that way.  When Forrest toured England again, he was not as well received and he blamed Macready’s influence. In London, Forrest went to see Macready perform Hamlet, and, allegedly, hissed him loudly from the first row.

In 1849, Macready opened another American tour by performing Macbeth at New York’s Astor Place Opera House, while Forrest was playing the same role a few blocks away at the Broadway Theater. This caught the attention of the gangs of New York who, in 1849, had more power than respectable people were willing to admit.

The gangs in the Bowery and Five Points neighborhoods were involved in theft in all its forms, prostitution, blackmail, extortion; and they provided muscle for various political factions. But more than anything else, the gangs loved to fight. Under normal circumstances, the Irish gangs would fight each other—e.g. The Dead Rabbits would fight the Plug Uglies, who would fight the Roach Guards, etc. But when challenged by their arch enemies, the nativist—anti-immigrant—Bowery Boys, all of the Irish gangs would fight together. On rare occasions, when the conflict was downtown versus aristocratic uptown, or England versus America, all of the gangs would fight together. Macready’s performance provided just such an occasion.

During Macready’s first performance at the Astor Place, the gangs bought up hundreds of tickets and filled the theatre with rude boys (pronounced b’hoys.)  When Macready stepped on stage, they booed and hissed, pelting him with eggs, rotten fruit, and other garbage, until Macready left the stage. He decided to cancel his tour, then and there, and return to England, but New York’s literary elite, including Washington Irving, persuaded him to perform again.

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This riled the gangs even more. They were now led by the instigation of nativist journalist and dime novel author Ned Buntline, and Tammany Hall boss, Isaiah Rynders, who was anxious to embarrass the newly elected Whig mayor, Caleb S. Woodhull. They covered the city with fliers calling on workingmen to oppose English rule in New York City.

Three nights after the first performance, the theatre was again filled with gang members, threatening to disrupt the performance, but it was also filled with policemen who managed to quell the rowdies enough for Macready to finish the show. However, outside the theatre, a crowd of 10,000 people had amassed and were hurling bricks and rocks at the building. It was too much for the police, the mayor sent for the state militia –two companies of infantry, a light artillery troop, and forty cavalry men.

The troops fired above the crowd and when that produced no results, they fired into the crowd. When the smoke cleared hours later, 25 men were dead and more than a 120 wounded. Macready, barely escaping with his life, managed to board a train to Boston.

Both Forrest and Macready continued acting but their paths never crossed again. Neither man was ever again able to generate the passionate response of that night in 1849.

 

 


Sources:

  • Cliff, Nigel. The Shakespeare riots: revenge, drama, and death in nineteenth-century America. New York: Random House, 2007
  • Duke, Thomas S.. Celebrated criminal cases of America . San Francisco, Cal.: J.H. Barry, 1910..