New York

Riot erupts over choice of actors in play (1849)

May 10, 1849
Manhattan, New York
A riot breaks out over which actor should play Macbeth at the Aster Opera House, leaving 25 dead

Troubles began prior to the riot as audience members fiercely aligned themselves with one of two actors to play the titular role in Macbeth. William Charles Macready was a British actor and was favored by the upper classes; the preferred actor of the working class was American actor Edwin Forrest.

Tensions flared 3 days before the riot as Forrest supporters hurled rotten food and insults (including “down with the codfish aristocracy!”) at Macready as he attempted to perform. Alternatively, as Forrest delivered his lines, his supporters stood on their feet and cheered.

The treatment convinced Macready to return to England, but his supporters delivered a petition with the signatures of 47 prominent figures of the community (including Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, and Washington Irving, author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), and Macready decided to stay.

On May 10, approximately 10,000 people began to amass outside the opera house. Attempting to quell the riot before it could begin, state militia were already stationed at the scene and theater management screened those to be in attendance, rejecting those who were suspected to be anti-Macready. A few Forrest supporters showed their anger by throwing rocks at the building, attempted unsuccessfully to light it on fire, and entered into skirmishes with police and the militia.

Authorities, fearing they were losing control, ordered the militia to fire. The militia complied, first by shouting warnings that went unheard over the noise of the chaos, then by firing in the air. When the warning shots offered no help, the soldiers fired into the crowd. At least 25 were killed and another 120 injured.

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