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The Astor Place Riot

The Astor Place Riot

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Published by Matt Cromwell
A paper I did for class that I never turned in because the professor changed the assignment the week before it was due! O well... I enjoyed researching and writing it.
A paper I did for class that I never turned in because the professor changed the assignment the week before it was due! O well... I enjoyed researching and writing it.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Matt Cromwell on Apr 28, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Astor Place Riot of 1849

by Matt Cromwell This is an analysis of an account of the Astor Place Riot which occurred on May 10, 1849. The document in review is called “Account Of The Terrific And Fatal Riot At The New-York Astor Place Opera House” (NY: H. M. Ramsey, 1849). The title page continues with detailed descriptions of the contents: With the Quarrels of Forrest And Macready, Including All the Causes Which Led to that Awful Tragedy! Wherein an Infuriated Mob was Quelled by the Public Authorities And Military, with Its Mournful Termination in the Sudden Death or Mutilation of More than Fifty Citizens, with Full and Authentic Particulars. It then concludes with the ominous quote: “Let Justice be Done, though the Heavens Fall!” Despite the author’s overt persuasions and biases, this is a well-documented account of an ongoing feud between two actors over time and across continents that leads to a disastrous and fatal. My aim here is to present a summary of the document interspersed with analysis and concluding with a short discussion of the documents contribution to Antebellum American history. The author of the pamphlet, H.M. Ramsey1, opens with a brief summary of the events that unfolded that night followed by an account of the feud that arose between the American actor, Edwin Forrest, and the British actor William Macready. The author is clearly biased towards Forrest in his account, but his argument is supported by several “cards” written by the actors to newspapers to justify their artless behaviors. The feud crosses the Atlantic and follows Forrest from America to England, as well as Macready from England to America. Did Forrest’s tour in England go badly because Macready sabotaged him; or vice versa? Was Forrest’s “hissing” of Macready in England simply constructive criticism, or was he purposely seeking to subterfuge him in his own country?

I was unable to unearth any further information on the identity of this author. Gretchen Sween cites this piece and calls him an anonymous author in her article “Rituals, Riots, Rules, and Rights: The Astor Place Theater Riot of 1849 and the Evolving Limits of Free Speech.” 81 Tex. L. Rev. 679 (2002-2003). March 16, 2011 Page 1 of 3


The Astor Place Riot of 1849
by Matt Cromwell Ramsey then sets the scene for the imminent riot by describing the general furor among the New York populace towards the announcement that Macready would be coming to New York on the heels of his injury against Forrest. He describes a concerted effort by Forrest’s friends and supporters to purchase tickets to Macready’s showing with the express intent of booing and hissing him off the stage. The strategy worked far beyond what was initially imagined. The wellto-do opera house quickly became host to a mob of between ten- to twenty-thousand citizens. Ramsey claims that “a riot was anticipated by all who were acquainted with the circumstances” (pg. 102). Ramsey claims that though the mayor suggested that the Opera House be closed, the lessees of the Opera House “were determined to stand upon their rights, and the city authorities decided… to sustain them… with all the force at their disposal” (pg. 11) and therefore requested the presence of the police and military in advance. Then almost as an aside, a question is raised: Would “all these extraordinary preparations… have been made to protect the legal rights of humble citizens”? (pg 11). Ramsey begins to lay down his argument against the wealthy establishment. It was the lessees of the Opera house, after all, who invited Macready to perform, insisted that he perform again on May 10 after he was hissed off the stage on May 7, and who invited the police and military to be prepared for the rioters. It was the mayor who, though he was well informed of the coming riot and issued that the military be there, did not issue a warning to the citizens that disturbing the peace at the Opera house would be a potentially lethal business that night. After another brief summary of the events of the night, Ramsey then provides 4 first-hand accounts of the scene. These are particularly helpful and generally consistent with the overall narrative that Ramsey presents. After listing the dead and wounded from that evening, Ramsey

Page numbers are provided according to the attached manuscript. Page 2 of 3

March 16, 2011

The Astor Place Riot of 1849
by Matt Cromwell concludes by asking “Where lies the blame?” (pg. 19). Ramsey’s blame sits squarely on the authorities. He characterizes the mob as just “well meaning, but ignorant, rash, and misguided men.” He defends that the military simply “acted naturally, under the circumstances.” It was, though, the authorities who put the military in the square for all to be aroused by. It is a very populist message; very anti-establishment. Several aspects stand out in regards to this tract. The first is the medium itself. This pamphlet was not published in a newspaper or journal, it was printed alone, for the purpose of dissemination. It is a political, persuasive tract attempting to provide detailed first-hand accounts of the tragedy and its background for posterity while also using the event as a teaching moment for the local citizenry. Such a medium seems virtually non-existent today. Secondly, it becomes clear that the circumstances surrounding the Forrest-Macready feud touched on many raw nerves in the New Yorkers minds. This was not about their “favorite” actor, but about American pride versus English elitism. Forrest was also very popular among the lower class, while Macready was favored by the wealthy, adding class tensions as well. New York native, author, and columnist Kevin Baker claims that the Astor Place Riot “remade the city” by inspiring the establishment of the New York Union League, the Republican Party, and New York Central Park3. University of Texas lecturer and lawyer Gretchen Sween cites the Astor Riot as an early American example of the restriction of free-speech. The plethora of opinions and perspectives on this event illustrate how densely complex and diverse American culture was at the time. But what stands out clearest is, despite or even including the bias of the author, this piece provides enormous historical value to this event.
Kevin Baker. American Heritage. New York: Nov 1999. Vol. 50, Iss. 7; pg. 20. http://proquest.umi.com.libproxy.sdsu.edu/pqdlink?Ver=1&Exp=03-152016&FMT=7&DID=45951034&RQT=309. Accessed March 16, 2011. March 16, 2011 Page 3 of 3

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