Riots

The Diary of Philip Hone

Astor Place Opera-House Riots, via NYPL Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-280e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, pp. 359-362

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Astor Place Opera House, New York, 7 and 10 May 1849

Text: May 8.—Mr. McCready commenced an engagement last evening at the Opera-House, Astor place, and was to have performed the part of “Macbeth,” whilst his rival Mr. Forrest, appeared in the same part at the Broadway theatre. A violent animosity has existed on the part of the latter theatrical hero against his rival, growing out of some differences in England; but with no cause, that I can discover, except that one is a gentleman, and the other is a vulgar, arrogant loafer, with a pack of kindred rowdies at his heels. Of these retainers a regularly organized force was employed to raise a riot at the Opera-House and drive Mr. McCready off the stage, in which, to the disgrace of the city, the ruffians succeeded. On the appearance of the “Thane of Cawdor,” he was saluted with a shower of missiles, rotten eggs, and other unsavoury objects, with shouts and yells of the most abusive epithets. In the midst of this disgraceful riot the performance was suspended, the respectable part of the audience dispersed, and the vile band of Forresters were left in possession of the house. This cannot end here; the respectable part of our citizens will never consent to be put down by a mob raised to serve the purpose of such a fellow as Forrest. Recriminations will be resorted to, and a series of riots will have possession of the theatres of the opposing parties.

May 10. — The riot at the Opera-House on Monday night was children’s play compared with the disgraceful scenes which were enacted in our part of this devoted city this evening, and the melancholy loss of life to which the outrageous proceedings of the mob naturally led.

An appeal to Mr. McCready had been made by many highly respectable citizens, and published in the papers, inviting him to finish his engagement at the Opera-House, with an implied pledge that they would stand by him against the ferocious mob of Mr. Forrest’s friends, who had determined that McCready should not be allowed to play, whilst at the same time their oracle was strutting, unmolested, his “ hour upon the stage” of the Broadway theatre. This announcement served as a firebrand in the mass of combustibles left smouldering from the riot of the former occasion. The Forresters perceived that their previous triumph was incomplete, and a new conspiracy was formed to accomplish effectually their nefarious designs. Inflammatory notices were posted in the upper ward, meetings were regularly organized, and bands of ruffians, gratuitously supplied with tickets by richer rascals, were sent to take possession of the theatre. The police, however, were beforehand with them, and a large body of their force was posted in different parts of the house.

When Mr. McCready appeared he was assailed in the same manner as on the former occasion; but he continued on the stage and performed his part with firmness, amidst the yells and hisses of the mob. The strength of the police, and their good conduct, as well as that of the Mayor, Recorder, and other public functionaries, succeeded in preventing any serious injury to the property within doors, and many arrests were made; but the war raged with frightful violence in the adjacent streets. The mob — a dreadful one in numbers and ferocity—assailed the extension of the building, broke in the windows, and demolished some of the doors. I walked up to the corner of Astor place, but was glad to make my escape. On my way down, opposite the New York Hotel, I met a detachment of troops, consisting of about sixty cavalry and three hundred infantry, fine-looking fellows, well armed, who marched steadily to the field of action. Another detachment went by the way of Lafayette place. On their arrival they were assailed by the mob, pelted with stones and brickbats, and several were carried off severely wounded.

Under this provocation, with the sanction of the civil authorities, orders were given to fire. Three or four volleys were discharged; about twenty persons were killed and a large number wounded. It is to be lamented that in the number were several innocent persons, as is always the case in such affairs. A large proportion of the mob being lookers-on, who, putting no faith in the declaration of the magistrates that the fatal order was about to be given, refused to retire, and shared the fate of the rioters. What is to be the issue of this unhappy affair cannot be surmised; the end is not yet.

May 11— I walked up this morning to the field of battle, in Astor place. The Opera-House presents a shocking spectacle, and the adjacent buildings are smashed with bullet holes. Mrs. Langdon’s house looks as if had withstood a siege. Groups of people were standing around, some justifying the interference of the military, but a large proportion were savage as tigers with the smell of blood …

May 12. — Last night passed off tolerably quietly, owing to the measures taken by the magistrates and police. But it is consolatory to know that law and order have thus far prevailed. The city authorities have acted nobly. The whole military force was under arms all night, and a detachment of United States troops was also held in reserve. All the approaches to the Opera-House were strictly guarded, and no transit permitted. The police force, with the addition of a thousand special constables, were employed in every post of danger; and although the lesson has been dearly bought, it is of great value, inasmuch as the fact has been established that law and order can be maintained under a Republican form of government.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. The cause of the riot at the Astor Place Opera House on 10 May 1849 was the rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor William Charles Macready, which was blown up by the press during Macready’s 1848-40 tour of the United States, cast in Britain vs. America terms. A performance of Macready’s Macbeth at the Astor Place in New York on 7 May 1849 was halted after rioting in the theatre. On 10 May another performance was interrupted by rioting among rival supporters of the two actors which spilled out into the streets. The New York State Militia was called, and at least twenty-two people were shot dead, with dozens more injured.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Riot at Covent Garden Theatre

‘Riot at Covent Garden Theatre, 1763 print, Theatre and Performance Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1763, vol. XXXII, p. 97

Production: Thomas Arne, Artaxerxes, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 February 1763

Text: A riot happened at Covent-Garden theatre occasioned by a demand being made for full prices at the opera of Artaxerxes. The mischief done was the greatest ever, known on any occasion of the like kind; all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so that if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000l. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.

Comments: The opera Artaxerxes by Thomas Arne premiered successfully at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762. When it was revived at the same theatre on 24 February 1763 a riot occurred in protest at the abolition of half-price admissions. It has been the custom to sell half-price tickets for latecomers who would see only the short afterpiece rather than the main attraction of the evening. This change in policy was fiercely opposed by some and led to several such riots, at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The protests caused the half-price concession to be re-introduced when the theatre re-opened on March 2nd. 2000l is £2,000.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The O.P. War

George and Isaak Cruikshank, ‘Acting magistrates committing themselves being their first appearance on this stage as performed at the National Theatre Covent Garden. Sepr 18 1809’ © The Trustees of the British Museum. The Riot Act was read from the stage on 18 September, but the placards, rattles etc. did not start appearing until the following day.

Source: Thomas Tegg, The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the O.P. War, in Poetic Epistles, or Hudibrastic Letters, From Ap Simpkins in Town, to his Friend Ap Davies in Wales; including all the best songs, placards, toasts &c. &c.Which were written, exhibited, and given en the Occasion; with illustrative notes (London: Thomas Tegg, 1810), pp. 1-6

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, plus The Quaker, New Covent Garden Theatre, London, 18 September 1809

Text: LETTER I

From Ap Simpkins to Ap Davies

SINCE now the O.P. battle’s o’er,
And peace the partisans restore,
To you, Ap Davies, my dear friend,
A brief account of all I’ll send,
From the beginning to the end:
But, lest your patience I should tire,
And send you more than you’d desire,
Lest I too many letters might
On this theatric contest write,
Which letters, as they’ll go by post.
Would in the end some shillings cost,
On leading points I’ll only dwell,
And all that’s entertaining tell.

Where the old playhouse lately blazed,
In Covent Garden, soon was raised
Another playhouse, as intended,
On which the managers expended
A sum indeed beyond all bounds,
It was thrice fifty thousand pounds!!!
In ten month’s time it was erected,
And from th’ exterior much expected.
But though so very grand without,
Within, ’tis very plain no doubt,
‘Twas on the eighteenth of September,
(The day I very well remember)
For which Macbeth was advertised;
A play so generally prized.
Near to the doors what numbers push’d!
As soon as opened in they rush’d.
At first the pit seem’d rather dull —
By six o’clock the house was full;
And the first lady that appear’d,
With loud huzzas by all was cheer’d.
The band struck up God save the King,
And several times the song they sing :
Then Rule Britannia next they play’d,
Which some to sing also essay’d.
The band their music might have sav’d,
While hats and handkerchiefs were wav’d.
At length the curtain up they drew,
And Kemble on the stage we view.
To give us an address he came.
To talk of “sparks from Greece” — the “flame
Of “an illumined age” — “the fire
Of Shakspeare,” which we must admire:
But so vociferously they roar’d,
I did not hear a single word.
The play began, but at this time
‘Twas like the Circus pantomime,
And gave as little satisfaction
As Elliston’s ballet of action.
When Kemble entered as Macbeth,
It was in vain he spent his breath,
For not a word could reach the ear:
E’en Mrs. Siddons I cou’dn’t hear.
With noise was Charles Kemble hail’d —
The uproar every where prevail’d.
“Off! off!” “Old prices!” were the cries;
“No Catalani!” and “No rise!”
What hissing, yelling, howling, groaning!
What barking, braying, hooting, moaning!
The people bellow’d, shouted, storm’d,
The actors in dumb show perform’d.
Those in the pit stood up with rage,
And turn’d their backs upon the stage.
Yes, my dear friend, their backs they turn’d,
And thus were the performers spurn’d.
The tragedy thus tragediz’d,
Brunton came forward, as surmis’d,
T’ announce for the next night the play;
But still they bark, and yell, and bray.
I heard him not, and all could see,
Was his lips move, then exit he.
The Quaker was the farce, they say;
I thought it was the Devil to pay
In short, it went on like the play.
I’m certain that the quaker quaked.
Each head too with the tumult ach’d.
About ELEVEN, or before,
The stage amusements all were o’er
But not until the clock struck one
Were those before the curtain done;
The cry of “Managers!” went round;
From all parts did the cry resound.
The eager, the impetuous crowd,
Then for old prices call’d aloud.
In vain they call’d — they brandish’d sticks,
The boards too trembled with their kicks;
When lo! upon the stage, indeed,
Two magistrates — yes, Nares and Read,
Made their appearance — ’tis a fact —
They came to read the Riot Act,
But all these worthies wish’d to say
Was treated like the farce and play —
“No magistrates! off! off! away!
Let Harris, if you please, appear,
Or send John Philip Kemble here.”
They thought to make the gentry quiet,
To prove that words were acts of riot:
But ‘twould not do — “Off! off! enough!”
So exeunt Ambo in a huff.
And now the galleries began:
They curs’d the building and the plan.
They thought the managers unkind —
They were in pigeon-holes confin’d.
Pat cries — ” I will be squeez’d to death;
I will be kilt for want of breath.”
Those in the upper boxes now
Assisted in the general row,
And, ‘midst their fury and their heat,
They happen’d to break down a seat.
Impossible, in such a fray,
But that some benches must give way;
At this, however, much displeased,
The Bow-street runners came and seized
Two or three gentlemen — they swore —
They dragg’d them out — their coats they tore.
These men it seems, on this condition,
Had to all parts a free admission.
‘Twas to the managers’ disgrace.
An officer, in such a place,
Should, uninvited, show his face.
But to the rest — the bell was heard,
And engines* on the stage appear’d.
This gave the folk some discontent:
They thought that Mr. Kemble meant
To play upon them. This gave rise
To further hisses, groans, and cries.
Some in the pit now form’d a ring,
They danc’d, and sung God save the King;
And while performing these wild feats,
They play’d the devil with the seats.
No matter — they evinc’d their spite,
Then bade the managers good night;
And I the same must bid my friend —
But take my word—on this depend —
My pen I will resume again, –
Till when your servant I remain.

Strand, Jan. 1810. S.

* The introduction of the water-engines on the stage was, it is asserted, through a mistake. Engines are kept in the theatre, and placed on the stage after the evening’s performances, in case of danger, particularly as the fire offices have refused to insure the house to the full amount. Mr. Kemble perceiving from his private box that the audience were not gone, ordered the bell to be rung for the stage lights to be replaced. This order was misunderstood by the prompter, and instead of the lights the engines were brought upon the stage. Certainly they might have been designedly brought on to intimidate the malcontents, but without the manager’s knowledge.

Comments: Thomas Tegg (1776–1845) was an English bookseller, publisher and author. His long poem ‘The O.P. War’ documents, through a series of ‘letters’ the turmoil that followed the decision made by Covent Garden Theatre to raise ticket prices to help cover the cost of the rebuilding of the theatre after the fire of 20 September 1808. At the re-opening of what was named New Covent Garden Theatre on 18 September 1809, and for three months thereafter, there were vehement protests inside the theatre from audience members against the price rises, dubbed the Old Price, or O.P., Riots. The actor-manager John Philip Kemble was eventually forced to lower the prices. Tegg’s poem documents the events in some detail across eighteen letters, with annotations as above. Letter I covers the day of the re-opening. The Riot Act was indeed read from the stage during the evening. The production of Macbeth included John Philip Kemble as Macbeth, his sister Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and their brother Charles Kemble as Macduff, though such was the noise throughout (and for the afterpiece The Quaker) that the performances were rendered inaudible.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House

Illustration from the pamphlet

Illustration from the pamphlet

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Astor Place Opera House, New york, 10 May 1849

Source: Sidney H. Stewart, ‘Testimony of Sidney H. Stewart’, in Account of the terrific and fatal riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House, on the night of May 10th, 1849; 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 (New York: H.M. Ranney, 1849), p. 21

Text: I left the Tombs that evening in company with Justice McGrath, and arrived at the Astor Theatre about 7 o’clock; soon after the doors were opened, the audience were assembling; on entering the house, I found the theatre filled with people and a large body of the police; most of the police magistrates were there; Judge Edmonds was there also; the understanding with the magistrates, Judge Edmonds, and the Chief of Police, and Recorder, was that no arrests should be made in the house, unless some overt act was committed, tending absolutely to a breach of the peace; the usual indulgence was to be allowed as to the hissing and applauding; that rule was observed. In the course of the evening, demonstrations were made by several in the parquette, by shaking their fists at Macready, threatening him with violence, by twelve or fifteen persons, certainly not to exceed twenty; an application was made at this time to the Chief of Police to arrest them, and remove them from the house; he delayed the order for some time, and finally sent for the Recorder to consult with him on the propriety of making arrests; after a consultation, it was concluded to make the arrests, which was done; in less than five minutes they were taken into custody, and order comparatively restored; about this time a great deal of hissing was heard in the amphitheatre, and loud applauding; the play was still going on; several arrests were made in the amphitheatre, by order of the Chief of Police and Recorder; about this time, the first breach of peace on the house was a large paving stone which came through the window into the house; the house continued to be assailed from those without; an alarm was given that a fire was below under the dress circle; it was soon extinguished; large stones were thrown at the doors on Eighth street, smashing in the panels, and doing other damage; the police were ordered into Eighth street, say fifteen men; on my going into the street, I saw a large concourse of people, but those near the door of the theatre were mostly boys, who were apparently throwing stones; several of them were arrested by the police and brought in; I cannot say how many were aiding in the disturbance, but certainly a very small proportion to the crowd collected; the policemen arrested some six or ten of them, and the attack on the door in Eighth street ceased; the attack then, after these arrests, was made with more violence on the front of the theatre in Astor-place; a very large crowd was collected, yet I could pass in and out with ease, comparatively; this crowd did not appear to be very turbulent; a very large number appeared to be citizens looking on, and not aiding in the disturbance; the majority of those throwing stones were boys from the ages of 12 to 18 years; several of the policemen at this time complained of being struck with stones and badly hurt; the policemen kept making arrests, and bringing them in; I cannot say how many; the crowd appeared to be increasing and more dense; the mob appeared to be determined to accomplish some particular act; there seemed to be a strong determination, although they only threw stones; the force of policemen on Astor-place amounted to from fifty to seventy-five; the mob then continued to throw stones; the military then came.

Comments: Sidney H. Stewart was Clerk of Police in New York City. He was one of several witnesses to the riot at the Astor Place Opera House on 10 May 1849 cited in the anonymous pamphlet Account of the terrific and fatal riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House. The cause of the riot was the rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor William Charles Macready, which was blown up by the press during Macready’s 1848-40 tour of the United States, cast in Britain vs. America terms. A performance of Macready’s Macbeth at the Astor Place in New York on 7 May 1849 was halted after rioting in the theatre. On 10 May another performance was interrupted by rioting among rival supporters of the two actors which spilled out into the streets. The New York State Militia was called, and at least twenty-two people were shot dead, with dozens more injured.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust