May 10 marks the anniversary of the infamous “Astor Place Riot” in New York City in which the state militia shot into a crowd of theatre patrons milling about in front of the Astor Place Opera House, killing up to two dozen and injuring as many as 120 more. The event was the first time in U.S. history when a “well-organized militia” shot at a crowd of citizens and would soon lead directly to the establishment of armed police forces across the country.
A multiplicity of factors contributing to the riot are well-known to most students of American theatre. Histories attribute the dispute to the competing tastes of the followers of the refined English actor, William Charles Macready, and the homegrown crowds supporting the more earthy American star, Edwin Forrest. Certainly, there is much to support this contention. But recent research paints a far more complicated story–one that may have more to do with generational and class conflicts than aesthetic and cultural differences.
In any event, the riot that resulted in the deaths of at least 22 theatre patrons that occurred on the streets of New York City on this day in 1849 was one of the great landmarks in early American social history, indicating that the urban troubles of the industrial revolution were clearly bubbling to the surface in the years leading up to the American Civil War.