The Astor Place Riot, one of the bloodiest days in New York’s history, had its roots in a banal squabble between two arrogant actors. Actor William Macready, Englishman, and actor Edwin Forrest, Native son, had once been friends. Macready had helped Forrest get his start in London, and Forrest had married an English woman he met through the older actor. But over the years, professional competition and personal egotism had created friction and then outright antipathy. Their rivalry was exacerbated, and then exploited, by a growing nativist movement, then organized as the Order of United Americans, forerunner of the know-nothings and a group with much strength in the organized gangs of the Bowery and other working-class areas. The slights supposedly delivered by an effete, aristocratic Macready to a bold, Democratic Forrest – billed everywhere as “The American Tragedian” – were transformed into insults piercing the very soul of the American character. When the English actor arrived in the United States for an 1849 tour, nativists were incensed.
An attempt by Macready to play Macbeth at the Astor place Opera House on May 7, 1849 proved unsuccessful, as he was driven from the stage by an unruly crowd throwing, as he later cataloged, “eggs of doubtful purity, potatoes, a bottle of pungent and nauseating asafetida, old shoes, and a copper coin.”
Convinced by city elders, including Washington Irving and Herman Melville, to try again, he announced a return to the Opera House stage for May 10. This proved to be, to put it mildly, a miscalculation. Nativist elements, fired by the temerity of this fop and organized by local ward leaders, regrouped. One of the principal instigators of the protest was Edward Z.C. Judson, a popular author who use the pen name “Ned Buntline” and who was the man that dubbed William C. Cody “Buffalo Bill.” He later served a year in prison for his role in the riot.
Astor Place, from Broadway to Third Avenue, began to fill up early on the evening of the 10th . By curtain time there were thousands of unruly citizens – estimates ran up to 20,000 – in the street, and a packed house inside. It was clear that the situation was uncontrollable.