Some weeks ago, never mind how many precisely, preparing to teach a seminar on the American Renaissance (US lit c. 1850-1855) and searching for a way to show on day one how to make the content relevant to today, I thought I would return to a minor research project. The choice was determined by where something seemingly obscure about the 1850s could meet the headlines in August 2014. That month, the dominant story was the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO on August 9 and the protests and police action that followed. In the context of a series of highly publicized white-on-black shootings as well as a renaissance in American protest culture (and its police pushback), Ferguson brought many of the biggest questions of race, class, political participation, and police violence together—and those were all major 1850s issues.
The research connection I chose is the Astor Place Riots of May 1849. The riots are a perfect backdrop to the American Renaissance. They involved the rise of Big Money, immigration, and the class tensions associated with the Young America movement. They involved celebrities, a media sensation of a trial, and Shakespeare (they were arguably the bloodiest Shakespeare-related incident in history). And they involved the broken bodies of police and militia, boys and Irish dockworkers, and African-American blood spilled, too. The riots came out of nowhere as far as the public was concerned, and for years paranoia ran through New York City and other major cities that a repeat incident could occur.
But wait—what actually happened there? Here’s the story (get your cup of tea ready for this one).
On May 7, 1849, two productions of Macbeth opened on the same night in Manhattan. William Macready, the Anthony Hopkins of his day, was touring from his native Britain and performing the title role at the Astor Place Opera House. The house was built on what is now the corner of Lafayette and 8th Streets; it was the first major Manhattan construction project undertaken solely with private funds. New York’s theaters, as was the case generally in the US, had been melting-pot affairs, mixing lawyers, stevedores, clerks, and prostitutes in the same house. Shakespeare and Italian opera were highly popular, but the mixed audiences liked to talk back to the performers (or talk to each other about where to meet later on), and New York’s elite decided it was time for a venue dedicated to high culture and those with the manners and means to give it due respect. Thus was the Astor Place Opera House brought about, and Macready doing Macbeth was just the kind of show the house was made for. Downtown, Edwin Forrest, the Russell Crowe of his day, headlined the rival production at the Bowery Theater. This was a decidedly mixed theater, a center of Bowery B’hoy culture, a mix of conspicuous brawn, boisterous patriotism, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, and working-class grit. The b’hoys loved their Shakespeare and opera—Whitman developed his taste for Rossini and others in this crowd—and they adored the highly physical and histrionic Forrest, who had made his reputation with toga roles like Spartacus and who would later beat the noted magazine editor Nathaniel Parker Willis on the streets of Manhattan with a whip, yelling to the crowd of onlookers that Willis had seduced his estranged wife. This was the thespian equivalent of a boxing match: the world champion meets the rough American phenom.
Forrest and Macready were already bitter rivals after Macready had helped sabotage Forrest’s British tour a few years earlier. A number of Forrest’s supporters bought tickets to Macready’s May 7 opener, their pockets stuffed with rotting vegetables and eggs. When the actor came out on stage, the hecklers booed, yelled, and bombarded with a will. Macready gamely struggled on until someone threw a chair onstage; with that, he went to his dressing room and decided to sail back to England.
The following day Macready received a petition with 47 signatures begging him to continue his run and guaranteeing his safety while he stayed in New York. Willis was one signer; the young Herman Melville, a year away from beginning Moby-Dick, was another, as was Washington Irving, the literary legend that had helped make Melville’s reputation. Macready agreed to stay, and on the night of May 10, the show went on. But this time, there were 300 police posted around the perimeter of the Astor Place Opera House, plus more inside who were quick to turn away anyone who attended without the white gloves considered proper attire for the venue; others were positioned in front of the palatial homes of prominent citizens in the neighborhood.
The petition to Macready had made the papers, and radical editors such as Ned Buntline were quick to accuse New York’s elite of toadying to British culture at the expense of their own countrymen. When the police presence was made known (largely by Tammany Hall opponents of the new Whig administration in City Hall), Buntline and other leaders in b’hoy circles quickly swept the docks and slums of New York, stirring up smoldering resentments over severe income inequality, poor housing conditions, and little legal protection for immigrant workers (remember, the b’hoys didn’t like immigrants in general, but they were handy for swelling a demonstration against a common enemy, the so-called “uppertens”). Some 10,000 protesters marched on Astor Place, looking for a showdown with the police.
Now, a bit of background: New York’s police force at that time carried clubs but no firearms. Most American cities didn’t even have police forces in 1849, and in New York riots on a smaller scale had been fairly common up to this point and generally took care of themselves—the police had little work to do beyond a little containment. Unknown to the protesters, New York’s mayor, Caleb Woodhull, had met earlier with the police chief and, on hearing the latter’s judgment that his police force would not likely be large enough to secure the house against a mob, the mayor ordered the local militia be prepared for deployment. This was an unprecedented move, but Woodhull believed it was time to show the b’hoys what law and order meant in his city.
When the protesters arrived, they came out swinging—and throwing: rocks, bricks, some of the paving stones along the street. Several policemen quickly went down and were carried inside with serious cuts, bruises, and broken bones. The play continued for a time before the noise outside told the cast, crew, and audience that a full-blown riot was in progress—and that they were trapped inside.
The militia soon arrived, some of them mounted. The crowd quickly turned on them, further infuriated that the city government would use such force to oppose them; everyone knew that such measures would never have been taken to protect the Bowery from an attack. The militia’s commander ordered the crowd to disperse. Nobody took notice. He then ordered his men to fire in the air. Not all the militia could hear the order, and not all were prepared to obey, but a volley aimed high at the walls of the houses across the street brought the crowd to a momentary hush. That quickly turned into a fresh outburst of rage from the protesters. With more militia and police falling in the hail of stones and bricks every minute, the commander finally gave the order to fire into the crowd. Again, not every soldier heard it, and many silently refused to fire on their own townsmen. But when the dust cleared, over twenty people were dead and dozens more wounded. The youngest fatality was a nine-year-old boy; nearly all the dead were immigrants. On the warning volley, an African-American woman lying sick in her bed was wounded. The crowd quickly dispersed, and though a few thousand came back the next night, the presence of more militia and a cannon sent them home again.
The incident sent shock waves through the city and the nation. No American riot had every had a body count remotely approaching this. How could it have happened? Who was to blame? Every newspaper editor in the country seemed inspired to wrestle with those questions; while many blamed the unruly behavior of the crowds, at least as many questioned Mayor Woodhull’s use of police power. Isn’t America a democracy? Isn’t class a distinction only Europeans uphold? Isn’t an occasional riot a small price to pay for the respect of citizens’ self-control in public assemblies? Why were the police even called? Why were the militia involved? Ned Buntline and several other leaders of the riot went to prison in a closely watched trial, but there was no further investigation of the police or the militia. Their behavior had shocked the nation. but Buntline and his cronies could take the blame for what had happened. And amid the political posturing involved in determining the blame, the violence visited on the homes of immigrants in Five Points and the Lower East Side and the ailing poor in a rich neighborhood was passed over in silence.
This brings us back to the American Renaissance, and to Ferguson. Remember that detail of Herman Melville being one of the people asking Macready to remain in New York? Four years later, he wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street,” in which the eponymous character famously asserts his resistance to the lawyer who employs him with the maddening phrase, “I prefer not to.” After he has been fired and expelled from the office, Bartleby takes up residence in the stairwell of the building. Other tenants confront Bartleby’s former boss, demanding that he do something about the vagrant before a riot breaks out. Why are they concerned that a man sleeping in a stairwell could cause a riot? Because to them, the Astor Place Riot was an easily repeatable incident, and nobody could predict what would set it off. It’s perhaps no accident that Bartleby was declared the patron of the Occupy Movement in Zuccotti Park. One man’s social obstinacy and threat to the peace is another’s civil disobedience.
When I brought the story of Astor Place to my students in late August, we were interested in the history of American protests, the fiery underbelly of 1850s New York, the jarring effect of police presence in a public space, and the long leadup to the iconic “hands up” protest gesture. Now, three months later, Ferguson has become even more closely tied to this history. This time the police action was not reaction but anticipation. The state of emergency began before the emergency emerged. This was an act of fear as well as of political posturing. The long explanation of the rules of evidence and conflicting testimony at the press conference smacked of Dred Scott, another 1850s moment that continues to cast a long shadow (for an excellent history of how the “it’s not me, it’s the law” rhetoric enabled Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott, see Caleb Smith’s recent book The Oracle and the Curse). And the rage of the crowd? There will always be people who blame those moments on a “lack of self-control.” But the rage is real, and it’s centuries in the making. Not all of the reaction was to the clearing of Officer Darren Wilson. It wasn’t just about the death of Michael Brown. It was about a “long train of abuses and usurpations” that have been felt viscerally in homes and churches and that have aggregated into a crowd of 10,000 and beyond. It only hurts more each time. It hurts because it happens, and because it keeps happening. It hurts all of us, complicit as we are in networks of power and privilege and abuse and complacency. And that’s why I’m finishing this semester at Astor Place, the same place I started it.
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