War Among The Stars


Tammany ward boss Isaiah Rynders—master of the bribe and stuffed ballot box—ruled this rowdy mob with the connivance of a born mischief-maker named Edward Z. C. Judson, a superpatriot who scribbled dime novels under the pen name Ned Buntline. The two gave the Forrest-Macready quarrel its social twist. The Astor Place theatre was strictly “uptown,” they snorted, built to present “Eyetalian opry” to the kidgloved gentry, and everyone knew, that on its opening night no lady could enter without an escort—otherwise she was not a lady. The Irish were willing to hate any English actor sight unseen, and doubly so for appearing at the snobbish opera house. In Rynders’ hands Forrest became the plain man’s player, the champion of all those mechanics who beat their calloused palms for him in the Bowery. Down with Macready, darling of the soft-fingered aristocracy!

Rynders bought fifty tickets for Macready’s May 7 performance to be sure that his Sixth Ward “butcher b’hoys” got in. An unnecessary precaution; nearly five hundred of them poured through the doors and distributed themselves to get a shot at the stage from every angle. Hearing their thick-booted tramp, the manager peeked through the curtain.

“This looks rather dubious,” he told the officer on duty.

“Yes,” sighed the officer, “the b’hoys are here assuredly.”

Hecklers warmed up on Malcolm in the second scene and roared indignation at Macbeth’s entrance in the third. Eggs splattered at Macready’s feet, vile-smelling asafetida rained on him, rotten potatoes struck the scenery with a sodden plop. A local prize fighter shook out a banner: “No apologies, it is too late!” Even intermission brought little relief as hoodlums cheered for Forrest, sang, danced a jig on the seats. Macready kept the play going in dumb show until a chair thrown from the gallery sent the orchestra scurrying and three more chairs splintered on the stage. He reluctantly gave up; the curtain fell.


While the opera house rang with boos, the atmosphere at the Broadway Theatre, nearly twenty blocks south, was positively jovial. Forrest’s audience belonged to him. When Macbeth asked, “What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug would scour these English hence?” the house rose, cheering.

Forrest seemed to have scoured Macready right off the boards. At the opera house two members of the cast carried out a canvas that announced, “Mr. Macready has left the theatre,” and the next morning he booked passage home in disgust.

To have the eminent tragedian–a guest in their country, moreover–driven from the stage by an unwashed mob was more than the solider citizens of New York could bear. Fortyseven of them petitioned him to continue his engagement, promising protection from future troublemakers. Mollified, Macready agreed to try again on May 10.

Since their advance troops had not routed the enemy, Rynders and Judson brought up the main force. Judson made the rounds of saloons and patriotic clubs. On the morning of May 10 placards appeared at strategic points:

WORKINGMEN , shall AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE In this city? The crew of the English steamer has threatened all Americans who shall dare to express their opinion this night, at the English Aristocratic Opera House! ! We advocate no violence, but a free expression of opinion to all public men! WORKINGMEN! FREEMEN! Stand by your LAWFUL RIGHTS.

Mayor Caleb S. Woodhull, who had assumed office only the day before, called in Chief of Police Matsell, Sheriff Westervelt, and General Sandford to confer with the operahouse lessees, Hackett and Niblo. The lessees stood their ground—they refused to cancel. The play had been announced and the tickets sold, they pointed out, all perfectly legal; it was up to the magistrates to prevent disorder. Woodhull shrank from alienating the upper crust of New York society when his term had hardly begun. He ordered paving blocks removed from sewer construction near the opera house (this was not done), told Matsell to bring out the constabulary in force, and requested General Sandford to hold an armed reserve of the National Guard nearby.

Chief Matsell threw every available policeman into the breach. A hundred twenty-five grouped at strategic points outside the opera house, and two hundred more hefted their billy clubs within. A half mile away at the parade grounds (now Washington Square) General Sandford mustered what he could on short notice—forty lumpish cavalry, most of them milkmen and horsecar drivers mounting their own nags, and a hundred seventy green infantry.