- Historic Sites
War Among The Stars
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
At six thirty that evening the opera house resembled a fortress under siege, windows boarded up, a crowd massed at the doors, constables piling out of omnibuses. As the doors opened at seven o’clock the crowd pushed in and scrambled for seats with an enormous clatter. Hackett counted only seven women among them. Alarmed, he ordered the doors locked before the seats were full, though the house was a sellout. At seven thirty, ten to fifteen thousand curious onlookers packed surrounding streets tight as pickles in a barrel, behind several hundred grinning loungers from the Sixth Ward. At seven forty the curtain rose on Macbeth , the first of the evening’s two tragedies.
Care had been taken that few rowdies got their hands on tickets, but enough bluffed their way through the doors to raise a din at Macready’s entrance. For fifteen minutes the play stopped entirely. When Macready motioned for action to resume, the hubbub rose to a frightening crescendo. Now hecklers were standing on the seats, shaking their fists at the stage. As the first act ended Chief Matsell waved his hat. A squad of burly constables marched down the aisle to wrestle the ringleaders out of their seats and drag them away to the cellar.
Someone in the gallery broke out a window to scream at the sea of heads below that the police were making arrests. At the same moment an excited constable on the ground floor thrust a hose out the window and sprayed water over those outside.
Bedlam broke loose in the streets. Young rowdies eager for a bit of wholesome destruction began to heave cobblestones at the theatre. Shutters split, one jagged fragment sailing across the gallery; windows crashed in, the great chandelier shattered, and the audience, driven to the walls, huddled away from the showers of glass.
Any attempt by the police outside to halt the attack brought them under a rain of stones. They were battered bloody, surrounded, knocked down, in danger of being trampled to death by hobnailed boots. The mob surged to the front doors and beat on the locks with great stones. By eight thirty it was clear that unless something drove them off, the rioters would tear the building down. Sheriff Westervelt reluctantly sent a deputy to summon the military.
Four lines of cavalry, ten abreast, orced a passage up Broadway into Astor Place. They were a beautiful target, high above the crowd, and as soon as they were within range, a hail of missiles knocked riders to the pavement and set horses rearing. Nursing their wounds, the cavalry dismounted and straggled back the way they had come.
The infantry now marched in with fixed bayonets. Bullyboys who had downed constables and cavalrymen felt invincible. They dropped the front rank with stones and grappled for their muskets.
On the opera-house stage, meanwhile, Macready stubbornly refused to quit. The play proceeded in hasty dumb show to its end, under a continuous barrage and waves of tumult from the mob outside. No one heard a word of it. In the last scene Macbeth faced Macduff amid sounds of battle that were, for once, real.
Mayor Woodhull, who had slipped in behind the troops, scuttled away as the melee took a dangerous turn. General Sandford, blood streaming from a head cut, told Sheriff Westervelt that the troops could not hold unless they fired. Efforts to warn the rioters were lost in the din. Westervelt gave permission to fire high over the crowd, and bullets spattered on buildings opposite the theatre.
Since no one was hurt, the shout went up that the guns had “leather flints and blank cartridges.” The crowd pressed in with renewed fury. One huge fellow bared his chest: “Fire into this. Take the life out of a free-born American for a bloody British actor! Do it, Ay, You darsn’t!” Ladders appeared, with cries of “Burn the damned den of the aristocracy !” Judson pranced in front, waving a sabre, howling the mob on.
This time the troops fired low, to wound but not kill, and a dozen fell. A third volley sprayed in all directions. The rioters reeled back, carrying their wounded with them, and vanished up the streets. On the pavement sprawled twenty-two dead. Nine more died of their wounds, and nearly fifty, on both sides of the battle, suffered serious injuries.
The crackle of gunfire penetrated to Macready’s dressing room, where he dodged the drip of water from pipes broken in the bombardment. Robert Emmett, a New York acquaintance, urged him to disguise himself before venturing out. Macready agreed to substitute a drab coat for his black one and a cap, split up the back to fit, for his broad hat. Unable to leave by the stage door, they joined the files of theatregoers exiting from the orchestra. “You’re walking too fast,” whispered Macready. Fortunately, they got out unrecognized.
Emmett insisted that Macready take refuge in his house. His brother went out to a livery stable and hired a carriage for four o’clock in the morning “to take a doctor to some gentleman’s house near New Rochelle.” As he returned an omnibus thundered by, the driver lashing the horses, a pack of “b’hoys” hard after it, howling that Macready was within: “They’ve killed twenty of us, and by God we’ll kill him!”