April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
The hiss of a poisonous snake warns the passer-by to keep his distance or risk a dangerous bite. Man’s hiss is far deadlier; a single one, uttered in Scotland, killed more than thirty people three years later in New York City. On March 2, 1846, the curtain of Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal rang up on Hamlet before an audience that, like all in that queenly city, was notable for its reticence. In the role of the youthful prince, William Macready labored under other handicaps as well. Only a few hours short of his fifty-third birthday, he had grizzled hair, a bony figure accentuated by habitually abrupt movements, eyebrows that shot up, and a nose that one viewer described as simply “queer.”
To warm the phlegmatic Scots on the other side of the footlights Macready was playing his role with particular intensity. He lit up his bursts of passion brighter than usual and brooded so in his soliloquies that the onlookers seemed to be eavesdropping. Between scenes he was able to assure himself that he had never done the part better.
In Act III, with the strolling players ready to portray the murder of the dead king, trumpets announced the royal couple. “They are coming to the play,” Hamlet told Horatio; “I must be idle.” He then did a great deal to show that he was doing nothing—sauntered back and forth, flirted his handkerchief above his head, and wagged his hips in the half strut, half dance of a perfumed dandy at a ball. It was his own piece of business; he had invented it. He was proud of it.
Suddenly the silence of the theatre was pierced by a hiss, explosive and sustained, as if blasted from a steam boiler.
The players stood still. Hamlet stopped his pirouette to stare in disbelief toward the row of boxes from which the sound had come. Recovering with a wrench, he tossed a contemptuous bow in that direction. From the students’ gallery someone shouted, “Throw him out!”
At the cry a man rose from the shadows of his seat and stood in the full glare of light reflected from the stage. He appeared in the prime of life—indeed, he was a week shy of his fortieth birthday—not tall, but massive as a stone tower. His face above the white collar was strong and fleshy, and from his head the dark hair mounted in a wiry tuft. He struck a pose of defiance, arms folded across his barrel chest, and for a long moment glowered through the thin grill that separated him from the gallery. The nearest spectators recoiled in their seats. Then he wheeled about with studied deliberation and left the box.
Below, a theatre guard blocked the exit, notebook in hand. The gentleman had made a sound from the box? Yes. The gentleman’s name? The answer came with practiced clarity: Edwin Forrest. Two r’s, you say? That’s right, said the resonant voice, two r’s.
A single hiss was the least sign of disapprobation that actors of the day might expect, but this one had a fatal distinction. It issued from the mouth of America’s foremost actor and was directed, with evident malice, at England’s greatest living tragedian.
Edwin Forrest had served his stage apprenticeship in the hard school of the frontier tour. In 1822, at the age of sixteen, he left home in Philadelphia with a small dramatic company westbound for the fringes of the nation, and during the next two years he played claptrap river ports, lived for a while with Choctaw Indians, did blackface, danced and sang in comic sketches, leaped through burning hoops that singed his hair, pawned his wardrobe for a meal, and fled the sheriff. After the company broke up, he wandered from theatre to theatre on his own.
The boy matured with astonishing rapidity. By 1825 he played Shakespearean roles only one step from the top, and the next year New York thundered applause to his Othello. At twenty years of age Forrest launched a dominance of the American stage that was to last four decades.
Muscular as a wrestler, calves bulging and arms thickly sinewed, Forrest relied on brute energy to carry his acting. He liked roles of armed revolt against oppression—Spartacus, the Indian Metamora, Jack Cade—and specialized in lifting villains off their feet in his frenzy and tossing them about like dolls. But he studied deeper roles with care, too, visiting so many hospitals in pursuit of understanding Lear’s madness that he claimed to know more than the doctors. To a young actor who praised his Lear as what one expected the broken old king to be, Forrest exclaimed, gripping his shoulder, “Lear! By God, I am King Lear!” His voice was magnificent, a very “Jericho-trumpet” that could rage or howl in awful pain, then drop to a whisper that errand boys in the last row heard clearly above the crunch of their buns.
Erudite William Macready was fine wine to Forrest’s whiskey. He, too, could let out a yelp that stiffened audiences in dread, but on the whole he softened the old bombast of his predecessors and introduced a muchneeded unity of character. Toward supporting players he was snappish at best—”a dreadful man to act with,” said one actress. In the role of Virginias he choked the villain blue until the poor fellow donned in defense a collar bristling with pinpoints. Macready the star performer upstaged his cast with heartless ease. If he played Iago, Othello faded to a pawn; if Othello, Iago became the occasion, and no more, for the Moor’s tremendous grief. As for his leading ladies, let them have lovely backs—the audience saw little else of them.
The slightest mishap in a performance drove Macready into a cold rage. Lady Macbeth’s beads broke and tinkled around his feet—he flung her into the wings with curses. A supernumerary missed his cue—he pulled the lad’s ears hard enough to draw a three-pound fine in court. His regret at these outbursts was sincere but never sufficient to correct them. After one miserable performance he sent the theatre manager reeling with a black eye and a twisted ankle. “Are you going to murder me?” gasped the man.
Of course he did not, for above all Macready wished to rate as a gentleman. He was contemptuous of everything about the theatre except his own acting. The profession had been thrust upon him when his actormanager father was jailed for debt, and he stuck with it because it paid him well enough to buy a country seat and so play the squire. A well-wrought role was money, applause was money, pre-eminence was money. Toward anyone, therefore, who threatened his place at the pinnacle of the English stage, Macready was bound to feel antipathy.
This was the man that Forrest chose to insult—with good reason, Forrest always believed.
For twenty years prior to the Edinburgh hiss the two had maintained a fragile cordiality. On the occasion of Forrest’s first appearance on the London stage in 1836 Macready had him to dinner with Robert Browning as another guest. “Eiked him very much,” Macreadyjotted in his diary, “a noble appearance, and a manly, mild and interesting demeanor. I welcomed him—wished him success”—but not too much, he probably added under his breath.
Forrest achieved the London triumph that Macready wished him openly and begrudged him at heart. His Spartacus in The Gladiator won a burst of bravos from the seats and shouts of “Welcome to England!” He had a physical immensity that audiences loved. As Othello he entered six feet tall, said one reviewer, and in action grew to seven. (His actual height was five feet ten.) When he staggered from Desdemona’s bed and fell backward into the footlights, his head striking the boards with a resounding thump, the spectators gasped in terror.
Macready was horribly jealous. The Times opinion that Forrest’s Lear was superb to the last palsied shake made him cry out in despair: “O, my God—what is this life? —what is my life—?” Hearing that the dramatic corps at Drury Lane had presented Forrest with a gold snuffbox, Macready scoffed in his diary that a clown had once gotten the same for doing somersaults.
Outwardly the rivals remained amiable. Forrest reported home that Macready had been entirely gracious. “Before I arrived in England, he had spoken of me in the most flattering terms, and, on my arrival, he embraced the earliest opportunity to call upon me, since which time he has extended to me many delicate courtesies and attentions, all showing the native kindness of his heart, and great refinement and good breeding.”
Anglo-American friction during the next decade made the uncertain peace between Forrest and Macready even more precarious. The memory of two wars rankled on both sides of the Atlantic (no United States naval vessel had paid a friendly call on Britain since 1812), and another threatened as Americans greedily eyed the unsettled boundary with Canada. In 1837 a brief revolt along the St. Lawrence was fed by men and munitions from Vermont; and in 1844 the electorate demanded Oregon territory to 54° 40′ or a fight.
For their part, the British were further incensed by financial losses on American investments. They had poured millions of dollars into the States in expectation of a quick return, only to have a panic in 1837 send business crashing. Corporations collapsed, banks closed. As late as 1845 seven states were still suspending payments on bonds, and two had repudiated their bonded debt entirely. Britains felt they had been “yankeed.”
Meanwhile English visitors to the United States returned home to rush into print with stories that made Americans writhe. The earliest commentators were the most scathing- notably Mrs. Trollope and Basil Hall —but in 1837 Captain Frederick Marryat, arriving for the express purpose of discovering if “the faults of a people arise from the peculiarities of their constitutions, or the nature of their governments,” kept his eye fixed only on the faults. To conservative Britishers the Americans were indecently familiar with their betters, spit streams of tobacco juice on the floor, whipped their male slaves by day, and bedded down with black females by night. They were so lawless that a human death in New York rated less attention than that of a dog in London. Their vaunted egalitarianism was obnoxious at best and mobocracy at worst—”a miserable failure,” Marryat declared- and they would commit any chicanery for a dollar.
Against these aspersions from abroad Americans defended themselves with relentless chauvinism. Everyone was wildly, madly patriotic. Edwin Forrest rode this wave of national pride in all sincerity. He liked to be billed as the “American tragedian” to distinguish him from touring English actors. He sponsored play contests by American writers and sent a hundred dollars to an Albany library for the purchase of “books purely American.” During a two-year tour in Europe (1834–36) he had professed to find everything either effete or minuscule. The Alps? He preferred the Alleghenies any day. Vesuvius? Niagara would put out her fires in two minutes. At Genoa he knelt on the deck of an American warship to kiss the folds of Old Glory. He was, said one glowing account, “American every inch.”
Too easily Forrest fell into the role of the challenger cocking his fist at the champion from overseas while the whole nation rooted in the stands. When Macready toured America in 1843 and 1844, Forrest scheduled competing performances, “got up,” growled Macready in his diary, “in opposition to me, and so carried through.” Back in Philadelphia after winter tours Forrest met Macready head-on—the same play hastily announced to match Macready’s opener. “He acts Hamlet on Monday in opposition to me,” cried Macready, “and I hear, made this engagement to oppose me! This is not the English generosity of rivalry!” Newspapers made the most of it. “Native Americanism vs. Foreignism,” trumpeted the Philadelphia American Advocate . “Which of the two to choose? Why Forrest, of course.”
Good manners still glossed over the growing breach. After his Philadelphia run ended, Macready spent the afternoon with the Forrests. He admired Mrs. Forrest, who was English. As for her husband, he told his diary, “let him be an American actor —and a great American actor—but keep on this side of the Atlantic, and none will gainsay his comparative excellence.”
As we know from the Edinburgh episode, this solemn wish was one that Forrest did not fulfill. He had first gone to London in 1836 to prove that an American could hold his own on the boards of that city’s theatres; he returned in 1845 obsessed by the same goal. At home his countrymen prepared to exult in another triumph.
Instead Forrest ran into trouble from the start. There were little bands of hissers and groaners bunched in the audience, making disturbances too consistent and too concerted to be spontaneous. There was Macready’s friend John Forster calling the American’s Macbeth laughable and his Lear a “roaring pantaloon.” There was Macready’s friend Bulwer-Lytton putting up insuperable conditions to the performance of his plays, and Macready’s friend the manager of the English company in Paris (where Forrest hoped to play) refusing to grant an interview.
In all this unpleasantness no evidence suggests that Macready had a hand. But Forrest, a suspicious nature, became convinced that the English tragedian was at the root of his misfortunes. And Forrest was not the man to forget an injury or forgive one. Enthusiastic acclaim on a tour of the provinces persuaded him even more firmly that the plot was in London, and Macready the instigator. He sent one of his cast back to her make-up box with the most crushing insult that he could think of—her face looked as if Macready had sat on it.
Forrest’s resentment gnawed at him until he could contain it no longer. Macready was playing in Edinburgh when Forrest finished his stand in Aberdeen. He bought a ticket for Hamlet on March 2 and with one hiss announced that he and Macready were now open enemies.
“I do not think that such an action has its parallel in all theatrical history,” Macready fumed. “The low-minded ruffian!” Forrest answered in a letter to the Times . Signs of disapproval from the seats, he said, must be counted an inalienable right of those who pay their money, “a salutary and wholesome corrective of the abuses of the stage.” Macready’s silly little dance in Hamlet was an abuse. He had moved to correct it and had no regrets.
There the affair slept, as a fanged serpent dozes in the sun.
It might be sleeping still had not a slack season in the London theatre tempted Macready to another American tour. “If there is no bread in Israel,” he told his wife, “there is plenty of corn in Egypt.” Friends warned him that along with corn he might get the lash, and he agreed. He arrived in Boston on September 24, 1848, looking, Longfellow thought, “pale and ill.”
Two theatres greeted his New York opening with burlesque presentations, Who’s Got Macready ? in one and Mr. Macgreedy in the other. In a curtain speech Macready grumbled that “a project was on foot to excite on this, my farewell visit to the American stage, a hostile feeling against me with the American public.” The embers having been stirred, others fed the flames. During Macready’s Boston run the Mail printed a defamatory article that reviewed Forrest’s London reception and scored the English actor as the villain of the piece. Forrest was already playing in Philadelphia when Macready arrived for an engagement at the Arch Street Theatre. They passed on the street and cut each other dead. Both drew crowded houses, but Macready suffered a few eggs and huzzas for Forrest at his opener. He assured the audience that despite his harassment in Edinburgh by “an American actor,” his belief in the “warm and generous sentiments” of the American people remained firm.
Next day Forrest answered this pistol shot with a double-charged broadside in Philadelphia newspapers. Macready did “secretly—not openly—suborn several writers for the English press to write me down” during the London engagement. As for Macready’s claim that he had always felt kindly toward Forrest: “Pah! Mr. Macready has no feeling of kindness for any actor who is likely, by his talent, to stand in his way. … There is nothing in him but self—self—self.” However, best “let the superannuated driveller alone— to oppose him would be to make him of some importance.” Harsh? Forrest said he hoped so. From New York, Forrest’s wife Catherine wrote, “Give it to him!” Forrest declared that he would, with an axe instead of a pruning hook. Macready feared for his safety. He requested a squad of policemen behind scenes and left his money in his room. “If Mr. Forrest could have induced my assassination,” he was sure, “he would have rejoiced in doing it.”
The long quarrel neared its climax. After a profitable winter tour (marred only by the half carcass of a sheep hurled on-stage in Cincinnati), Macready arrived in New York to open a final engagement on May 7 at the Astor Place Opera House, a theatre situated just east of fashionable Greenwich Village and near the homes of financier John Jacob Astor and former mayor Philip Hone.
Forrest’s mood was blacker than ver because he was playing out a real-life Othello at home. For a year he had harbored doubts of his wife’s fidelity. During an out-of-town engagement he had returned unexpectedly to his hotel room and found Catherine in compromising closeness to an actor of his troupe. In January he discovered a letter from the same actor that spoke of the bliss the two had known together. This was Othello’s handkerchief, and it was enough. Forrest railed at Catherine all night and thereafter treated her with utter coldness. The day after Macready reached New York, Forrest closed his house and put the key in his pocket. Catherine could go whereever she liked.
Forrest now turned his spite on Macready. He sent the Herald a letter from a friend that reasserted Macready’s responsibility for “the foul stream of unmanly abuse” to which Forrest had been subjected in London. When Macready announced that he would open in New York with Macbeth , Forrest promptly let it be known that he would play the same, on the same night, at the huge new Broadway Theatre. The Herald blandly proposed that they run matched bills for six nights and crown the box-office winner with laurel. Forrest’s “unsophisticated energy” would certainly beat Macready’s “glossy polish.”
The lines were clearly drawn; all that was needed for violence was a rabble.
Brawlers of the “Bloody Ould” Sixth Ward supplied this explosive element with practiced ease. In tenements between Broadway and present-day Park Row, where, said Dickens in 1842, “dogs would howl to lie,” thousands of ragged Irish immigrants crowded the nation’s most vicious slum. They took their leisure with the bottle and were expert with the brickbat and cudgel. During the preceding ten years more than two hundred gang wars had erupted in the ward, the Plug Uglies, Shirt Tails, and Dead Rabbits fighting each other or joining up against the nearby Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards in street battles that raged for days.
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:
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.
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!”
Macready sat up the night, sleepless. The clock struck four; no carriage. An anxious ten minutes ticked slowly away before it came. The covered phaeton carried England’s greatest living tragedian up Fifth Avenue, past butchers’ and gardeners’ carts coming in to market. The morning air cooled his hot cheeks. Passengers who recognized him on the northbound train were sympathetic, and Boston friends did their best to soothe his aggrieved spirit, but Macready took the first boat home. “I never felt such relief,” he confessed, “as in planting my foot on that vessel’s deck.” He never came back.
Few involved in the catastrophe learned anything. Forrest blamed the magistrates, the downtown poor blamed the uptown rich and their hired mercenaries, Yankees blamed Irish thugs, newspapers blamed each other, the coroner’s jury hinted that the police were lax, and the court pronounced ten rioters guilty enough for jail. To censure Forrest rated close to treason in the popular mind, but a hardy handful risked it. In far-off New England the Newburyport Herald put the blame on the American actor, “the man who by his ungentlemanly conduct and ill temper, prepared the way for these outrages,” it declared. “Against Forrest, himself, does this bloody scene cry out most loudly.”