If you ever find yourself walking in Astor Place in downtown Manhattan you might notice a plaque, really more of a laminated sign, tucked in the window of one the new skyscrapers between The Bowery and Lafayette Street. The sign, which is maybe only 18 by 24 inches, reads ASTOR PLACE RIOT with a 19th-century lithograph of a vast crowd menacing a neoclassical building.
In the foreground, one can see individuals in various poses suggesting alarm and outrage, or else lying on the ground, wounded. In the distance, you can see the faint outline of troops, with illuminated clouds of smoke dancing above their heads. This modest poster, so easy to miss in the hubbub of the square, is the only memorial on the spot of an event that endlessly fascinates me: The Astor Place Opera House Riot of May 10, 1849.
There’s something both grimly funny and profound to me about the riot; it seems to express the madness of American history. A mob of thousands attempted to storm a theater over a performance of Macbeth, the National Guard had to be called up, 31 people were killed and more than 100 wounded all over the personal jealousies of two vain and insecure actors, an Englishman with aristocratic airs named William Macready, and an American, Edward “Ned” Forrest, who seemed to his audiences to embody a new democratic energy.