Astor Place Riot – Edwin Forrest as Emblem of the Middle Class

So if you’ve been following this particular blog, you’ve noticed how relevant I think class structure is to the culmination of the Astor Place Riot. In a somewhat tabloid-y account published about the event recently after it occurred, evidence of this idea can be observed and used to back that claim.

For instance, when the “horrors of that night” are described, one of the details given is that “An aged mother found her only son, the sole support of her declining years, in the agonies of death.”

Why would the writer deem it necessary to include that part about the “sole support” ? Because it was a common situation that readers could recognize? Was it just to create a more dramatic story for selling more copies of this piece? Why would that be a dramatic detail? It can’t be dramatic unless people care about it, and people aren’t really going to care about it, unless it can potentially affect them in some way, right?

This seems like a situation that could potentially be available to members of any class, which is important when you’re trying to sell as many papers to as many people as you can. Immediately after this, though, an introduction and description of Edwin Forrest is given, that leads me to interpret this detail in a more class-oriented way.

It is a pretty favorable report of his life before the riot. We learn that “he was born in humble life, and worked his way up from poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, by the power of genius [italics mine].” Is this not the very definition of what it means to be “middle class” in the nineteenth century?  Well, even beyond that, really. This is the basis of that whole “American Dream” idea, which is maybe why patriotism seemed to play such a big role in this event as well.

In fact, in the very next paragraph, the writer informs us that one of the reasons Forrest became so famous was because he was “puffed in all the papers as the Native Tragedian — the patriotism of New-Yorkers was appealed to.”  When the description of Macready follows, it is notably shorter and less flattering.

Almost immediately the writer conveys the story about how there was a big stink made about how he had off-handedly insulted the entirety of America by making some comment about how he couldn’t get a certain kind of arrow that he needed for a prop in a performance.  This exploded in the papers. Such sensitive patriotism! It’s as if people are SO aware of WHO they (and everyone else) are (or are not) that everyone is primed and ready for immediately being on the defensive. People are very touchy about identity, which makes sense when considering the importance given to who gets to be a member of which social class (and who doesn’t).

Here’s a picture of some “Forrest Medals.” A few included phrases? “Born in the city of Philadelphia, PA” and “rose by his own efforts”:

Forrest Medals, Samuel Sartain, 1830-1906, printmaker.  line engraving ; image approx. 8 x 5 in., Forrest medals [graphic], Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection, http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/detail/FOLGERCM1~6~6~272676~118972:Forrest-medals–graphic—-Samuel-S?sort=Author%2CCD_Title%2CImprint%2CImprint&qvq=q:edwin%2Bforrest;sort:Author%2CCD_Title%2CImprint%2CImprint;lc:FOLGERCM1~6~6&mi=35&trs=51

Edwin Forrest Medal, Copper, Joseph H. Merriam Medals Collection, http://www.medals4trade.com/collections/displayimage.php?album=1215&pos=9

Extras:

  • If you don’t know about this, you should. It’s a really useful tool for browsing primary sources in libraries all over the world: https://archive.org/

Astor Place Riot – Theater History as Class History

So I’ve been looking more into the riot as a cultural event and I started to notice that there are a LOT of THEATER historians out there. I know that theater has long been a major cultural forum.  I guess I just didn’t put together that there’d actually be several people dedicating their lives to the specific history of theaters. Seems obvious when I think about it, but still pretty interesting to me.

One of the people I ran across while trying to find out a little bit more about just how “common” these riots (mentioned in my earlier post) really were is Bruce McConachie, a professor at the University of Pittsburg who has published on the American working-class experience of theater. He claims that the riots were actually intended to “oppose a specific policy at the theater, not always a rival actor, sometimes a stage manager or even a piece of music that might have been played and ruffled the patriotic feathers in the audience” and says that this particular one just happened to get out of hand.

The fact that there were protests against certain policies a theater might implement is interesting to me because it seems to call attention to the value working-class urban dwellers placed upon knowing where they stood in the world as well as the importance of staking one’s place within urban society, in this time of growing class distinction. The emergence of a middle class, as we know, was central in this period and this event really highlights the struggle that many Americans encountered in regards to self-definition and upward mobility (or lack thereof). Basically what happened with the Astor Place riot was a class war acted out in physical violence. This is powerful information in terms of understanding the urban American experience and the circumstances surrounding such intense reactions to something so seemingly innocuous as what style of theater will be performed.

I found a list of the people who died that was composed by Pat Pflieger, an English professor at West Chester University (I put a link to some of her stuff in the “extras” part later in this post), that is really detailed and is exciting in that there is so much information offered. Here are a few examples:

HENRY OTTEN,

22 years; grocer; shot through the breast. He died in the 15th Ward station-house, in presence of his aged mother.

TIMOTHY McGUINN,

19 years; laborer. The deceased was residing with his mother, in the rear of No. 107 West Thirteenth-street, and died soon after being brought home.

HENRY BURGUIST,

Known as “Harry Bluff,” lived at 410 Pearl-street. Ball grazed the neck, went into the right shoulder, coming out behind the right arm. Died of his wounds at the hospital.

BRIDGET FAGAN,

Irish; 30 years old; shot in the leg, just below the knee. She was two blocks off, walking with her husband on their way home, and fell into his arms. Died after amputation.

In my next post, I’ll include more on Edwin Forrest because I feel like this is a good point to start getting more into what his specific experience was. One historian I found talks about his acting style and why it appealed to an American audience.

EXTRAS:

  • REALLY useful person to use as means of finding a resource or browsing a topic: Pat Pflieger. She has purchased, transcribed, and made public a significant number of primary sources, as well as bibliographies and scholarly works.

http://www.merrycoz.org/adults.htm

http://www.merrycoz.org/bib/BIB.HTM

  • This is actually a review of the above mentioned site if you’d like to get more of an understanding for what she has to offer:

http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/7449/

  • This is a link to an image of the event that was in the newspapers, but I couldn’t figure out how to look at it more closely. I’m including it here anyway because it’s one I hadn’t seen before in other searches:

 

The Last Volley, Wood Engraving, 1849, Library of Congress.

The Last Volley, Wood Engraving, 1849, Library of Congress.

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005685996/

Astor Place Riots & Edwin Forrest

Well, I had decided on a topic but hadn’t yet settled on a person to concentrate on. I’ve been looking at the Astor Place Riot of 1849.  I was attracted to it because of the issues involving class structure that led up to such violence. Basically what happened was that two famous Shakespearean actors were pitted against each other because they’d come to represent the privileged elite on one side and the common working man on the other.

William Charles Macready was an English traditionalist when it came to performing and Edwin Forrest became popular by performing in a less formal American style.  When Macready was headlining, the Astor Place Opera House began requiring a dress code including kid gloves and they charged a much higher entrance fee for exclusionary purposes. Because of this, Macready’s performance becomes representative of aristocratic privilege and oppression of American laborers. There is a very public back-and-forth between the actors in the newspapers, and eventually things became so heated that a riot ensued.

I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t really atypical. Supposedly, riots were generally planned ahead of time. Here’s a flyer for this particular one:

http://artvoice.com/issues/v12n6/theaterweek/theater3

What’s different about the Astor Place riot is that it turned out to be very deadly because the recently-formed police force and state militia (that were controlled by the powerful elite) was given access to and instructed to use their weapons. This was the first time government authorities had ever fired live ammunition into a crowd of citizens in this country, and this was the result:

Screen shot 2013-10-20 at 3.47.35 PM

http://www.folger.edu/images/collection/008979W5.jpg

Screen shot 2013-10-20 at 3.49.14 PM

http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQu946Lr6ireBt3bSYu0VeVf1Xx61MvvPJdkOA5XoVKXovmV9KhQQ

As I said earlier, I haven’t necessarily decided on a specific person to focus on, but I’m leaning towards Edwin Forrest, the American actor.

He was supposed to be popular partly due to his rugged good looks.

This is what he looks like:

Screen shot 2013-10-20 at 3.52.01 PM

Extras: