Great Britain and United States
close to war
Oregon Boundary Dispute
Strong Anti-British Sentiment Among U.S. Population
Riot in New York: 23 dead, dozens injured
Important Diplomatic Messages
carried between London and Washington
by Cunard's Royal Mail Steamships
Breaking News carried to New York and Boston newspapers
by the Nova Scotia Pony Express
Astor Place Riot
New York, May 10th 1849
23 dead, dozens injured
The Globe and Mail
Today is Shakespeare's birthday. Speaking of anniversaries, the Bard of Avon was indirectly involved in one of the bloodiest riots in the United States, 150 years ago next month. Rival interpretations of Macbeth were at stake in New York. Before it was over, 23 people were dead and dozens more were wounded. Some notes about the Astor Place riot:
23 April 1999
The dispute grew out of a conflict between two Shakespearean stage idols: English thespian William Macready (ex-lawyer, intellectual snob, understated style) and U.S. tragedian Edwin Forrest (brawny, histrionic, melodramatic style).
In 1844, Macready's tour of North America was dogged by Forrest, hired by rival theatres to mount competing shows. In 1846, when Forrest toured Europe, theatres, audiences and Macready's friends shunned the Yankee. In Edinburgh, Forrest caught a performance of Hamlet by Macready. He stood up in his private box and hissed out loud.
In 1848-49, Macready returned to America. Anti-British feeling was running high over the Oregon territory dispute and was further stirred up by newspapers and nativist politicians. On May 7, 1849, the British actor performed Macbeth at New York's Astor Place Opera House. Macready: "So fair and foul a day I have not seen." Paid hecklers: "Be off with you!" The cast ducked missiles and had to mouth the rest of their lines.
Wealthy New Yorkers were furious at the incident; a man had to be clean-shaven and wear gloves to enter the Astor Place. They persuaded Macready to appear again on May 10. A mob of 10,000 surged outside the building, hurling bricks at the police. Troops were called out to protect the cops' lives.
They tried a cavalry charge and a bayonet attack before firing on the mob...
Sources listed by the Globe and Mail:
The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, news services.
Astor Place Riot, May 10th 1849
Ned Buntline was the famous novelist of the nineteenth century who immortalized in legend the colorful characters: "Buffalo Bill", "Wild Bill Hickok" and "Texas Jack". These and other real or invented characters created by him have been re-created in countless stories and movies up to the present time. More than four hundred "Dime Novel" adventure stories were written by Ned Buntline. Besides writing about the Wild West, he also wrote about pirates and the sea, politics, the Civil War, as well as many hunting and wild-life stories ... In 1848, after his early success with increasing income and fame, at the age of 25, Ned settled down in New York.
34 dead, 140 injured
Ned Buntline was pro-American and bitterly anti-British, a stance which led to daily conflicts with his wife and in-laws. He was a friend of Edwin Forrest, an American actor. Forrest's English rival, William Charles Macready, was scheduled to play Macbeth at the Astor Opera House in New York during May of 1849. Columns in Ned Buntline's Own were devoted to denouncing Macready and urging American Party supporters to action. On opening night, May 7, Ned Buntline was present. William Charles Macready was admired by many Americans, but others wanted to see American actors on stage. During the performance, some mild disturbance occurred against the British actor. Ned approved the crowd's behavior as the action of free Americans. Only three days later the performance was repeated. Ned was ready to join with the crowd. He dressed in a blue frock coat with gilt buttons and a tall hat and drove around town soliciting public support. He believed that this was his chance to prove to the public that he was a real American. He was preparing for the evening performance.
His wife, Annie, wept and begged him on her knees not to join the crowd but Ned ignored her pleas. Taking his sword he stormed out of the house and headed toward Astor Place. By that time, over two hundred policemen patrolled the area knowing that a disturbance at the opera house was planned. As many as two thousand people filled the house in an orderly fashion, but the police were uneasy since there were only seven women in the audience. A disturbance occurred during the first half of the performance. At the end of the first act the police removed some people. Outside, several thousand people were waiting, ready for action, holding egg-shaped cobblestones in their hands. Suddenly rioting erupted, cobblestones went flying and policemen began firing. By the time the riot ended, there were 34 killed and 140 wounded.
Ned Buntline was arrested and named as an organizer of the Astor Place Riot ... He was found guilty and sentenced to one year at hard labor on Blackwell's Island...
Excerpted from Ned Buntline, King of the Dime Novels, by Dr. Thomas Kovalik, published 1996 by SamHar Press.
Astor Place Riot, May 10th 1849
Edwin Forrest (1806 - 1872) had a dashing, athletic style that won him high praise from the time of his acting debut in the 1820s. When actress Fanny Kemble saw Forrest playing Spartacus in The Gladiator, she called him "a mountain of a man!" Forrest quickly became the leading actor in the United States, famous for his outsized heroes and his wealth, and over the years he never altered the formula that brought his first success. Today Forrest is remembered for his twenty-year rivalry with British actor William Macready, which turned tragic in 1849 when their competing New York productions of Macbeth put a match to a flame of nativist sentiment and caused the Astor Place riot, in which twenty-two were killed. Around 1860, Forrest commissioned the famous photographer
Mathew Brady to
photograph him in his most famous roles ...
Riot at the Opera House!
A Staged Reading
Featuring New York City Literary Figures
Louis Auchincloss, Pete Hamill, and Frank McCourt
6:30pm Monday, May 10, 1999
In Conjunction with the Museum of the City of New York's exhibition
The Astor Place Riot: Looking Back 150 Years
Performed at The Great Hall and Peter Cooper Suite
Cooper Union, Foundation Building, 7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue
One hundred and fifty years ago, two actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, ignited one of the worst riots in New York City's history. A symbol of British aristocracy, Macready entered into this eruptive event at a disadvantage having offended local New Yorkers with his comments about their boorish and uncultured nature. His adversary, Edwin Forrest, an American-born Shakespearean actor, shared the fierce determination of working-class New Yorkers not to be dominated by elite outsiders.
On May 10, 1849, a crowd of roughly 15,000 assembled in front of the Astor Place Opera House to protest the appearance of the English Shakespearean actor William Charles Macready in a performance of Macbeth. Stones were hurled through the windows of the theater and crowds attempted to break down the doors to get at the audience inside. The police were overwhelmed and troops were called in, subsequently firing into the crowd, killing more than 20 people. The riot grew out of a personal feud between Macready and his American counterpart Edwin Forrest. On the surface the issues that divided them seemed rooted in professional competition. The animosity between the two actors, however, tapped into deeper and more complex social issues, including class antagonisms and anti-British feelings.
Riot at the Opera House! A Staged Reading, drawn entirely from the first-person testimony of these key figures and from journalistic accounts recorded in the leading newspapers of the time, presents a live narrative of the events that led to this tragedy and recounts the confusion and horror of that infamous night.
The script prepared by Andrew Davis, a contributing curator to the Museum's exhibition The Astor Place Riot: Looking Back 150 Years, has constructed reading roles for the key witnesses from
primary sources. Portions of William Macready's diaries offer an extensive account of the riot while letters written by Edwin Forrest illustrate the growing feud between the actors. Additional testimony comes from Caleb Woodhull, the newly elected mayor of New York City; George W. Matsell, the chief of police, whose unarmed officers were quickly overwhelmed by the mob; and Major General Charles Sandford, who commanded the troops brought in to quell the disturbance. Intermixed in the narrative are newspaper accounts and commentary from James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald, Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, and William Cullen Bryant's Evening Post, whose coverage and editorializing helped inflame the passions of the City.
Cast in the lead reading roles of William Macready, Edwin Forrest, and James Gordon Bennett are three members of the Museum's Board of Trustees. Louis Auchincloss, who has written extensively on New York's blue-bloods, provides the voice of Macready, the favorite of the elite. Frank McCourt, whose memoir Angela's Ashes details his own Irish boyhood, plays the reading role of Edwin Forrest, whose supporters came largely from the Irish Bowery B'hoys. Pete Hamill, former editor of New York's hometown newspaper, the Daily News, appropriately provides the narrative voice of journalist James Gordon Bennett. Other New York luminaries are being drafted to bring life to the voices of their 19th century counterparts.
[Source: http://www.netresource.com/mcny/astorriotpr.htm ]
- The Astor Place Riots: Looking Back 150 Years
- The Astor Place Riot
- "That Play" is just one of the euphemisms actors use to avoid mentioning the title of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, one of the most ill-starred plays in theatrical history.
The curse took its greatest toll in the Astor Place riot in New York City in 1849...
In 1849 the Associated Press couriers rode alone, often at night, on narrow roads not much more than trails, with few travellers, with parts of the route through isolated areas far from any habitation. In 1849, the Nova Scotia Pony Express was an essential link in the international communications system, often carrying news comparable to what, in the late twentieth century, would be classified by international television news companies as Breaking News, to be transmitted over hastily-arranged communications satellite channels. The competition was intense. More than once in 1849 — when negotiations between London and Washington were very tense and war between Great Britain and the United States was by no means unthinkable — news about an important British government decision — carried swiftly across Nova Scotia by Daniel Craig's express and telegraphed by the Associated Press from Saint John — was being sold on the streets of New York and Boston for a penny a copy, as much as 24 hours before the official message reached Washington by telegraph after the Cunard steamship arrived at its United States destination. Presidents James Polk (before 5 March 1849) and Zachary Taylor (after 5 March 1849) were not amused by such occurrences, but that didn't bother James Gordon Bennett or his newspaper competitors.
The Oregon Boundary Dispute
The Oregon Boundary Dispute was a hot topic during 1849. This dispute
has nothing to do with the Nova Scotia Pony Express story, except as
a vivid illustration of the importance of some of the information it carried.
In the 1844 United States Presidential Election,
the Democratic platform claimed the entire Oregon area,
from the California boundary northward to a latitude
of 54° 40', the southern boundary of Russian Alaska.
This claim included all of present-day British Columbia.
In 1849, the Oregon Boundary dispute remained unsettled.
In 1849, there was a serious threat of war between Great Britain and the
United States over the Oregon Boundary question.
The excerpts below are included here to enable the reader to get a feeling of
the serious nature of this dispute. Some of the mail bags carried by Cunard's
Royal mail Steamships in 1849, both westbound and eastbound, contained
highly confidential diplomatic messages between London and Washington,
conveying veiled threats of a most serious nature. George Mullane's article
about the 1849 situation uses direct language: "...international crisis..." and
"...England's ultimatum..." which accurately conveys the temper of the times.
Oregon State Archives
Guide to Provisional and Territorial Records, 1849 Map
Oregon was admitted as a U.S. territory on August 14, 1848. According to the 1849 census, there were 8903 white inhabitants of the territory. The Treaty with Great Britain in Regard to Limits Westward of the Rocky Mountains (1846), otherwise known as the U.S.-Great Britain Boundary Treaty of 1846, set the northern boundary of Oregon Territory at latitude 49°. The ten counties which now existed in Oregon still encompassed all of the area between latitudes 49° and 42° and west of the crest of the Rockies, an area of over 285,580 square miles about 740,000 square kilometres.
America at War: American Military History
Revolutionary War to World War II
In his stand on Oregon, James Polk, President of the Unites States 4 March 1845 to 3 March 1849, seemed to be risking war with Great Britain. The 1844 Democratic platform claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary northward to a latitude of 54° 40', the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Extremists proclaimed "Fifty-four forty or fight," but Polk, aware of diplomatic realities, knew that no course short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. Happily, neither he nor the British wanted a war. He offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American claim to the entire area. Finally, the British settled for the 49th parallel, except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island...
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, Lesson 8
Settlement of the Oregon Boundary Question
The Pacific coast area in dispute, called the Oregon country, stretched from the crest of the Rockies in the east to the ocean in the west, and from the 42nd parallel in the south (today's California-Oregon border) to the parallel of 54 degrees, 40 minutes in the north (today's Alaska-British Columbia border)... Few Americans today pay much attention to the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The nation's acquisitions by war have seemed more dramatic, and even its acquisitions by purchase have seemed more memorable. The diplomatic negotiations that produced the treaty perhaps appear dull, as if the two sides finally just arrived at a fair compromise. Maybe there is a sense, too, that the U.S. did not take the far corner of the Pacific Northwest so much from another nation or people as it did from a company, the HBC, whose own operations were inhibiting American-style "development" of the region. It would be best, however, to keep in mind that in Canada, across the border that the Oregon Treaty extended in 1849, feelings are different. There, the Oregon Treaty is often remembered vividly as a loss, and one of many examples of American disrespect for Canadian borders and national integrity. Thus James R. Gibson, a Canadian geographer, writes in Farming the Frontier: The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country 1786-1846 (1985):
The Oregon Treaty was not a fair compromise; there was no division of the 'Oregon triangle' [the disputed lands in Washington state], all of which went to the United States....Canadians have valid reasons for regretting and even resenting the Oregon settlement, since the British claim to the territory north of the Columbia-Snake-Clearwater river system was at least as good as, if not better than, that of the United States on the grounds of discovery, exploration, and settlement, and since the future Canadian Dominion was deprived of any harbour on Puget Sound....Canadians should not forget that they were dispossessed of part of their rightful Columbia heritage, a heritage whose economic potential in general and agricultural possibilities in particular were initially and successfully demonstrated by the Hudson's Bay Company. They should also remember that whenever it is tritely declared that Canada and the United States share the longest undefended border in the world, it is so mainly because the stronger American republic won its northern boundary disputes at the expense of its weaker neighbour, just as it southern boundary was gained at the expense of a weaker Mexico.
Gibson's interpretation reflects a longstanding and pervasive Canadian concern about the sheer power of the United States as well as an accurate memory of the many threats that Americans have posed to the integrity of Canadian borders and Canadian national identity. I would, however, add one caveat to Gibson's formulation. When the Oregon Treaty was signed, the Confederation of Canada did not exist; America's northern neighbor was not a nation, but rather several British colonies. When the U.S. negotiated the Oregon Treaty, it did so with Great Britain, not Canada, so it is logical to keep Britain's participation in the treaty in mind (there was as of yet no official Canadian participation in diplomacy). Canadian views of this British participation hint at different kinds of weakness in the face of American strength. Gibson, for example, refers to a British mood of "appeasement" in yielding western Washington to the U.S., while another Canadian scholar (John Saywell, Canada: Pathways to the Present ), recalls not only American aggression but also British carelessness in giving "what is now Washington and Oregon to the United States." American interpretations, by contrast, do not portray Britain as weak, and thus do not tend to see the Oregon Treaty as a deal struck with a "weaker neighbour." Quite the contrary, in fact. In explaining President Polk's decision to accept the 49th parallel as the boundary, Robert H. Ferrell, in American Diplomacy: A History (1975), writes that Polk "had given in to Great Britain [rather than standing up for more territory]. It was one thing to press territorial claims against a nation such as Mexico, and quite another to stand up to the most powerful nation in the world, as Britain was during the nineteenth century."
Canadians and Americans tend to recall the Oregon Treaty in distinctly different ways. In this case and in virtually every other, how one interprets the past depends in large part upon where one is viewing it from.
More About the
Nova Scotia Pony Express
The 1849 Nova Scotia Pony Express
Photographs of the Nova Scotia Pony Express monument
Pony Express Monument Unveiled, Halifax Chronicle-Herald 27 Aug 1953
The Pony Express Plaque Installed in 1949 100th Anniversary
Halifax Express The Novascotian, 26 February 1849
Halifax Express The British Colonist, 10 March 1849
Halifax Express The Acadian Recorder, 10 March 1849
The Second Run of the Nova Scotia Pony Express 8 March 1849
Nova Scotia Pony Express 1849, by John Regan 5 January 1912
Nova Scotia Pony Express 1849, by George Mullane 1 Jan 1914
Nova Scotia Pony Express 1849, by Murrille Schofield 1973
Nova Scotia Pony Express, by D. A. MacNeill April 1940
Nova Scotia Pony Express, by CBC Radio 11 June 1999
The Cunard Steamship fleet, 1849
These ships brought the news carried by the Pony Express
Burket's Exchange News Room Halifax 1848-1849
Pony Express Editorial, Halifax Chronicle-Herald 15 Feb 1999
Radio Station X1J1F Victoria Beach, Nova Scotia, 1999
set up in recognition of the 150th anniversary
of the 1849 Nova Scotia Pony Express
Go To: Nova Scotia Pony Express 1849
Go To: Timeline of the First Thirty Years of Radio, 1895-1925
Go To: Marconi Wireless Telegraph in Nova Scotia
Go To: History of Telegraph and Telephone Companies in Nova Scotia
Go to: Ode to the Code ...Morse Code is officially retired...
Go to: Farewell to Morse Code
Go To: The Duke of Kent's Signal Stations by S.G. Roscoe
Go To: Communications Links between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1849
Go to: Associated Press New Policy for Handling Telegraphed News, 1851
Go to: A Fierce War – The Electric Telegraph Lines Between New York and Halifax
Go To: History of Railway Companies in Nova Scotia
Go To: History of Electric Power Companies in Nova Scotia
Go To: History of Automobiles in Nova Scotia
Go To: Nova Scotia History, Chapter One
Photographs of War Memorials, Historic Monuments and Plaques in Nova Scotia
Go To: Nova Scotia Quotations
Go To: Home Page
First uploaded to the WWW: 1999 April 27
Moved to new hosting service: 2001 November 04
Script upgraded to HTML 4.0: 2002 March 15
Latest update: 2012 July 30