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Astor Opera House Riot

In 1849, two competing productions of Macbeth were held on the same night in New York City. The result was the worst disaster in theatre history.

Elegant thespian William Macready was performing at the upscale Astor Opera House, while his mighty rival Edwin Forrest was on stage only a few blocks away at the Broadway Theatre. Forrest and his fans were, by all accounts, a group of low-rent bullies, incensed that English-born Macready was diverting attention from Forrest, who was carving out a name for himself as the first great American-born Shakespearean actor.

A mob of loud, insufferable Forrest groupies had disrupted a previous Macready performance, throwing chairs from the balcony on to the stage below. Preparing for the worst, Macready asked militiamen to guard the theatre during his performance of Macbeth.

When Forrest’s fanatics arrived carrying glass bottles and stones as weapons, they were met by Macready’s armed guards. In the ensuing clash twenty-two people lost their lives, including innocent people walking by the theatre.

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Scene of the riot. From Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House. H. M. Ranney (1849)