10 Tiny Things That Caused Huge Riots

It’s a sad truth of human existence that the bigger the crowd, the more likely it is to freak out and burn down Vancouver. Now, admittedly, sometimes people have perfectly good reasons for rioting—perhaps they toil under an oppressive government, or want to right some terrible injustice, or feel that looting plays an underappreciated role in post-scarcity capitalism. But, then again, sometimes people have taken to the streets over such trivial non-issues as . . .

10. Arguing Over Which Actor Was Better

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On May 10, 1849, an angry mob thousands strong, rampaged through the streets of New York, hurling paving stones and battling with the outnumbered police. Realizing they were losing control of the city, the authorities called in the militia, but a barrage of paving slabs forced the cavalry to retreat. Under heavy attack, the beleaguered infantry commander ordered his troops to fire into the air. When that failed to disperse the mob, he ordered them to fire a second volley into the crowd. Twenty-two people died. But at least they laid down their lives for a noble cause: arguing over which actor was better.

The origins of the riot lay years earlier, when the acclaimed American actor, Edwin Forrest, agreed to a tour of Britain. Forrest was a tough Philadelphian, whose aggressive, muscular performances of Shakespeare had made him a huge star in his own country. His great rival was the British thespian William Charles Macready, and newspapers frequently ran pieces arguing which actor was better. When Macready toured America, Forrest followed him around, performing the same parts in rival theaters. For his part, Macready aggravated Forrest by condescendingly suggesting that he should study in England if he wanted to be great. When Forrest’s tour of Britain went poorly, he somehow blamed Macready. Tracking his rival to a theater in Edinburgh, he waited until a particularly effeminate flourish, then stood up and hissed loudly.

Forrest’s actions scandalized polite society and destroyed his reputation in Britain—but only increased his popularity with working-class Americans, who were only too happy to see the stuffy Brit taken down a peg or two. When Macready scheduled another tour of America, Forrest’s fans were enraged. The Englishman was roundly booed everywhere he went, and at one performance was knocked off the stage by half a dead sheep, thrown by Forrest’s supporters. When Macready arrived to play Macbeth in New York, while Forrest was also there playing the same role, it was the final straw. His performance was interrupted by a hail of eggs, rotten fruit, and bottles of “foul-smelling” liquid. Outraged, Macready immediately made plans to leave for Britain, but was persuaded to stay by a group of wealthy New Yorkers, who talked him into one final performance at the swanky Astor Place Opera House.

Forrest’s working-class fanbase was infuriated by what they saw as a betrayal by the city’s elites. On the night of the performance, a crowd of 10,000 attacked the Opera House, which was defended by the bulk of the city’s policemen. Amazingly, the performance went ahead, although the noise of the battle was so loud that the performers had to act in mime. Macready eventually snuck out in disguise and set sail for home, never to return.

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