Theatricals in the United States

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The tumult surrounding the United States presidential election in November was reminiscent to a member of staff in the Library and Archive, of events described in the memoir of James Henry Crowe (numbered BGR/52 in the Manuscripts collection).

Crowe was a master mariner who first went to sea in 1838 on vessels in the emigrant trade between Limerick and Quebec. As well as his seagoing career, the memoir follows his own fortunes as an emigrant, starting a new life in Australia. In the third volume, Crowe writes about a shocking episode in New York, during the period when he was master of the barque Augusta (1841), owned by Sim & Co of Glasgow.

Page 94 from BGR/52/3 describing the results of the clash outside the Astor Place Opera House.
Page 94 from BGR/52/3 describing the results of the clash outside the Astor Place Opera House.

On 10 May 1849, Crowe went with two friends to see their countryman William Macready in Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House in Manhattan. Running up to this performance, Macready had to contend with growing animosity from the supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest. On this evening, a large mob of working-class playgoers laid siege to the theatre and Crowe found himself witnessing the violence now remembered as the Astor Place Riot:

‘By shattering in the windows with showers of stones, seeing that this did not bring out Macready, the mob commenced piling up all sorts of inflammable matter round the theatre to burn it down, and had actually fired it before the “Train Bands” were called out.’

The Trainbands (New York State Militia) charged the mob and drove it away from the building. Later, in response to the continued throwing of missiles, the troops began firing indiscriminately. Tragically, over 20 people were shot dead, including an innocent woman close to where Crowe was standing, with a greater number badly wounded.

There were other reasons for New York being a troublesome port in which to fulfil the responsibilities of a ship’s master. Visiting seamen were exploited by a powerful crimping system, which meant that the crew of the Augusta deserted immediately on arrival and when it came to taking on replacements for the voyage home, Crowe had to be careful:

‘We finished loading early in June 1849, and hawled out in the sides before starting, the object being to see for myself what my new crew were like before proceeding on our voyage, having had dear bought experience on the preceding passage home of what the cursed New York crimps were capable of doing in the way of putting landsmen on board as sailors.’

The above extracts come from pages 93–96 of the volume numbered BGR/52/3 in the Archive Catalogue.

New York And Environs, From Williamsburgh
New York And Environs, From Williamsburgh

Graham Thompson, Archives Assistant

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