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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Street Theater at Astor Place: The Silk Stocking Regiment and Antebellum Public Performance


The Astor Place Riot, in New York in 1849, was set off by a rivalry between actors: the eminent English tragedian William Macready, and the first American stage star, Edwin Forrest. When ten thousand rioters and spectators gathered outside the Astor Place Opera House, some throwing stones at the building and at the police guarding its perimeter, the state militia was summoned. They fired into the crowd, killing at least twenty. Although historians have accounted for the class dynamics that motivated the rioters, the militia have been overlooked as participants in the conflict.

The Seventh Regiment, the chief company to muster, was New York’s most prestigious militia unit, an elite social club, and a prominent parading corps. The social position and history of the Seventh Regiment suggests that its members held as great a stake in the outcome of the conflict as those who participated as rioters. Built from an understanding of the nineteenth century urban American street as a site for politically-charged performances, this paper explores the ways that the Seventh Regiment employed performance as a tactic at Astor Place to demonstrate the supremacy of law and order. They were understood then, and should be now, as interested parties in a conflict that antagonized the working class against the elite. In its response to the riot, the Seventh Regiment claimed elite dominion over the street and enforced a code of orderly public behavior.

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