Astor Place Riots and Google N-Grams


At this point, I am not using any fancy tools, but a quick look at Google’s N-Gram viewer reveals some unexpected patterns which suggest a closer look is needed.  Started in 2010 as a more or less experimental tool, the N-Gram viewer experienced a major overhaul in 2012 and has been improved since.  For a good overview of N-Grams, see this Programming Historian 2 lesson.  Basically, this tool will search tons of google books and count how often your search term appears compared to others.  Google’s viewer is great because it allows poor coders (like myself!) to get a quick look at general patterns in a topic over time.  It can be a powerful tool, but with its easy access comes some caveats: chiefly, google claims it searches 5 million books, but it does not say what those works are, or if they change over time.   To me, it’s like an average wikipedia entry in that I can get an overall sense of things, namely, where to look next, but I would not formally cite it without further verification.

That said, it’s fun!  When I was curious about how the term “Astor Place Riot” appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century, the viewer returned an unexpected pattern:

Although the actual numbers of texts counter are marginal, the Astor Place Riots remain a visible presence in Google Books’ corpus.  In fact, the frequency of their mention seems to increase at times, spiking in the 1880s and 1890s, which I was entirely not expecting.  I think here is the value of such an analysis: while it does not tell me much about the context of the occurrences of the term “Astor Place Riots,” a long-view analysis can point to places that deserve closer looks.  In this case, I have briefly done an overview of sources from the time period, and they show an engagement with the riots that is concerned mostly with how they could have been prevented (rather than causes), which has the potential to tell us something about how those writers used it as part of arguments about civil unrest and revolution.

Interestingly, here is an N-Gram comparing the same search for the Riots with “Astor Place,” showing that there was at least small increases in frequency to the occurrences of the Riots when people began mentioning the placename.



Why Astor Place?

At least once a year, I take my theatre students over to Astor Place, where we stand on the corner of Astor and Lafayette  and rehearse the events of May 10, 1849. Shouting over the ever-present construction, I point out the area as it had been, from farmland to pleasure garden to mansions for the “upper ten.” We look at where a Kmart and Starbucks now sit on the site of the Astor Place Opera House, figure out where the militia set up their guard as rioters poured in from the convening streets, and where almost one hundred people were shot, twenty-two of whom were fatally wounded.

This is, of course, part of the story of the Astor Place Riots, a series of disruptions and actions that are central to the history of nineteenth-century American theatre, and the subject of my current research. Most of the events are well-known, such as the feud between the American Edwin Forrest and the British William Macready (both of whom are depicted as Macbeth in their links), and have been well-documented by Richard Moody (1958) and Peter Buckley (1984). Despite the presence of such terrific work, I have long had a fascination with the riots, but each time I think about working on them I have to ask: why study Astor Place? Pardon the pun, but they have nearly been done to death.

The events are, briefly:

May 7: William Charles Macready, an English star took the stage at the genteel Astor Place Opera House to play Macbeth.  Contrary audience members hissed, booed, and protested his presence, and, arguably, the theatre’s presence as a restricted place of refined drama and opera.  Macready continued some of the performance in dumbshow, a common response to uproarious audiences.  Afterwards, he swore to leave the country.

May 10: Many prominent New Yorkers petitioned Macready to stay and give another night as Macbeth.  Having been promised safety and a peaceful performance, Macready stayed.  On May 10, the new mayor of New York agreed to order the militia to guard to Opera House.  When the show started, numerous rioters disrupted the performance inside.  Many more outside massed in Astor Place and attempted to vandalize the building.  The militia calvary charged but were repelled.  Finally, the order to fire was given and 22 people were killed, many of whom were onlookers (which suggests there were multiple kinds of rioters present, from participant to audience).

In the following days, more protests formed, and several thousand marched on the Opera House, but were repelled by a well-organized militia presence.  The city was nearly shut down, and for several days, police heavily patrolled the streets (though, to my knowledge, mostly moving from bar to bar).  Many feared a second American Revolution along the lines of what had been going on in Europe a year before.

Historians have written extensively on what caused the riot (usual suspects: a feud between Macready and Forrest, class antagonism, American nationalism) and its effects (allowing for separate entertainment venues for separate classes).  The answer to “which is of these was the case” is probably “yes,” so what I am interested in is how contemporary New Yorkers at the time interpreted, viewed, and represented the riot.  I presented a paper on the visual culture of the riot, but here I am using a few analytic and visualization tools to get a general sense of how people wrote about the riots in their aftermath.

 While much attention has been paid to the events of May 7-11, I aim to explore the wider reception of the riots in American culture. Instead of examining into causes or guilt, I am going to look for how contemporary New Yorkers thought about the riot, and how the riot was re-interpreted over time. In most political events, from elections to revolutions, there is a secondary fight over the interpretation of the what has just happened. As we have seen in the recent shutdown, politicians, pundits, editors, and the public has been (and still is) engaged in a fierce contest of facts and ideologies. I hope to see how Astor Place was marshaled in contemporary discussions, and how it was resurrected to serve dialogues over civil disturbance, police action, and social organization throughout the nineteenth century.

At the moment, I am looking at nineteenth-century writings on the riots through text mining and data visualization tools.  My work is currently in the beginning stage of assembling a corpus and playing with the data, but I plan to use word count, key words in context, and network visualizations (among others) to look at the relationships among the many texts that engaged the riots.  Already I am impressed by the sheer volume of relevant material in the decades after the riots, which suggests that the events of May 1849 left a long footprint over the century.

In November, I am hoping to present some of my findings at an “unconference” at the American Society for Theatre Research annual meeting.  Eventually I am building an Omeka site to exhibit much of my analysis, but until then, updates on the work will follow here as well…



Audiences, Evolution, and Class

Looking back from today, it is hard to overestimate the impact that evolutionary theory had on every discipline.  In his wonderful American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry, Daniel Bender says that evolution was a “public science in America,” one that permeated discussions of science, health, immigration, fiscal policy, race, as well as art, labor, fashion, fitness — you name it, writers and commentators invoked the language of advancement, progress, and natural selection.  To me, what makes looking at evolution in the period fun is its ubiquity: it pops up in almost every discussion of the time.

A classic example is “Lost in Wonder” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated from April 1st, 1876 about spectators at the Centennial Exhibition

Lost in Wonder

Here, the gentleman on the left gestures authoritatively to the exhibit, while the other figures, neck craned, mouths open, and hands in their pockets, ignorantly gape at the display.  Whatever is on view, it must be interesting, as a sign, restraining bar, and Centennial guard are keeping people at a distance. The informed, discoursing spectator demonstrates his power not only over the knowledge on display, but over the poor spectators, who can only respond with wonder.

(Joy Kasson also discusses this image in Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth-Century American Sculpture: 38-9. Kasson also observes that they are coded as poor. She notes one man who seems to be carrying everything he owns in a valise).

A more offbeat, but consistent example is in the work of artist and popular ethnographer George Catlin, best known right now as having painted a piece that Johnny Depp used as his inspiration for Tonto in the summer failbuster The Lone Ranger.  Catlin’s treatise Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life diagnosed civilization’s ills to segments of the population who had acquired the unnatural habit of mouth breathing.  In particular, Catlin, like many of this time, equate bad habits with class, and here he is out to reform working class children.  At one point, he uses a working class audience watching a Punch and Judy show, mouths agape with glee, as a key example.
Shut Your Mouth

Tracing everything to mouth breathing may seem quixotic at best, but the book was enormously popular, and Catlin was well respected. By 1875, it had already gone into six editions and would be reprinted regularly into the 1890s.

For more sources, see my work-in-progress Omeka site: Visualizing Evolution



Chicago Vice

While working on research for a conference paper on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, I came across this cartoon of Chicago’s turn of the century vice area, the Levee District, from the Chicago History Museum’s blog.  “When Harrison Was Mayor” is from the 1920s by John McCutcheon but depicts either Chicago at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century according to the post.


The image (CHi-i62276) depicts such salacious behavior as:

  • policemen getting bribes
  • same-sex couples
  • street fights
  • a policeman and prostitute (note the woman’s name is “Lil,” the same of Mae West’s popular character, Diamond Lil)
  • a dance hall
  • saloon with singing and dancing
  • child pickpockets
  • and of course, what vice would be complete without a theatre (this one advertising fights)

And what is particularly fun is the depiction of how exuberance of all the figures in the image.  While it clearly depicts all sorts of crime (especially by the period’s laws), everyone seems to have such a good time!

With that, I’ll be off to that national conference…


Last Days of Pompeii

Although students often find it goofy, I really like Louisa Medina’s 1835 Last Days of Pompeii (adapted from the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton), which was a major blockbuster for its time.  Walt Whitman called it a “capital melodrama” and it is surely a cracking play, with a virtuous blind girl, an evil sorcerer, gladiators, and an exploding volcano at the end.  What more can one want?

This past week a student brough this little item to my attention, from a June 1837 piece in the New Orleans Daily Picayune, reprinted from Bennett’s Herald, a New York paper:

Screenshot from 2013-06-15 16:38:30