ASTOR PLACE RIOTS, 1849

In antebellum times, theater was dominated by men, particularly in New York City.  It was a male oriented social and cultural experience that expanded the spectrum of ethnic, racial, and economic classes.  A trip to the theater, unlike opera, did not necessarily involve an exclusive array of the city’s finest and wealthiest families in attendance with their spouses.  Theaters were often edgy enclaves filled with rough men, prostitutes, smoke, drink and fights.  And theatergoers encompassed men from all walks of life who occasionally allowed their wife, girlfriend or daughters to accompany them to the show, but not often.

The Astor Place clash erupted after a longstanding feud between two of the most famous Shakespearean actors on the 19th Century stage: one American, the other of English.    At the time, both men were in competing productions of Macbeth taking place on the same evening in New York City – American actor Edwin Forrest  was starring at the Broadway Theater and English Actor William Macready was the headliner at the more exclusive and prestigious Astor House Opera. When the evening got underway for Macready, the English thespian was met with boos and eggs by the American bred Bowery B’hoys, a mixed gang of rowdy Irish, Jewish, Native American and other ethnic roughs from the Five Points neighborhood who liked a good time and tended to be just as overzealous in the patriotism as they were in gambling, drinking and brawling.

The Bowery B’hoys were in attendance specifically to harrass the English star.  The men proudly hailed from one of the city’s toughest, crime plagued and corrupt neighborhoods centered on the intersection of Mulberry, Anthony (now Worth St.), Cross (now Mosco), Orange (now Baxter), and Little Water Street (no longer exists) on Manhattan island. The neighborhood features in the book The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, published in 1928.  For many immigrants the conditions in Five Points were actually an improvement over what they had left. Anbinder pays particular attention to Irish immigrants who had left the Lansdowne estate, a farm in Ireland that was blighted by the potato famine in the 1840s. The appalling conditions on the plantation, the dire physical condition to which the farmers were reduced, and the difficulty of their journey across the ocean are richly documented.

So Five Points became a home. “By the time the potato blight struck Ireland, Five Points was known throughout the English-speaking world as a veritable hellhole,” Anbinder writes. “Yet the Irish who settled there during the famine years had seen far worse, going months and sometimes years without work and watching friends and family starve before their eyes. The Irish did not come to Five Points expecting streets paved with gold. They simply wanted work—work that would enable them both to feed their families and to put a little something away so that someday their children could have a better life.”

Five Pointers also played hard. There was a carnival atmosphere to Five Points, with the Bowery on the neighborhood’s eastern edge the center of the spectacle. Walt Whitman extolled the Bowery as “the most heterogeneous mélange of any street in the city; stores of all kinds and people of all kinds are to be met with every forty rods. . . .You may be the President or a Major-General, or be Governor, or be Mayor, and you will be jostled and crowded off the sidewalk just the same.”

So the Bowery was home to the Bowery B’hoys, a subculture of dandy-toughs that flourished for a while by making a name for themselves as lovers of adventure and excitement. (Bowery B’hoys were touted for acts of courage during the Mexican War and were among the first New Yorkers to leave for California during the gold rush.) A number of inexpensive playhouses sprouted on the Bowery and Chatham Street that catered to the working class, and bare-knuckle prize fighting, among other spectacles, became a Five Points trademark.  (From Wikepedia)

THE INCITING INCIDENT ASTOR HOUSE

Three days after Macready was run off of stage, play bills appeared around the city lambasting his next performance, “shall Americans or English rule in this city?” The posters also included rumors that English sailors had threatened Americans, calling the Astor Opera House the English Aristocratic Opera house.

The posters were believed to be distributed by the notorious Ned Buntline, a writer who owned the sensational Ned Buntline’s Own magazine in Nashville who was lynched for murder and secretly cut down and released where he escaped to New York.  (Buntline later left New York and was one of the organizers of the Know-Nothing movement in 1853 which sought the repeal of naturalization laws, but they always answered I don’t know when asked about their secretive political party.)

Research:

Five Points: the 19th Century New York City neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections and became the World’s Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder

THE ELEVATOR

The first reference to an elevator is in the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who reported that Archimedes built his first elevator probably in 236 B.C. In some literary sources of later historical periods, elevators were mentioned as cabs on a hemp rope and powered by hand or by animals. It is supposed that elevators of this type were installed in the Sinai monastery of Egypt.

In 1000, the Book of Secrets by the Arab Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi in Islamic Spain described the use of an elevator-like lifting device, in order to raise a large battering ram to destroy a fortress.[1] In the 17th century the prototypes of elevators were located in the palace buildings of England and France.

In 1793 Ivan Kulibin created an elevator with the screw lifting mechanism for the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg. In 1816 an elevator was established in the main building of sub Moscow village called Arkhangelskoye. In 1823, an “ascending room” made its debut in London.[2]

In 1852, Elisha Otis introduced the safety elevator, which prevented the fall of the cab if the cable broke. The design of the Otis safety elevator is somewhat similar to one type still used today. A governor device engages knurled roller(s), locking the elevator to its guides should the elevator descend at excessive speed. He demonstrated it at the New York exposition in the Crystal Palace in 1854.[3]

On March 23, 1857 the first Otis passenger elevator was installed at 488 Broadway in New York City. The first elevator shaft preceded the first elevator by four years. Construction for Peter Cooper‘s Cooper Union building in New York began in 1853. An elevator shaft was included in the design for Cooper Union, because Cooper was confident that a safe passenger elevator would soon be invented.[4] The shaft was cylindrical because Cooper felt it was the most efficient design.[5] Later Otis designed a special elevator for the school. Today the Otis Elevator Company, now a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation, is the world’s largest manufacturer of vertical transport systems.

PFAFF’S

“The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse.” –Walt Whitman–

Charles Pfaff’s beer cellar in lower Manhattan was a magnet for some of the most unconventional and creative individuals of nineteenth-century New York City, including Walt Whitman, poet and actress Adah Isaacs Menken, journalist and social critic Henry Clapp, playwright John Brougham, and artist Elihu Vedder.

The bar, known simply as “Pfaff’s,” was hailed as the “favorite resort of all the prominent actors, authors, artists, musicians, newspaper men, and men-about-town of the time” (“In and About” 2). It was decorated “in a plain, quaint fashion, with an estrade, but the service was clean and the cooking excellent, and it soon made a reputation that brought it hundreds of dollars’ worth of daily custom” (“In and About” 2). Pfaff accepted his female clientele like Ada Clare and others associated with the group “with a bland smile, paying no attention to the shocked gossip on the street. He was a respectable man of business, but not a one of the customers remarked about Pfaff and his helpers: ‘The Germans are not shocked when a woman enters a restaurant'” (A. Parry 21). Artist Elihu Vedder contends that Pfaff enjoyed the Bohemian circle’s patronage beyond the revenue they brought to his establishment: “I really believe Pfaff himself loved the Boys. The time came when he retired to the country well off; but then the time also came when he returned and started another place further up-town. I saw him in his new place… He said he was well off, but that he could not stand the country; he had to do something; but then he said, ‘It isn’t the same thing; dere’s no more boys left enny more.’ I have come to think that myself” (Digressions 226).Pfaff was a German from Switzerland and he “was rotund of form though devoid of excessive fat. His big head was crowned with short and bristling hair and lit up by a silent yet jovial smile. Like most proprietors of cafés chosen by literati for their headquarters he was not learned but he knew how to behave. He took pride in his beers and wines and still more in his bookish and eccentric clientele. Shrewdly, he was aware of the profitable growth of his reputation as a patron of American belles lettres. He fostered his fame unobtrusively and skillfully. He drank to the toasts of his guests at their invitation. He listened to their tales and verse with a sweet and quiet dignity. He kept his cellar open into the dawn for the sake of a handful of Bohemians engaged in a verse-making contest.

Adah Isaac Menkin

Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868)

Adah was another Pfaff luminary.  She was an author, poet, painter, actress and enigmatic figure, exotic and risque, an actress known throughout the world for her sensual, scandalous stage performances who also happened to be married to the world heavyweight champion, Johnnie Heenan. She was mysterious, a woman of mixed heritage, born in New Orleans, who guarded her cultural roots (and African-American blood) by spinning exotic tales about her background and childhood upbringing.

In 1859 she appeared on Broadway in the play “The French Spy. Once again, her work was not highly regarded by the critics. The New York Times described her as ‘the worst actress on Broadway’. The Observer said “she is delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent”. She converted to Judaism and married a Jewish musician, Alexander Isaac Menken. The commentators continued to be cynical, saying that a marriage to a rich husband was the only way to sustain a flagging (acting) career. The marriage to Alex Menken was short-lived. Alex Menken separated from and later divorced Adah, though she remained committed to Judaism her entire life. She had four marriages in the space of seven years. (Wikepedia)

By Samuel Dickson

Johnnie Heenan was a prize fighter. He had thick, black hair; heavy, black eyebrows; a thick, black mustache, and a brutal punch. He was born in the small California town of Benicia and was known around the world as the Benicia Boy. He fought, as was the custom of his times, with bare fists. He was the boxing champion of America. He met Tom Sayers, the international champion, in London, and after they had fought for more than two hours and thirty seven rounds during which Johnnie knocked Sayers down twenty times–the British fight promoters, afraid that Johnnie would kill Sayers, called the fight off and naïvely called it a draw.

Now, this is not to be the story of the Benicia Boy. But he is important here because he married the lady who was destined to be the most sensational actress–not the greatest but the most sensational actress–San Francisco had ever seen. She was Mrs. John C. Heenan. She was also Mrs. Robert Henry Newell. She was also Mrs. James Barkley, and she was Mrs. Alexander Isaac Menken. At birth she was named Adah Bertha Theodore. To the world she was the notorious, glamorous, beautiful, and infamous “Mazeppa.”

Not until 1938 were the probable facts of her birthplace and paternity established. Prior to that time she was variously reported to have been born in New York, Havana, and a half-dozen other places. She was said to have been born of a distinguished, old Southern family; another account claimed she was born in Arkansas of a French mother and an American-Indian father. Throughout the years of her life she consistently confused the issue by telling conflicting and varying stories, partly because she was ashamed of her parentage and partly because she was an actress always playing a role. The likeliest facts seem to be that Menken was born in New Orleans on June 15, 1835, that her mother was a very beautiful French Creole, that her father was Auguste Theodore, a highly respected “free” Negro of Louisiana.

She danced, when a child, in the ballet of the French Opera House in New Orleans. She was exceedingly bright; an exceptional scholar. She spoke French and Spanish fluently; she painted, wrote poetry that was of good quality and brought her early recognition. From New Orleans she went, while still a child, to Havana, danced there, and was crowned queen of the Plaza. Then she forsook the ballet and turned to the stage and, on tour, landed in Texas. And in Texas, at the age of twenty-one, she married a very handsome and distinguished musician, Alexander Isaac Menken.

She adored Menken, and Menken worshipped her. But with the characteristics and traditions of his Jewish forebears, Menken wanted a wife, a home, a family. Adah was not at all interested in home or family; in fact, the only thing she shared sincerely with him was his religion–she adopted the Jewish faith and remained steadfast in it until her death. But as for home life–no. Adah preferred the adulations of her audience and the adoration of the young men who gathered at the stage door, arms heavy with roses. Menken swallowed his jealous pride as long as he could, but when Adah insisted on smoking cigarettes in public, that was the last straw. Ladies did not smoke! Menken left her.

So Adah Menken went her exciting way from town to town, and men fell in love with her and her poetry, with her intellect and her lovely face and her exquisite figure. And rather than see them unhappy, she was generous in her love.

In New York she met the Benicia Boy. He was a strong, a brutal man, not unattractive in his strength. His fame as a pugilist had traveled ahead of him, and Adah was fascinated. She married him. On their honeymoon the Benicia Boy taught her to box; she soon learned to hold her own when they sparred good-humoredly. But after a month of marriage the good humor went out of it, and Heenan made a practice of beating Adah every night after dinner. So she divorced him.

But then scandal broke. Search of the records showed that before marrying the Benicia Boy she had neglected to divorce Menken. She was quite, innocent about it all; she had assumed it was the duty of the man of the family to attend to legal matters, including such details as divorce. But now the scandalmongers declared her a bigamist. Menken heard of the scandal, did the gentlemanly thing and divorced her, and everybody was happy.

Then Adah Menken gave birth to the Benicia Boy’s son, and the baby died at birth. She had wanted, longed for, adored that baby. Its death, and the scandals, and her two marriages and divorces–all these coming swiftly one upon the other–were forerunners of a long period of tragic sorrow and failure. But never discouragement,– she would never give up. She starved in New York. She gave readings from Shakespeare. She gave lectures on the life of the times. She had a boyish figure and she always wore her hair short–so, suddenly she appeared as Mr. Bones, blackface, in a minstrel show. Then, on the variety stage, she created a sensation by impersonations of Edwin Booth as Hamlet and Richelieu. But something–something truly sensational had to be done to make the public fully aware of her.

She met Blondin. Blondin was the brave gentleman who crossed the whirlpools of Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Blondin was enraptured by the beauty of the Menken. He wooed her, and she said perhaps–perhaps she would marry him if he would let her dance on the tightrope above Niagara with him–a husband-and-wife act.

Blondin said, “No.” He was afraid Adah’s beauty would distract him when he was above the whirlpool and he would fall to his death. No, he would do no tightrope act with the Menken. So they went on a vaudeville tour together.

That tour ended and Blondin went his way and Adah went hers, and hers led to the door of her business manager, Jimmie Murdock. Adah told Jimmie, who adored her, that she wanted to be a great tragedienne–or a great comedienne–or both. She wanted to play Lady Macbeth. and–or–Lady Teazle. Jimmie Murdock, something of a diplomat, told her she was too great to play Lady Treazle and not great enough to play Lady Macbeth, but that, because her boyish figure was so lovely and there was such fire in her voice and eyes, she should play in Mazeppa, the drama that was attracting some attention on Broadway. The story was based on the poem of Lord Byron. At the thrilling climax of the play, the noble Tartar lad, stripped of his clothes by his captors and bound to the back of a wild horse, dashed out of the wings up to the papier-mâché cliffs and disappeared in the clouds, while the audience grew hysterical with apoplectic applause.

It had been a tradition that during the ride of the barebacked horse, a stuffed dummy, naked and resembling Mazeppa, would be used. Menken would have no stuffed dummy. She would ride the horse herself. She would wear skin-tights. No matter how it shocked the audience that had never seen an actress in tights, she would play the role with dramatic realism; she would wear tights. So she wore tights. The audience was shocked–scandalized–horrified–and delighted! But New York was too stilted, too smug, too proper truly to appreciate great art. And Adah Menken said, “I’ll go to the one place where the audience demands real art; I’ll go to San Francisco.”

On August 24, 1863, that supreme master of San Francisco’s theatrical history, Tom Maguire, announced and presented at Maguire’s Opera House the great Menken in the daring, the sensational, the unprecedented Mazeppa in which “Miss Menken, stripped by her captors, will ride a fiery steed at furious gallop onto and across the stage and into the distance.”

According to the San Francisco papers of the next day, that night all the streets leading to Maguire’s Opera House were thronged with the most elegant of the city’s elite.

Ladies in diamonds and furs rode up in handsome carriages; gentlemen in opera capes and silk hats were their attendants. It was a first night such as the city had never before seen. And when (again quoting the San Francisco papers), at climax of the play, the Menken vaulted to the back of her full-blooded California mustang and, clad tights with hair streaming down her back, raced her steed at mad pace across the mountains of Tartary, the enthusiasm of the audience was a mad frenzy never to be forgotten. So thrilling was the performance that it was said that on the opening night the leading man, Junius Booth–brother of Edwin–stood in the wings and completely forgot his lines.

Among the young men in the audience that night, and night after night that followed, were the three friends–Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and Charles Warren Stoddard. And these three, and scores of others, fall in love with Adah Menken, and it was even whispered that she was lavish with her love in return. But of all her admirers, she smiled on the young American humorist, Robert Henry Newell, and he became her third husband.

Bohemian San Francisco took Adah Menken to its gay and ample bosom, She was an actress and it loved actresses; she was a painter, and it loved artists; and, above all, she was a poetess, and it adored poets and poetesses. wherever you went, to whomever you talked, the two favorite topics of conversation in San Francisco–topics of equal importance –were the progress of the Civil War and the success of Adah Isaacs Menken.

Her fame increased. Imitators sprang up. In fact, one of these was Big Bertha, the circus fat lady who had played Juliet opposite Oofty Goofty’s Romeo at the Bella Union. Big Bertha played Mazeppa in pink tights, strapped to the back of a donkey. But one night the donkey, with huge Bertha astride him fell over the footlights into the theater pit, and the career of Bertha as Mazeppa ended.

Adah Menken’s marriage to Robert Newell lasted two years. Then she divorced him and married Mr. James Barkley about whom little is known. After all, none of her husbands was important in the life of Adah Menken.

And San Francisco went on adoring her, the San Francisco that had adopted her as its favorite daughter. The St. Francis Hook and Ladder Company made her a member of its fire-fighting brigade; she was presented with a beautiful fire belt, and the entire brigade, accompanied by a brass band, serenaded her. Her world was at her feet.

And then, quite suddenly the Menken decided she wanted new worlds to conquer. She took Mazeppa to Paris and London. During the tour she fell in love with, and was adored by, Alexandre Dumas, pére. Dumas, fils, threatened to horsewhip his father for being a senile Romeo. So Menken left Dumas and went to London.

She played Mazeppa, and London went wild. Charles Dickens fell in love with her; Charles Reade fell in love with her; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tom Hood, and a score of others wooed her. And, as always, the Menken was generous with her love. Life was full and rich and exciting.

But the tide turned. Ill health, the fruit of dissipation, wasted her away. She had made a fortune; her great wealth disappeared, and she lived in comparative poverty. In London, desperately in need of funds, she published her volume of Victorian poems and realized a few dollars.

London was cold, unfriendly. She returned to Paris and Paris had found new loves.

Faithful to her adopted religion, she spent her last hours speaking of life and faith and hope to a friendly rabbi. Then she wrote a brief note to an acquaintance. It was her hail and her farewell. She wrote, “I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.”

Then she died. She was thirty-three years old. Her passing was unmarked, save for a brief eulogy in verse that appeared in a Paris paper:

Ungrateful animals, mankind;
Walking his rider’s hearse behind,
Mourner-in-chief her horse appears,
But where are all her cavaliers?

John Heenan was one of the most famous and popular figures in America at the time, particularly on the east coast and especially in New York, his home town. The press were quick to point this out as they continued to accuse her of marrying solely to maintain her celebrity status. However, everyone that knew her well said that she genuinely loved the gregarious and outgoing Heenan.She played “Mister Bones,” a minstrel character, and impersonated Edwin Booth as Hamlet and Richelieu. She performed with Blondin, a Niagara Falls tightrope walker. Her provocative stage performance, strapped to a horse bareback, wearing only tights in Mazeppa, helped establish her reputation as a scandalous figure. On August 24, 1863, the master of San Francisco theater, Tom McGuire presented Mazeppa with Miss Menken. She later became Mrs. Robert Henry Newel. Even later she became Mrs. James Barkley. The probable facts of her life were not established until 1938.

She went to perform in Paris, France and was romanced by Alexandre Dumas, père. She went to London, England, and was wooed by Charles Reade, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Tom Hood, and became a friend to Charles Dickens. Rosetti is said to have offered her ten pounds to seduce Swinburne away from his fetish for flagellation, but that after six weeks she admitted defeat and returned the money.[1][2]

Later, in ill health, she wrote to a friend, “I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.” She died at the age of thirty-three in Paris, France in 1868 and is interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

Research material:

Walt Whitman: A Life By Justin Kaplan