J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Pope Night in Newbury, Massachusetts

In the pre-Revolutionary decades, New Englanders (and, Prof. Brendan McConville has told me, folks in some parts of New Jersey) celebrated the Fifth of November—called Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes' Day in England—as "Pope Night" or "Pope Day." This detailed description of the celebration comes from Joshua Coffin's A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, published in 1835.

In the day time, companies of little boys might be seen, in various parts of the town, with their little popes, dressed up in the most grotesque and fantastic manner, which they carried about, some on boards, and some on little carriages, for their own and others’ amusement. But the great exhibition was reserved for the night, in which young men, as well as boys, participated.

They first constructed a huge vehicle, varying, at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the light, five or six persons. Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope and several other personages, monks, friars, and so forth.

Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could devise.

Their next step, after they had mounted their ponderous vehicle on four wheels, chosen their officers, captain, first and second lieutenant, purser, and so forth, placed a boy under the platform, to elevate and move round, at proper intervals, the movable head of the pope, and attached ropes to the front part of the machine, was, to take up their line of march through the principal streets of the town.

Sometimes, in addition to the images of the pope and his company, there might be found on the same platform, half a dozen dancers, and a fiddler, whose
‘Hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels,’
together with a large crowd, who made up a long procession.

Their custom was, to call at the principal houses in various parts of the town, ring their bell, cause the pope to elevate their head, and look round upon the audience, and repeat the following lines.
‘The fifth of November,
As you well remember,
Was gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.
When the first king James the sceptre swayed,
The hellish powder plot was laid.
Thirty-six barrels of powder placed down below,
All for old England’s overthrow:
Happy the man, and happy the day,
That caught Guy Fawkes in the middle of his play.
You’ll hear our bell go jink, jink, jink;
Pray madam, sirs, if you’ll something give,
We’ll burn the dog, and never let him live.
We’ll burn the dog without his head,
And then you’ll say the dog is dead.
From Rome, from Rome, the pope is come.
All in ten thousand fears;
The fiery serpents’ to be seen,
All head, mouth, nose, and ears.
The treacherous knave had so contrived,
To blow king parliament all up alive.
God by his grace he did prevent
To save both king and parliament.
Happy the man, and happy the day,
That caught Guy Fawkes in the middle of his play.
Match touch, catch prime,
Is the good nick of time.
Here is the pope that we have got,
The whole promoter of the plot.
We’ll stick a pitchfork in his back,
And throw him in the fire.’
After the verses were repeated, the purser stepped forward, and took up his collection. Nearly all on whom they called, gave something. . . . After perambulating the town, and finishing their collections, they concluded their evening’s entertainment with a splendid supper; after making, with the exception of the wheels, and the heads of the effigies, a bonfire of the whole concern, to which were added, all the wash tubs, tar barrels, and stray lumber, that they could lay their hands on.
TOMORROW: How Boston's Pope Night was different.

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