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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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Isaiah Thomas’s “Large Bump”

In mid-1700s North America, British subjects celebrated the 5th of November, or Pope Night, up and down the coast. But young Bostonians observed the holiday with particular fervor. Only in that town, it appears, were there enough boys and enough anti-Catholic fervor for the celebrants to split into two large rival gangs, the North-enders and the South-enders.

Instead of all the youth parading with one big wagon carrying the effigies of Pope and Devil, as the teen-aged boys of other New England towns did, Boston boys had two big processions (and probably a few small ones, too). The North-enders tried to interfere with the South-enders’ parade, and vice versa.

In the evening, the two processions met in the middle of town. The two gangs fought, each trying to grab the other’s paraphernalia to add to its own bonfire. In 1764 a young boy was killed in the melée, his head crushed by a wagon wheel.

Good times.

A few years earlier, another boy was nearly killed before he had the chance to grow up into an important Patriot publisher and antiquarian. Here’s how that incident was described in the biographical (and phrenological) introduction to Isaiah Thomas’s History of Printing in North America. Isaiah was about nine or ten, already apprenticed to printer Zechariah Fowle:

our little printer, with a large bump of curiosity and a small one of caution, pressed through the crowd to read the labels on the lanterns [on the Pope Night wagons]. A brick aimed at the lantern, lighted on his head and struck him to the ground.

The chances were for the little fellow to be trampled to death by the rushing crowd, but as his good fortune or a kind Providence would have it, the first man whose foot struck him, hearing his groans lifted him up, and persons coming around with lights, one of them recognized him, took him in his arms, and carried him to his master’s house.

A surgeon being sent for, it was found that no bone was broken, and in a few days he was able to return to his types. Such is in substance the account given by Mr. Thomas in later years.
Read more about how colonial Bostonians celebrated the 5th of November here.

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