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 03, 2010

Henry Knox on Pope Night

In the 1840s Charles Daveis was an official with the Society of the Cincinnati in Maine. He started to collect information for a biography of Gen. Henry Knox, a founder of that hereditary order who had settled in Maine (on land grants his wife Lucy had inherited from her Loyalist father).

One of the stories Daveis tried to track down involved Knox and the raucous celebration of patriotism and anti-Catholicism that Bostonians called “Pope Night.” On 21 July 1848 a Cambridge man named George Ingersoll sent Daveis a letter setting down a story he had heard from another man named Charles Hayward:

The South & North ends of Boston were, in old times, (that is that exceedgly wise & important [?] portion of the Population the boys) in decided and unceasing opposition to each other. In celebration of that immortal day the fifth of Nov. each Party had its Pope accompanied by the “gentleman in black”—there were thus the South End Pope & the North End Pope.

These two parties always continued to meet at some half way spot where a regular fight ensued (an annual battle)—which lasted until one Party drove off the other & took possession of its Pope—the victorious Party then took both Popes to some particular place—generally the Mill Pond, & then burnt them both together.

On the present occasion, one of the wheels which supported the Platform of the South End Pope came off—or broke down—this, of course, would tend to Slide off his Holiness into the Street or at least compel him to lower his head before the rival Pope which would be regarded as a Sign of Submission.

To prevent this awful catastrophe, Knox immediately placed his Shoulder under the platform & kept the Sacred image erect until the fight was over. Which way the victory turnd Mr. Hayward does not remember.

Knox at the time was not—properly speaking—a boy, but rather as Mr. Chamberlain said, a dashing young man, about 18 or so. The belligerents—by the way—on these occasions were not by any means mere boys only, but were composed also of young men.

The South End Party was then commanded by a certain Abraham Foley—usually known as Niddy-Noddy, a nickname given him from a peculiar motion of the head. This man afterwards became a Servant and at last died in the Hospital [i.e., was poor and possibly insane]. Knox as Pope man was Subject to his orders—among others of the South End Party. And here, as the Showman says, is the illustration which the anecdote affords—Foley the comander, dying in the Hospital—Knox, the dashing young man, at last the Major-General.
Over the next two years, Daveis collected similar versions of this anecdote from Hayward and from yet another man, Charles Knapp. They guessed the event had taken place in the early 1770s, but if Knox had indeed been “about 18 or so,” it would have been in the late 1760s. Ebenezer Mackintosh is well documented as the South End captain in 1764-65, but he may well have yielded the position later in the decade.

Daveis never finished his Knox biography. He left his papers to another man with the same goal, Joseph Willard—who also didn’t finish. Eventually Francis S. Drake used their research in his Life and Correspondence of Henry Knox, published in 1873. The Daveis-Willard material is now at the Massachusetts Historical Society.


DAG said...

Thank you Mr. Bell for this posting on Henry Knox.
I have always found Henry Knox interesting for both his participation and for what he was able to accomplish for his newly founded country. And Pope Night is an event which has always interested me.
My question is that after having read several books by Francis Drake I wonder how his writings are considered by an historian such as yourself. Are his writings considered factually accurate?

I have found archive.org on a wonderful site on which to read or download some of the older historical writings.

Thank you again Mr. Bell

J. L. Bell said...

In some respects I find Francis Drake’s biography of Knox to be more reliable than the later ones by Brooks, Callahan, and Puls because it avoids some of the legends that grew up later. We don’t have good documentation about Knox until he joined the Continental Army, and his biographers have tended to be popular writers printing the legends instead of skeptical academics. I think Knox was talented and important enough to stand up to skepticism. (Allen Taylor’s Liberty Men and Great Proprietors does some of that with Knox’s later career in Maine.)

As for Francis S. Drake more generally, I think his Tea Leaves was quite uncritical in the Tea Party stories it printed. But he wasn’t quite so fond of a good anecdote, hang the details, as his contemporary Samuel A. Drake. I use both as pointers to contemporaneous documents, and if I can’t find support for the stories they print then I evaluate them based on what else I’ve read. So their books have value, but are not always reliable. (Like a lot of other people’s books as well.)

John L. Smith said...

JB - Yes, I found some errors and possible "narrative fabrications" the Puls book from just a couple of years ago. As always, in your blog essays, you look at the evidence and historical facts...or say that none exists! Good job as always!