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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Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Danger of Pope Night in 1765

As I described earlier in the week, Boston’s civic leaders were very nervous that the fifth of November in 1765 would bring on a riot. As it usually did.

On that date young British males traditionally observed Guy Fawkes Day or Pope Night by carting around effigies of the nation’s political and religious villains and burning them. Boston’s youth took that patriotic display two steps further than anyone else by dividing into South End and North End gangs and having a big brawl after sunset.

In 1764, one of the Pope Night carts ran over and killed a little boy named Brown, described by different sources as five to nine years old. That happened early in the day, and the holiday proceeded anyway, including the brawl. Tradition, you know.

In the following August, Pope Night rituals spread into the town’s anti-Stamp Act protests: twin effigies hanged and burned, processions through the center of town, bonfires. But instead of just threatening to break windows if householders didn’t treat them well, the crowds broke into three or four mansions and smashed all the furniture.

Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf detained the captain of the South End gang, a shoemaker named Ebenezer Mackintosh, after the riot against Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson on 26 August. But then the town authorities worried that arrest would only rile up the rioters, so they set Mackintosh free. He was prominent in the anti-Stamp demonstrations at Liberty Tree in the following months. But what would he, his comrades, and their cross-town rivals do on Pope Night?

Mackintosh seems to have enjoyed his new role as a political leader and the respect that went with it. He probably appreciated the town leaders’ concerns about keeping Boston’s reputation safe. He definitely appreciated what they offered the gangs if they behaved well.

So Mackintosh made a deal with Henry Swift, captain of the North End gang. The young printer John Boyle described the result: “A Union established between the South and North End Popes. Capt. McIntosh on the Part of the South, and Capt. Swift, on the Part of the North. . . . This Union and one other more extensive [the Stamp Act Congress?], may be looked upon as the only happy Effecte arising from the Stamp Act.”

TOMORROW: A new way to celebrate the fifth of November.

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