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, 2020

Peeking in on Pope Night in 1770

Earlier this fall, Boston 1775 reader David Churchill Barrow asked me what Pope Night was like in Boston in 1770, 250 years ago today.

After all, that loud, political, and occasionally violent 5th of November holiday fell in between the first two trials for the Boston Massacre. The Whigs were offering people plenty of reasons to be angry at Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the Customs Commissioners. There were no soldiers stationed in town to stamp out disorder (not that they’d stopped riots the previous fall).

Hutchinson himself acknowledged the likelihood of unrest when he wrote to his boss in the Colonial Office, the Earl of Hillsborough, on 26 October. Commenting on how Massachusetts had mostly calmed down, he said:
Even in Boston there is a more favorable appearance & I shall advise the Commissioners of the Customs to leave the Castle after the 5th of November when we must expect some degree of Riot and to hold their Board in Town or if they prefer it near the Town.
So what actually happened on Pope Night in 1770? Which hated figures were hanged in effigy? Who was the target of nasty slogans on the giant lanterns?

To judge by surviving sources, the 1770 holiday was mostly staid, and no one bothered to record details about the youths’ processions. Richard Draper’s 8 November Boston News-Letter reported:
Monday last being the Anniversary of the happy Deliverance of the English Nation from the Popish Plot,—Divine Service was performed at King’s Chappel, and a Semon on the Occasion was preached by the Rev’d Dr. [Henry] Caner.

At twelve o’clock the Guns were fired at the Batteries in this Town:—At one o’ clock those at Castle William were fired, and on board his Majesty’s Ships, Frigates, &c. in this Harbour.

Just as the Guns were firing at one o’clock a Ship newly built, belonging to John Hancock, Esq; was launched at Mr. [Moses] Tyler’s Yard at the North-End.

A Number of Pageants customary on the 5th of November, was carried through the principal Streets, by some of the young People of the Town, and in the Evening Bonfires were made of the Pageantry.
The Boston Gazette and Boston Evening-Post reprinted those remarks. The Massachusetts Spy said nothing.

Merchant John Rowe usually mentioned Pope Night in his diary, but not in 1770. Young printer John Boyle noted the death of Gov. Sir Francis Bernard’s son but not the holiday. Other diarists likewise wrote nothing of the celebrations that year.

All that suggests that Pope Night 1770 was peaceful. How did a date that had been raucous only a few years earlier appear so tame in a year with so many enemies to resent?

The explanation, I think, is precisely because those Massacre trials were still going on. They put the town on its best behavior. Politicians probably spread the word that inhabitants had to show the rest of the British Empire how they were patriotic and peaceful, not riotous zealots. Mobs could not be seen as undercutting the local court system, prejudicing jurymen, or threatening officials with violence.

Therefore, the processions were probably tame. There was no fight between the North End and South End gangs before the bonfires. The newspapers emphasized Boston’s patriotism and commerce, treating the customary “Pageants” as an afterthought.

For more about the roots of Pope Night and its role in Boston’s Revolution, especially in more interesting years, check out my online talk to Boston by Foot tonight.

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