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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Monday, November 06, 2006

Pope Night in Boston

In Boston "Pope Night," the 5th of November, was based around the same rituals as Pope Night in Newbury, described yesterday. Young men and older boys constructed a wagon that displayed moving effigies of the Pope, the Stuart Pretender, various devils, and political enemies—basically a parade float. The youths dressed up in various ways: as devils, in tall pointed caps, some as women. They paraded through town to collect money from various homeowners and finished the night with an informal outdoor banquet and a bonfire of all but the most valuable pieces of their floats (the wagon wheels and the effigies' carved and painted heads).

In Boston, however, there was a crucial difference. Boston was so much larger than any other town that celebrated Pope Night this way—4,109 white males under age sixteen, according to the 1765 census—that it could produce at least two large processions. And when there were two rival groups of excited young men and teenaged boys, there was violence.

Pope Night in Boston became the main battleground for the "North End" and "South End" gangs, divided by the Mill Creek. Each gang built its own Pope wagon and then did its best to invade its rivals' territory. The introduction to the second edition of The History of Printing in America, by Isaiah Thomas (shown above), describes the scene:

through a speaking trumpet the order was given to "move on." With this the noise and tumult began, the blowing of conch shells, whistling through the fingers, beating with clubs the sides of the houses, cheering, huzzaing, swearing, and rising about all the din the cry "North end forever" or "South end forever."
When one gang's Pope wagon entered the rival part of town, young locals threw rocks at it. Once the North End wagon got all the way down to Essex Street. That Pope Night was particularly memorable for young Thomas and his family because he went too close to the wagon and was knocked out by a brick.

The gangs developed a tradition to meet with their Pope wagons at Mill Creek after dark and duke it out. Each side tried to seize the other's paraphernalia. The victorious youths would drag away their rivals' work and burn it on their favored spot: Copp's Hill for the North-enders, the Common for the South-enders.

During one of these brawls a wheel came off the South End wagon, and burly young Henry Knox earned his neighbors' respect by shouldering that corner of the vehicle until it could be pulled away. In 1764, this local tradition finally turned fatal: a young boy fell under a wagon, and it ran over his skull.

The following November, the town was on edge because anti-Stamp Act riots in August had led to attacks on several officials' houses. Whig leaders didn't want Boston to get an even worse reputation for violence, so they convinced the North End and South End gang leaders to skip the traditional Pope Night activities. Instead of building wagons and fighting, the town's youth paraded together to show their united opposition to the Stamps, then sat down to a banquet provided by wealthy merchants.

Many histories of the early Revolutionary movement in Boston describe that occasion, and therefore have to mention the Pope Night brawls of earlier years. That has made the gang fights seem like an integral part of Pope Night, but, as the account from Newbury shows, the brawls were a Boston anomaly. Already the town was dividing itself into neighborhoods.

TOMORROW: Pope Night politics.

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