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 05, 2018

“Popes and bonfires, this evening at Salem”

On 5 Nov 1768, 250 years ago today, Boston’s apprentice printers issued this broadside, one of the most elaborate surviving artifacts of the holiday they called Pope Night.

The top of their broadside says, “South End Forever. North End Forever.” Under bibliographic rules, that’s become the title of the sheet, even though its creators probably thought their publication was “Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night.”

Someone worked hard on the long poem that followed—so hard they didn’t remember that the 5th of November commemorated an event in 1605, not 1588.

That broadside highlights how in the mid-1700s Boston observed the 5th of November differently from every other New England seaport. Only in Boston was the youth population large enough, and the neighborhood pride fervent enough, for there to be rival Pope processions that ended up brawling. Other seaports had one main procession followed by a feast and a bonfire, with no intervening violence.

In the 1760s Boston’s town leaders worked hard to reconcile the South End and North End gangs against the common enemy of royal officials and Parliament’s new revenue-raising laws. That’s how he get this broadside celebrating both ends of town equally.

Here’s Donna Seger’s discussion of the 5th of November in Salem from her Streets of Salem blog last year:
…it is to our second President [John Adams] that we owe the first reference to Pope Night in Salem, long before he became our second President. When he was attending court in Salem he made the following note in his diary for November 5, 1766:
Spent the evening at Mr. Pynchon’s [on Summer Street–a house that is still with us but much changed], with Farnham, [Jonathan] Sewall, Sargeant, Col. Saltonstall &ct. very agreeably. Punch, wine, bread and cheese, apples, pipes and tobacco. Popes and bonfires, this evening at Salem, and a swarm of tumultuous people attending.
Pope Night certainly continued on after the Revolution: I can find references up to 1819 in the Reverend William Bentley’s famous diary. His entry for the 5th of November, 179[5] reads:
Not all the revolutions which have passed over our Country can efface the remembrance of this anniversary. The boys must have their bonfire. But the light of it is going out. We have little concern in powder plots of Kings at this day. . . .
Every other year or so the Reverend makes a Pope Night entry, all of which express his increasing irritation, until his final words on the matter in 1819:
We have had this evening the full proof of the obstinate power of superstition & habit. The 5 of Nov. was celebrated by the ritual & rubric of the English Church for political purposes. The history of the plot against all fact most pertinaciously insisted upon [as real], & the popular celebration, by the carrying about the Pope & the Devil, most zealously encouraged. Tho we have lost all connection with Great Britain & have detected the fraud & the purpose, yet our common people still keep the 5 of Nov. and we had a roaring fire on the Neck on this occasion. We had not the old fashion transportation through the streets, nor the riots & quarrels, but we had enough to shew us that old habits are invincible against all the light which can be offered them.
And after 1820 or so, no other Salem references, save Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Old Times” where Pope Night is something distinctly past.

The “holiday” seems to survive over the nineteenth century in a few other places, namely Marblehead, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, where it became known as Pork Night. I think the boys of Salem transferred all of their mischief and mayhem and bonfire-building energies to two other more American holidays: Halloween and the Fourth of July.
At the start of the twentieth century, Halloween had inherited the Pope Night traditions of bonfires and young people going door to door asking for treats. By the end of the 1900s only the trick-or-treating was left in most of America. These days that tradition seems to vary greatly by neighborhood.

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