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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Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Listening in on Pope Night with The Dollop

A friend alerted me that the Dollop podcast recently cited my name.

The Dollop is a conversation about history between two comedians, Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds. Anthony reads up on a topic and presents the facts to Reynolds, and they both riff on the implications. It’s been going strong since 2014.

In Episode 480 Anthony and Reynolds discuss “Pope Day,” a topic I’ve had a lot to say about. Anthony notes my observation that the 5th of November celebration evolved into Halloween, an observation others have also made. (My main thesis is how the holiday’s overt patriotism licensed the raucous violence.)

All in all, this Dollop episode offers a detailed, grounded introduction to a weird colonial tradition. I’d add two important points about Pope Night in the mid-1700s:
  • Colonial New Englanders were expending all that anti-popery energy when there were no practicing Catholics anywhere closer than Canada. They weren’t really intimidating a local Catholic minority; they were showing off for themselves.
  • By the 1750s the Boston processions added a contemporary villain in place of the Pretender: Adm. John Byng, Charles Paxton, John Mein, and so on. That gave the holiday a link to current politics even before the Stamp Act, and then it grew stronger.
One less conceptual correction involves the leader of the North End gang in 1765. That year’s anti-Stamp protests made Ebenezer Mackintosh, the South End gang’s captain, internationally notorious. His North End counterpart didn’t become a concern for the royal governors or the ministers in London, so all the surviving contemporaneous sources mentioned only his last name: Swift.

For a long time authors decided that must be the most visible man named Swift in pre-Revolutionary Boston: Samuel Swift. He was friendly with the Whigs, especially John Adams.

The fact that Samuel Swift was a political moderate, a Harvard-educated attorney, and fifty years old during the Stamp Act crisis should have made people skeptical that he was the leader of a working-class youth gang. Plus, it turned out he lived on Pleasant Street in the far South End.

In The Boston Massacre (1970), Hiller Zobel argued that a far more likely candidate was Henry Swift, a shipwright. He:
  • was a mechanic, like Mackintosh.
  • was born in 1746, thus in his late teens during the Stamp Act rumbles.
  • lived in the North End.
  • was indicted for rioting after the fatal Pope Night of 1764.
I’ve therefore always named Henry Swift as the North End captain.

However, some books continue to point the finger at Samuel Swift, and the Dollop gents must have relied on those sources. Given the class distinctions in the eighteenth century, I think the genteel attorney would have been horrified to be linked to the Pope Night disorder. Now that’s comedy!

Before leaving the topic of digital appearances, here’s a reminder that History Camp America is coming up this Saturday, 10 July. Registration closes on Thursday.

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