Picture a Boston evening in the late fall: children are running up and down the streets in costumes asking for treats; there is cheering and celebration in the air. Is this a typical New England Halloween evening? No, it is Pope’s Night, a holiday celebrated in the British colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Originally a somber commemoration designed to reinforce the stability of Protestant values and the British monarchy, Pope’s Night shifted into a raucous celebration when it came to the American colonies, as working class citizens of New England were given a night to revel and make their voices heard.
Pope’s Night evolved from an English celebration called Guy Fawkes Day. This holiday commemorated the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by the Catholic Guy Fawkes and others to assassinate the Protestant King James I and replace him with a Catholic monarch who would ostensibly be more loyal to the Pope. Guy Fawkes Day was first officially recognized with the Thanksgiving Act of 1605, calling for a public day of thanksgiving and church attendance, with those in attendance asked “to abide orderly and soberly during the Time of said Prayers, Preaching or other Services of God” (Barker and Bill 1636). The Protestant majority of England quickly took to this, and the holiday soon became a celebratory affair as fireworks and bonfires were introduced to celebrate the end of the plot, and the longevity of the Monarchy and Parliament. These are the practices English settlers took with them when they colonized North America.
The first recorded instance of Pope’s Night in what is now Massachusetts occurred in 1623 when a group of rowdy sailors in Plymouth colony created a bonfire. The bonfire quickly grew out of control and set fire to several neighboring homes. This dangerous behavior would define Pope’s Night in the 18th century, despite occasional efforts by the authorities to suppress potentially harmful activities. Pope’s Night spread down the coast to other Protestant British colonies, but the most attention historically has been on how the festivities grew on the New England coast.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the events surrounding Pope’s Night became formalized in Boston. Extravagant effigies, which often consisted of comical and exaggerated images of the Pope, the Devil, and occasionally the Catholic prince James Stewart, would replace and supplement the traditional bonfires. The main draw of the day was a massive parade of these effigies. In Boston these celebrations were split down geographical lines. The city had been informally divided into two sections: the South End, which was everything south of the Mill Pond, and the North End, which was everything north of it. Both sides formed gangs of working class boys and young men, and every November these gangs marched their effigies through Boston. These gangs represented some of the lowest social classes of Boston, comprised of young workers, apprentices, sailors, and laborers.
Preceding these gangs were groups of children parading through the streets with miniature versions of the effigies, a macabre precursor to later holiday parades in the United States. The gangs would also seek donations from wealthier citizens of Boston as an attempt to defray the costs of the festivities. There was an unsaid threat of violence to homes and valuables if donations were not provided. When the two gangs inevitably collided, they would fight to try to seize the other side’s effigy. If the North End gang won this fight, the effigies would be dragged to Copp’s Hill and burned; if the South End won, Boston Common was the effigies’ final resting place.
Understandably, these often were violent affairs. As participant Isaiah Thomas wrote, “Hostilities soon commenced … In those battles stones, brickbats, besides clubs were freely used and altho’ persons were seldom killed, yet broken heads were not infrequent” (Cogliano 1993). Sadly, there were some casualties during Pope’s Night events. In one incident in 1764, a young boy was killed after being run over by a cart. Incidentally, that year was the only year the South End gang succeeded in protecting their effigy.
By 1765, Pope’s Night had taken on a proto-revolutionary note. The Stamp Act had been passed in March of that year and had been met with widespread protests in the American cities, including Boston. Viewed as an unprecedented direct tax on the colonists, this “taxation without representation” was met with a united resolve. Even members of the rival South and North End gangs were brought together under their respective leaders Ebenezer Mackintosh and Samuel Swift. Mackintosh and his gang had been used several times in the summer of 1765 in protests against the Stamp Act. They were notably involved in destroying the home of Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Mackintosh himself was a familiar figure on Pope’s Night, known for being “attired in a blue and gold uniform and a lace hat bearing a rattan cane and a speaking trumpet” (Cogliano 1993) — a mockery of upper class fashions that aligned with the anti-aristocratic feel of Pope’s Night. The extravagant appearances of the effigies themselves mocked perceived Catholic wealth and arrogance. On November 5th, 1765, both North and South End gangs marched through Boston with a unified purpose, bringing with them what was called a ‘union pope.’ This act foreshadowed the years of Bostonian resistance of what they viewed as Parliament’s encroachment on their rights and liberties.
The Stamp Act Protests marked the beginning of the end for Pope’s Night, which came to an unceremonious end in the mid 1770s as the American Revolution began. Seeking the aid of Catholic allies in Canada, General George Washington wrote in 1775 that “As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause…” (Washington 1775). This declaration, and the war to follow, severed the remaining ties Boston had to the holiday celebrating the British Parliament and monarchy. While Pope’s Night celebrations continued in some nearby cities such as Portsmouth, NH well into the 1800’s, this marked the end of the holiday in Boston.
Samuel Zeiberg is a graduate of Suffolk University with a BS in History & Theatre Studies. Samuel has worked at various historic sites in Boston, including Old North Church & Historic Site, the Freedom Trail Foundation, and the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. He enjoys the chance to share the history of Boston with the public.
Barker, Robert, and John Bill. 1636. Prayers And Thanksgiving To Be Vsed By All The Kings Maiesties Louing Subiects, For The Happy Deliuerance Of His Maiestie, The Qveen, Prince, And States Of The Parliament, From The Most Traiterous And Bloody Intended Massacre By Gun-Powder, The Fift Of Nouember, 1605. Imprinted at London: By Robert Barker, printer to the Kings most excellent Maiestie: and by the Assignes of Iohn Bill.
Bell, J.L. 2006. “How Pope Night Died And Was Reborn”. Boston1775.Blogspot.Com. http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2006/11/how-pope-night-died-and-was-reborn.html.
Bell, J.L. 2006. “Pope Night In Boston”. Boston1775.Blogspot.Com. http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2006/11/pope-night-in-boston.html.
Cogliano, F. (1993). Deliverance from Luxury: Pope’s Day, Conflict and Consensus in Colonial Boston, 1745-1765. Studies in Popular Culture, 15(2), 15-28. Retrieved October 17, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23413956
Du Simitière, Pierre. 1767. Drawing Of Boston Pope’s Day, 1767.. Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Hindus, M. (1971). A City of Mobocrats and Tyrants: Mob Violence in Boston, 1747-1863. Issues in Criminology, 6(2), 55-83. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42909637
McConville, Brendan. “Pope’s Day Revisited, ‘Popular’ Culture Reconsidered.” Explorations in Early American Culture 4 (2000): 258-80. Accessed October 21, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23549302.
“Pope Night, Or Colonial New England’S Version Of Halloween”. 2019. New England Historical Society. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/george-washington-use-pope-night/.
South end forever cut North end forever. Extraordinary verses on Pope-night. or, A commemoration the fifth of November, giving a history of the attempt, made by the papishes, to blow up king and Parliament, A. D. Together with some accou. Boston, 1768. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.03602800/.
Tager, Jack, Ruth Owen Jones, and Gordana Rabrenovic. 2001. Boston Riots: Three Centuries Of Social Violence. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Thomas, Isaiah. “Memoir”
Washington, George. 1775. General Orders For 5 Nov 1775.
South End Forever, North end Forever: A woodcut depicting Pope’s Night celebrations in the North and South Ends of Boston, as well as verse describing the events.
Pope’s Night 1767: An image depicting what a Pope’s Night effigy would have looked like in Boston in 1767.