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Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Dressed Up in the Most Grotesque and Fantastic Manner" - Pope's Night

We at Historical Nerdery would like to apologize for our absence over the past few weeks.  We’ve been busy with an awesome side project promoting Newburyport’s heritage through a walking tour.  You can check out our project over at Untapped History.  

Better yet, in the spirit of unabashed self promotion...why not book a tour with us?!?

Self promotion aside, our friends at Revolution250 Boston have been hard at work researching the events surrounding the 1767 “Pope’s Night” celebration, which was clearly influenced by the political and economic tensions surrounding the Townsend Duties.  

So what was Pope’s Night (also known as Pope's Day)?  Each year in 18th Century England, November 5th was celebrated as Guy Fawkes' Day.  The holiday commemorated the thwarting of the “Gunpowder Plot” to overthrow King James I in 1605. In New England, during colonial times, the annual commemoration became known as Pope's Day, and had quickly evolved into an anti-Catholic celebration. Effigies of the Devil, Pope, and government officials were fought over by rival mobs and eventually burned in a huge bonfire at Copp's Hill in Boston.



Violence was commonplace and death a possibility during Boston celebrations.  John Boyle noted in his journal that on November 5,1764 “a Child of Mr. Brown's at the North-End was run over by one of the Wheels of the North-End Pope and Killed on the Spot. Many others were wounded in the evening.”  John Rowe also recorded the violence of the 1764 celebrations.  “1764 Nov. 5. A sorrowful accident happened this forenoon at the North End — the wheel of the carriage that the Pope was fixed on run over a Boy's head & he died instantly. The Sheriff, Justices, Officers of the Militia were ordered to destroy both S° & North End Popes. In the afternoon they got the North End Pope pulled to pieces, they went to the S° End but could not Conquer upon which the South End people brought out their pope & went in Triumph to the Northward and at the Mill Bridge a Battle begun between the people of Both Parts of the Town. The North End people having repaired their pope, but the South End people got the Battle (many were hurt & bruised on both sides) & Brought away the North End pope & burnt Both of them at the Gallows on the Neck. Several thousand people following them, hallowing &ct.”

However, not all Pope Day celebrations ended in gang brawls, death or destruction.  According to an account published in the November 7, 1765 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette.

“Tuesday last being the Anniversary of the Commemoration of the happy Deliverance of the English Nation from the Popish Plot, commonly called The Powder Plot, the Guns at Castle William and at the Batteries in Town were fired at one o’clock; as also on board the Men of War in the Harbour.  It has long been the Custom in this Town on the Fifth of November for Numbers of Persons to exhibit on Stages some Pageantry, denoting their Abhorrence of POPERY and the horrid Plot which was to have been executed on that Day in the Year 1605; these Shews of late Years has been continued in the Evening, and we have often seen the bad Effects attending them at such a time; the Servants and Negroes would disguise themselves, and being armed with clubs would engage each other with great Violence, whereby many came off badly wounded; in short they carried it to such Lengths that two Parties were created in the Town, under the Apellation of North-End and South-End: But the Disorders that had been committed from Time to Time induced several Gentlemen to try a Reconciliation between the two Parties; accordingly the Chiefs met on the First of this Instant, and conducted that Affair in a very orderly Manner; in the Evening the Commander of the South entered into a Treaty with the Commander of the North, and after making several Overtures they reciprocally engaged on a UNION, and the former Distinctions to subside; at the same Time the Chiefs with their Assistants engaged upon their Honor no Mischiefs should arise by their Means, and that they would prevent and Disorders, on the 4th.  When the Day arrived the Morning was all Quietness, about Noon the Pageantry, representing the Pope, Devil, and several other Effigies signifying Tyranny, Oppression, Slavery, were brought on Stages from the North and South, and met in King [State] Street, where the Union was established in a very ceremonial Manner, and having given three Huzzas, they interchanged Ground, the South marched to the North, and the North to the South, parading thro' the Streets until they again met near the Court House: The whole then proceeded to the Tree of Liberty, under the Shadow of which they refreshed themselves for a while, and then retreated to the Northward, agreeable to their Plan; – they reached Copp's Hill before 6 o’clock, where they halted, and having enkindled a Fire, the whole Pageantry was committed to the Flames and consumed: This being finished every person was requested to retire to their respective Homes – It must be noticed to the Honor of all those concerned in this business that every thing was conducted in a most regular manner, and such Order observed as could hardly be expected among a concourse of several thousand people – all seemed to be joined, agreeable to their principal Motto Levely Unity – The Leaders, Mr. McIntoth form the South, and Mr. Swift from the North, appeared in Military Habits, with small canes resting on their left arms, having music in Front and Flank; their assistants appeared also distinguished with small reeds, then the respective Corps followed, among whom were a great Number of Persons in Rank: These with the Spectators filled the Streets; not a Club was seen among the whole, nor was any Negro allowed to approach near the Stages; - after the Conflagration the Populace retired, and the Town remained the whole Night in better Order than it had ever been on this Occasion. – Many Gentlemen feeing the Affair so well conducted, contributed to make up a handsome Purse to entertain those that carried it on - This Union, and one other more extensive, may be look'd upon as the (perhaps the only) happy Effects arising from the S-p A-t."


The celebrations were not confined to Boston.  In fact, Pope's Day was popular in several seaports of New England. Prominent celebrations were held in Marblehead, Newburyport, Salem, Newport and  Portsmouth. In 1702, Marbleheaders met the Fifth of November with a bull baiting.  The meat was then distributed to the poor.  The Rev. Ezra Stiles described Newport’s Pope Day in 1771.  "Powder Plot, — Pope &ct carried about;" and again on November 5, 1774, he says, "This Afternoon three popes &ct. paraded thro' the streets, & in the Evening they were consumed in a Bonfire as usual — among others were Ld. North, Gov. Hutchinson & Gen. Gage."  John Adams described November 5th activities in Salem.  “Spent the evening at Mr. Pynchon's, with Farnham, 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.”

Newburyport appears to have had its own elaborate celebration.  As outlined in Joshua Coffin's A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury (1835) “In the day time, companies of little boys might be seen, in various parts of the town, with their little popes, dressed up in the most grotesque and fantastic manner, which they carried about, some on boards, and some on little carriages, for their own and others' amusement. But the great exhibition was reserved for the night, in which young men, as well as boys, participated. They first constructed a huge vehicle, varying at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the lights, five or six persons. Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope, and several other personages, monks, friars and so forth. Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could desire. Their next step, after they had mounted their ponderous vehicle on four wheels, chosen their officers, captain, first and second lieutenant, purser and so forth, placed a boy under the platform, to elevate and move round, at proper intervals, the moveable head of the pope, and attached ropes to the front part of the machine, was, to take up their line of march through the principal streets of the town. Some times in addition to the images of the pope and his company, there might be found, on the same platform, half a dozen dancers and a fiddler, whose together with a large crowd who made up a long procession. Their custom was, to call at the principal houses in various parts of the town, ring their bell, cause the pope to elevate his head, and look round upon the audience, and repeat the following lines . . . After the verses were repeated, the purser stepped forward and took up his collection. Nearly all on whom they called, gave something. Esquire Atkins and Esquire Dalton, always gave a dollar apiece. After peram bulating the town, and finishing their collections, they concluded their evening's entertainment with a splendid supper; after making with the exception of the wheels and the heads of the effigies, a bonfire of the whole concern, to which were added, all the wash tubs, tar barrels, and stray lumber, that they could lay their hands on. With them the custom was, to steal all the stuff.”

Interestingly enough, Newburyport clamped down on the use of effigies and displays during the  Pope’s Night celebrations of 1774.  That year, the town voted “that no effigies be carried about or exhibited on the fifth of November only in the day time.”  When France entered the American Revolution, Newburyport did away completely with the anti-Catholic celebration.

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