Battle of the Bonfires

Salem’s traditional Independence Day eve bonfires were epic, receiving considerable regional and national attention up until the 1950s, peaking with a portfolio of images taken by Life magazine photographer Yale Joel in 1949. I’ve written about these spectacles before, but there is more to say. I have a much better understanding of their chronology now, but I still can’t find evidence of the very first one, which early 20th-century references point to happening in 1814. I do not doubt this date, or even an earlier one, as bonfires go way back in Anglo-American history, through the Armada and Gunpowder Plot commemorations on one side of the Atlantic and Pope’s Day and Revolutionary War festivities on the other, but I wish I could find some confirmation. Actually, I don’t have much information about Salem’s bonfires prior to 1890, but after that year they clearly took off, escalating in size and notoriety over the next decades. There was a decade-long dry spell from 1910, which I assumed (very logically) was due to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but actually predated that catastrophic event by several years. Things start heating up again in 1921, and in the 1920s there were bigger bonfires and crowds with every passing year. There are sporadic bonfires in the 1930s and 1940s, and then after the war the tradition continued into the 1960s (I think!) but it’s a bit hazy.

Bonfires Cabinet Card 1907

A.C. MacKintire cabinet card, c. 1906: these bonfires were BIG.

So here’s a bit more national, regional, and local context for Salem’s Independence Day bonfires, gleaned from a variety of sources, including a local facebook group focused on Salem’s history. Unfortunately no member is old enough to remember the pre-1930 glory days, but the earlier history is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) well-documented.

1. It’s all about the 1890sI’ve noticed this about other aspects of Salem’s history, particularly anything related to tourism: everything intensifies in the 1890s. There are random brief references to Salem’s bonfires before 1890, but in that year the Boston Daily Globe ran a long story under the headline “Old Salem Ablaze. Bonfires on Gallows Hill Lighted the Home of the Witches” which described a frenzied celebration in the streets of Salem on July 3:  from sunset until midnight the principle streets were crowded with men, women, boys and girls, who passed the time in firing crackers, throwing torpedoes and blowing horns. In many ways it was the most noisy demonstration ever made in Salem. At midnight the immense crowd assembled in the vicinity of the highlands to watch the bonfires. On Gallows Hill a pile consisting of over 1000 barrels and boxes, to say nothing of old straw beds and witch hazel crammed into the intersections of the stack was set on fire, making a very handsome sight. The pile was 50 feet high and the flames towered as many feet higher. From 11-1 there was a concert on the hill by the Salem Brass Band. The Broad Street Social Club also had its annual jubilee on the Lookout and its adjacent pasture in the at the head of Broad Street (now the site of Salem Hospital). The 8th Regiment Band gave a concert from 8 to 12:00, interspersed with a exhibition of dissolving views, thrown upon an immense screen (what in the world was this????). At midnight upwards of 1000 barrels were set on fire, making a mountain of flame, which could be seen for miles.

Bonfire 1898 collage

2. Battle of the Bonfires: as the Philadelphia Record article above illustrates, there was a fierce competition in Salem over bonfire blazes, between the Gallows Hill Association which built their pyre on Gallows Hill and the Broad Street Club, which claimed Lookout Hill: this competition led to bigger and bigger bonfires with each passing year. In addition to this internal Salem competition, there was also competition between Salem and other Boston-area cities and towns, particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century. Salem clearly won the Boston battle, and the Gallows Hill guys (succeeded by the Ward Four Social Club and the Ancient Order of Hibernians) took the Salem prize.

Bonfires 1903

Bonfire 1905collage

3. Independence Day was the “most dangerous day of the year”. I’m quoting from an 1865 editorial and a 1935 Department of Agriculture pamphlet, both referencing the death, maiming and disablement associated with the festivities of July 4. During that long period there were repeated attempts by federal and state officials to cut down on the fiery July 4th celebrations, to no avail. On several occasions violence broke out in Salem, most notably in 1909, when a shooting occurred at the Lookout bonfire. Note the description of the scene in the Boston Daily Globe article from the next day: upwards of 75,000 persons witnessed the burning of the stack of railroad sleepers and barrels. Hundreds of boys and men were firing guns and revolvers. There’s a sense that things were getting a bit out of control, which may explain why the bonfires ceased for about a decade at this point.

Bonfire BDG 1909

4. Logistics. I’m amazed that things didn’t get even more out of control, given the composition of the bonfires: barrels of course, which were provided by local businesses, including tanneries, so supposedly they had remnants of combustible materials. Casks, old straw beds, hogsheads, railroad ties and sleepers, wired together and lit afire by torches before 1905, and then: ELECTRICITY. Salem made big news in 1905:  never before in the history of this country was a bonfire started by wireless electricity claimed the Boston Daily Globe, thanks to 18-year-old John J. Brophy, pictured below. Even though the days of the Lookout bonfires were numbered at this point, this was a great victory for the Broad Street Club. One of the few acknowledgements of any potential danger in producing these spectacles concerns ignition: twenty years later there will be a brief attempt to ignite by “radio”.

Bonfire electricity collage

5. 1920s revival. After a break during the nineteen-teens, during which the Great Salem Fire devastated the city and the new Salem Hospital was built on Lookout Hill, the Gallows Hill bonfires resumed under the auspices of the Ward Four Social Club and Ancient Order of Hibernians. The 1922 bonfire was ignited just after midnight ‘the night before’ by the old-fashioned torch method, and not by electricity as one or two of the former fires were started. There is a very conspicuous emphasis on “tradition” and “revival” in all of the coverage of these 1920s bonfires, and this is when you see references to the first bonfire: the organizers of the 1928 bonfire referred to it as the “114th Bonfire”. There was a tremendous response: with crowds reported at 80,000 for Salem’s tercentenary year and nearly as many in 1927. There are a few regional competitors in this decade, but Salem’s bonfire was repeatedly claimed to be “New England’s Biggest”.

Bonfires 1922

Bonfire 1927 collage

Bonfire 1928 Lowell Sun

6. Decline and dispersal. From 1931 to 1951, the Gallows Hill bonfires ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. The Boston Globe coverage of July Fourth festivities in the region shows what happened at the beginning of the era very clearly. In 1931, there was another “huge Salem bonfire stack”, so momentous that it required round-the-clock guards before the big night, while in 1932, both Boston and Salem abandoned their “bonfires of yore” at the onset of the Depression: for the first time in many years, there will be no mammoth stack in Salem. Several places have taken the money to buy railroad ties and cut them into stove lengths to give to the needy when the cold weather arrives. This strikes me as a pretty straightforward illustration of just one little consequence of the decade’s economic crisis! The bonfires resumed from 1937 to 1940, but they were much smaller and Salem was just briefly mentioned along with other communities in a Fourth of July roundup by the local papers. After World War II, everyone wanted to build a big celebratory bonfire, and Salem’s attracted a crowd of 60,000 in 1946, but in the next year (gasp) neighboring Danvers had a bigger stack and a bigger crowd. The Life photographs look a bit memorialistic in this context, but Salem natives tell me that the bonfires continued into the 1950s and early 1960s. What is clear from personal reminiscences is that Gallows Hill was no longer alone from this point on: there were smaller bonfires built in other parts of town: Collins Cove, Dead Horse Beach in the Willows, along the river in North Salem. So the bonfires (and the competition?) continued as an expression of neighborhood and community spirit, tapped down but still very traditional.

Bonfire Depression collage

7. Appendix: is there an (unfortunate) connection between Salem’s famous bonfires and that OTHER big Salem event, resulting in the common misconception—still very much alive today—that the accused witches of 1692 were burned on Gallows Hill?  I can’t tell you how many national headlines I read like the one below!

Bonfire 1928 Text Box

25 responses to “Battle of the Bonfires

  • Carol J. Perry

    The biggest one I remember (in the early fifties) was at Gallows Hill and honored the commissioning of the U.S.S. Salem. It was awsome and ended with a fiery American flag. never figured out how they did that one!

  • Kelly North

    Cool stuff! I love the research you put into all of your posts. Happy Independence Day!

  • Glenn McDonald

    I lived at the top of Albion ST, and as a small child, would watch the bonfires on “the night before the Fourth” from my bedroom window. It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood over the age of 21 was a member of the Gallows Hill Community Club, located on the corner of Butler and Nichols Streets. It was they, who procured the barrels and built the bonfires, and remained ever watchful for ‘those guys from Peabody”, who apparently lived only to torch the Gallows Hill bonfire stack on July 2nd, when there’ be no audience. I don’t remember whether there’d always be a flag at the top, but the top tier was always be a single red, white and blue barrel. I do remember that the bonfires were hollow, and that we kids could walk in and around the ground level courses of the stack.

    The barrels came from the suede tanneries in blubber hollow, FlynnTan, on Boston ST, and one long gone, and probably forgotten, tannery at 15 Butler Street, which is now a vacant lot. That tannery’s yard was part of my walking route to the Endicott School.

    Sheepskins were imported from New Zealand and Australia in wooden barrels of two, or three sizes, as can be seen from the photos. I took note of this as I walked past FlynnTan’s outdoor storage yard on Boston ST, every day on my way to the Bowditch School.

    As I grew older, I’d go to the Community Club’s fund raising “lawn parties” held up top in Gallows Hill Park proper. As I recall, there’d be goings on down at the baseball diamond, but I don’t recall going to lawn parties in the diamond.

    The day after the lawn party and bonfire, I recall casting my eagle eye far and wide at the park looking for (and finding) dropped coins and unexploded fireworks.

    As a final note, you might ask why the Community Club needed to raise money when the lanolin soaked barrels were pretty much useless for any other purpose, and free for the taking. Well, every year, the Community Club would send the local Gallows Hill Park kids to Salisbury Beach for a day at the amusement park. I went many times as a kid.

    • daseger

      What a wonderful comment, Glenn. Thank you so much! I learned a LOT. I was especially curious why they had to guard the bonfire stacks–now I know!

      • Glenn McDonald

        I do remember that the stack was torched once when I was very young, but sentient, maybe 1955 or1956. It must have been July 1st or 2nd, and the community pulled together and got the stack rebuilt for the night before the fourth.

  • Glenn McDonald

    The Crow II Club, in the Willows also had a smaller bonfire by Dead Horse Beach. I never went to see it because Gallows Hill was literally my back yard.

    Did you know that the Gallows Hill Park baseball diamond is actually built on a drained pond? Ebay has the occasional postcard showing the pond.
    When the weather got to be consistently below freezing, the Water Department would shut off the drainage pumps (or whatever in hell they did do) and the ball diamond would naturally flood back to its original state (10′ – 20″ deep) and voila’, instant pond hockey.

    The whole area was little kids’ sledding paradise. We’d trudge up to where the water tank is now (we called it the Witch Hill) and head out towards the pond (now gone, I suppose) in the general direction of Colby Street, and then pick up a well worn foot path and change direction toward the baseball diamond. (Even flooded and frozen, I don’t recall calling it anything other than the diamond.) and we’d be lucky to dodge the skaters and hockey players and finish up at the parking lot, which is still there

    Nobody tried to sled in the ravine towards or from South ST.

    Going from the Witch Hill, (there were two, complete with Witch Trees) the terrain was steep and rocky and you’d invariably end up on, or in, the undrained swamp. If you tried it from South Street’s white fence, you’d quickly find your sled’s runners sinking into the snow. It was OK for tobogganing, but you’d still end up in the swamp at the bottom of the ravine.

    We called the whole undeveloped area bordered by South Street in the North to the dump on Marlborough RD in the South and Highland Avenue in the East and Aborn Street in the West “The Fields”. It was a great place up in which to grow and to explore nature and the dump and swamps and cellar holes and such magnets for small boys. There was also good rabbit and pheasant hunting in the fields.

    I went off to Viet Nam in 1969, and when I was done with the Army, and it with me, sadly all that was left of the fields was Witchcraft Heights, where one night I almost killed Phil Esposito, Salem’s most famous resident at the time. That’s another story for another day, as is my 8 year old friend Tommy Mansell playing Santa Claus and getting stuck in the chimney of the skaters’ warm up building by the long gone toboggan slide. The Fire Dept. had to demolish half of the chimney to get Tommy out of his predicament.

    • gallowshillsite

      Glenn – I recently started a Streets of Gallows Hill companion blog to Streets of Salem and would love to hear and highlight more of your wonderful stories on that blog. Let me know how to get in touch with you.

      • Glenn McDonald

        Hi Diana, I’d surely enjoy talking about Gallows Hill.

        Consider the corner of Boston and Proctor Streets, in the news, of late. The Great Salem Fire started there at J. J. Connolly’s Leather Shop (I think) On the other corner, where Sylvania used to be was a place called Hygrade something-or-other. I think it was Hygrade Lighting, but that needs more research. Anyways, my family always called that area “Hygrades”.

        I’ll give you some bio on myself:

        I was born in J.B. Thomas Hospital, in Peabody, in 1951.

        Raised on Gallows Hill, at 28 Albion street, and being a profound extravert, knew most everybody between Summit and Hanson Streets by the time I was seven.

        We were the only Scots in what was then an Irish neighborhood.

        My great-grandfather was a baker in Edinborough, and was sponsored into the USA in 1880 by Hathaway’s Bakery in Danvers. His first house in the States was at 25 Albion Street, which caused a bit of domestic coniroversy with my great-grandmother, as the house came with neither indoor plumbing nor domestic help, both of which they had back in Scotland.

        They show up there through many decennial census reports.

        My mother was a Steedman. Her name was Elinor, and she was born in 1920 at 67 1/2 Essex Street, sort of behind the Narbonne House. My uncle Lester was born on Webb Street in 1922 and my grandfather eventually moved back to Gallows Hill about 1924. I say that because I know that two aunts were born at 8 1/2 Rawlins Street in 1925 and 1934, respectively. In 1942, he bought the house at 23 Albion St, where he and my grandmother lived for the rest of their lives.

        My mother inherited 28 Albion Street in 1948, and I grew up with my grandparents living across the street.

        Odd memories. Wall Street wasn’t actually paved until the1960s. Every couple of years, the Street Department would lay a roadbed of sand and tar on the street. It didn’t really seem to matter to the locals.

        The last outhouse I can remember was at 24 Nichols St. The residents were two spinster sisters named Fanning, as I recall. The city forced them to hook up to city sewers in the early 1960s.

        Other odd stuff about me: I went to Salem State (class number 755053)
        and got a real undergraduate degree in Economics. I worked as an economist at USPS HQ in Washington DC until I retired in 2006. I always stopped in to see my friends in Salem State’s Economics Department whenever I was in town. Sadly Kael Wesolowski and Ginny Dunn are gone, but I still call Henry Lucas for lunch when I can.

        I don’t get back to Salem much these days, but I remember the old place fondly.

  • gallowshillsite

    Wow – helluva story teller. I’m going to put this comment whole scale on the Streets of Gallows Hill blog. To encourage others from the neighborhood to tell similar stories. Can you tell more of the Irish inhabitants? Only remnant left is the AOH Hall. Where do you live now?
    Gallows today in the Center of news, what with the new Witchcraft Trials Memorial on Proctor’s Ledge. People are coming.

    • Glenn McDonald

      you can call me a raconteur, or you can call me at 703.541.8463. I was bless with an eye for observation from a very early age.

      Right now, I live in Rockville, Maryland.

      I worked at the Main Post Office in Lynn, and moved down to Washington to work at USPS HQ in 1980.

      Please don’t publish my phone number.

  • Stories of Old Gallows Hill | Streets of Gallows Hill

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    • Louise McCarthy

      I also have ties to Gallows Hill as my grandfather built the house at # 33 Hanson St.just next door to the park where my 2 aunts, an uncle and cousins lived. Sarah O’Donnell and the Fouhey family. We had a perfect vantage point to the bonfires and a relative, Bricky Manning, he was a redhead, helped to build them. I lived down the hill on Looney Ave and used to ice skate at the ball diamond at the bottom of the hill. I wore wooden skate walkers from my house to skate There was
      a tree on the hill that all of the bark was off and we used to tell tourists that that was the tree where the Witches were hung.

      • daseger

        A perfect Salem memory!

      • Glenn McDonald

        Hi Louise,

        As I recall, that house , at 33 Hanson ST, belonged to the Manning Clan. White, with green trim, I think. Janie Manning is a year younger than I was, and her brother, whose name I forget was three years older than I.

        Thinking of Independence Day gets me to thinking about the cost of Independence, and Salem’s WW II war dead.

        There’s Mansell Park, of course, named for one of the Mansell boys killed in WW II. There, an obscure memorial stone to one of the Mroz boys in Gallows Hill Park, at the South ST/Hanson ST corner entrance to the He was one of my mother’s classmates of SHS 1938, and she remembered him fondly park. His brother, Louis B. Mroz was my 7th and 8th Grade science teacher at the old Bowditch School, on Flint ST. He’s gone too; wonderful teacher; encouraged me to think independently, and under his tutelage, I realized that learning stuff was really fun.

        Sadly, where’s no memorial for PFC Joey Bolduc, who lived at 18 Nichols ST, and who was killed on Saipan in August 1944, five days after his 19th birthday, and three weeks after the island was declared “secured”.

        Albion ST was a short street. It had only 34 house numbers, but it had more than it’s share of Viet Nam War casualties. Joseph “Poochie” Candeas lived at 11 or 13 Albion St, (I can’t remember now) when he was young and was KIA in August 1966. He is listed as Beverly resident in the official records.

        Kevin Brown, from 13 Albion ST picked up a Purple Heart in Viet Nam, as did I. Dennis Collette, from 29 Albion ST was a helicopter door gunner, and was shot down something like three times. His father kept me up on Dennis in Viet Nam.

  • Glenn McDonald

    From what I gather from your posts, you live in the lower Essex/Derby Streets area.

    My one lasting contribution to the area is the brick sidewalk along the side of the Safford House, on Hawthorne Blvd. In 1966, Huldah Payson, a wonderful, cultured and educated woman, who was also he Curator at the Essex Museum, took me on as a volunteer, and gave me to Ray K. Moore to do odd jobs around the museum.

    Oh sure, I cut the grass and weeded the driveways, but Ray (whom I’m convinced knew how everything worked at the museum), gave me the run of the place, and taught me the trade of sidewalk laying. The sidewalk’s still there, and I visit it every time I’m in Salem. I also got to clean up and restore the contents of the Pingree House’s carriage barn, to wit: the Concord Coach and the circa 1900 horse drawn fire pumper.

    At age 18, between High School and the Army, I drove a cab for Roderick’s Taxi company, then located in office space above the Salem News. Quite unintentionally, I got the wino trade for the taxi company and got to know many of Salem’s more colorful downtown characters like Curley, Junior and the Old Seabee, whom my mother knew as ‘Sailor Bill’ in the 1930’s and 40’s, but that’s a story for another day.

    • daseger

      Wow, Glenn, great memories! The Gallows Hill people are really going to learn a lot from you! I live on Chestnut actually, but know the places you are referring to well.

  • Glenn McDonald

    Forgot to ask this: According to USPS, The most common city/town name in the US is Springfield (I think Pennsylvania has three, though two are geographic place names like Blubber Hollow) and the most common street name is Elm ST, yet Salem has no Elm Street. Do you know why?

  • Glenn McDonald

    Not exactly. There were two Streets, Elm and Walnut. Both ran down to Derby ST. Round about the time of the tercentennial, They bulldozed the block between them to form the green space and Hawthorne Blvd, which follows the path of the old Elm ST.

    IC Church (the “other” Irish to folks from Ward 4) was originally at Number 17 Walnut ST. Walter T. McDonald’s undertaking parlor was located at Number 1 Walnut.

    Other interesting things that happen to ordinary people Department: My grandfather, Charlie Steedman, and his brother Louie were in the balcony of the Empire Theater, the night of the fire. Dodging fires seems to have run in the family. In 1942, my mother worked at the State House, in Boston. She and a couple of the girls from the office were planning to go to the Coconut Grove, the night of the fire, to celebrate Boston College’s “sure thing” victory over Holy Cross. Well, we know the history, and when BC lost, in a real blowout, the girls decided not to go, and just went home after work.

    Having said that, my oldest and closest friend is also a SSC undergrad. His mother’s boyfriend was killed in that fire. She later married a fireman.

    Back to Salem…and Chestnut ST., home of the first bathtub imported into America during the China Trade days.

    I’ve loved that street for 60 years. My first paper route covered Essex and Federal Streets between Higginson Square and the Public Library, and the intersecting streets, including Botts Court and Hamilton Streets. I did two Chestnut ST houses, Number 19, Fredericksen, where Hawthorne once lived, and the duplex at 23/25, at which number 25 was the official residence of the rector of Grace Church, one Sinclair Danforth Hart, as I recall.

    Chestnut Street has always been in the top two or three of my favorite places in the world. Fifty years ago, before Dutch Elm, the elm trees canopied the street. They were gorgeous in Summer, but they were truly their most splendiferous under new snow. In 1955, the Salem Five put out a centennial paperback picture book depicting the bank’s history in Salem. We had a copy, and I believe I still have it somewhere. There are some very nice pictures of Chestnut Street.

    Now say what you want about Federal Period architecture and beautiful old houses in Salem. My personal, hands-down favorite is 29 Chestnut Street. Fifty years ago, there was a stately mature magnolia tree, now long gone, in the front yard. It was just spectacular in the Spring, and run-of-the-mill gorgeous the rest of the year.

    • daseger

      The Fredericksen house is actually for sale now, Glenn.

      • Glenn McDonald

        When I was a kid, 17 Chestnut sold for $60,000 to a prominent Salem opthamologist, with whose son I was sort of friendly, I remember the conversations about how, and why. in hell, someone would spend that much money on a house.

  • Glenn McDonald

    Elizabeth Shea, my SHS homeroom teacher, lived (I think) in the left side of the duplex, at 39/41 Chestnut and the brick house at the NW corner of Flint St (number 43) is/was the Seamans family home. Robert Seamans was Secretary of the Air Force a few decades back. She was one of the age cohort of teachers who still remembered my mother when I got to SHS in 1965.

  • Harold's

    Elizabeth Shea, my SHS homeroom teacher, lived (I think) in the left side of the duplex, at 39/41 Chestnut and the brick house at the NW corner of Flint St (number 43) is/was the Seamans family home.
    I went off to Viet Nam in 1969, and when I was done with the Army, and it with me, sadly all that was left of the fields was Witchcraft Heights, where one night I almost killed Phil Esposito, Salem’s most famous resident at the time.

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