The colonial American equivalent of Bonfire Night, which has been celebrated in Britain ever since the foiling of Guy Fawkes’ and his fellow Catholic conspirators’ attempt to blow up King James I and Parliament on November 5, 1605, seems to have flourished in eighteenth-century New England as “Pope-Night” or “Pope-Day”. We have a pretty good idea of how Pope Night was observed, at least in Boston, thanks to the survival of a remarkable 1768 broadside: South End Forever. North End Forever. Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night, Or a Commemoration of the Fifth of November, giving a History of the Attempt, made by the Papistes, to blow up King and Parliament, A.D. 1588……..[interesting that the author has confused the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with that other big triumph over militant Catholicism, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588].
The “extraordinary verses” above can be supplemented with more narrative accounts in the Boston and Massachusetts Gazettes from around the same time. They describe elaborate “pageants” and processions in which effigies representing the Pope, the Devil, the Stuart Pretender, and other representations of “tyranny, oppression, and slavery” were paraded about before enthusiastic spectators before their consignment to the flames of majestic bonfires. While some accounts stress the “order” of the event: Boston Pope Nights in particular seem to have been characterized by considerable disorder, including brawling between the North End and South End gangs, extortion, destruction, and all sorts of mischief. They seem divisive, but also representative of the agitated environment of pre-Revolutionary Boston. One would think that this most British of holidays would have been dispensed with once the American Revolution began, but George Washington’s order of November 5, 1775 indicates that this was not the case: 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 popeHe 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. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.
Washington and Lafayette in Rembrandt Peale’s Washington Before Yorktown, 1824, National Gallery of Art—Washington would not meet Lafayette for some time after his Pope Night order, but I imagine he was also thinking about France as well as Canada at that time.
And it is to our second President 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, 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. I don’t know if people in Salem abstained from following General Washington’s order, but 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, 1792 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. The Town of Boston have determined not to disturb any ground in the antient Burying places. For a long time these grounds have been crowded & it was impossible to observe decency in the opening of graves. The Charge is just in a great degree against the old ground in this Town, but the objections have not yet become serious. I’m not exactly sure what he is referencing here: the Boston festivities did occur at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End, but I can’t find any references to Pope Night events occurring in Salem cemeteries: the bonfires were always lit at Salem Neck. He sounds like me complaining about the toll of Halloween on the Old Burying Ground! 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 rea, & 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.
“Dr. Bentley’s Rock at Salem Neck”—the site of the Pope Night bonfires?—many decades later, Nelson Dionne Collection, Salem State Archives & Special Collections.
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.
Some exciting news! BBC One’s Gunpowder miniseries, starring Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones (a descendant of conspirator Robert Catesby), will be coming to the US next month on HBO.