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.
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 1890s. I’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.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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!