Tag Archives: Customs and Manners

Pope Night in Salem

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].

Pope Night Broadside LC

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 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. 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.

482px-Washington_Before_Yorktown_Rembrandt_Peale_1823Washington 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.

Pope Night Dr. Bentley's Rock at Salem Neck SSU “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.

gunpowderplot21

GunpowderSome 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.


Female Fancy-Dress, 1609-1980

I am so looking forward to Halloween night next Tuesday, not only because our long municipal nightmare will be over here in Salem for another year, but also because I actually do enjoy creative Halloween costumes, and they do appear on this night, glittering like stars in a sky of more generic garb. If an entire family is going to make the trek to Salem to trick-or-treat on Chestnut Street, they will often go all out, and in years past I’ve seen the Swiss Family Robinson, The Jacksons, the Addams Family (actually I think these three were all just last year), the Coneheads, the Jetsons, and a variety of historical characters, en masse and individually. I wish there were more conceptual costumes and less inspired by popular culture but that’s probably asking for too much for a holiday that is supposed to be for and about children. The most creative (and conceptual) costumes I have ever seen were made (or proposed) for masquerades or fancy-dress parties prior to 1920 or so, after which Halloween began to emerge as a major American holiday and the witches and the pumpkin-heads pushed out the nymphs and the sprites and the various ethereal forest creatures. Costumes begin with Queens, who were entitled to prance about in court masques long before actresses were, so I’m going to begin my portfolio with the Queen of the Amazons, one of many costumes designed by Inigo Jones for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masques, which were commissioned by King James I’s (and VI’s) Queen Anne, my vote for bestdressed Queen of all time. Jonson’s The Masque of the Queens was presented at Whitehall Palace in February of 1609, the third masque written for Anne and the first to include an “anti-masque” featuring witches, of course, the opposite of the virtuous ladies played by the Queen and her ladies. Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, enters first (after the witches).

Costume Masques

Costume rowlandson500

Costume collage 3Inigo Jones’ Penthesilea costume for the Masque of Queens, 1609, British Library; Thomas Rowland’s Dressing for a Masquerade, British Museum;  Léon Sault’s designs for the House of Worth, 1860s: Eve with a snake and a Sorceress, Victoria & Albert Museum. 


A bit less custom, and a bit more commercialized, costuming commences in the later nineteenth century: more for fancy-dress parties than for Halloween. All sort of costumes can be found in pattern books from this era, such as Jennie Taylor Wandle’s Masquerade and Carnival. Their Customs and Costumes, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1892. As you can see, the Halloween archetypes (devil, witch, sorceress, little and big bat) are already popular. Women’s magazine also offer up lots of fancy-dress inspiration: below are some very……naturalistic costumes from the Ladies Home Journal in 1914 and a few more conventional examples from 1920.

Costume collage

Costume masqueradecarniv00wand_0053

Costume masqueradecarniv00wand_0114

Fancy Party Costumes LHJ Nov 1914

Costume collage 2

The transition from fancy-dress to Halloween costumes comes just around this time, 1920: I am marking it with an aptly-titled commercial publication,  Dennison’s Bogie Book, issued by the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1920. This “book of suggestions for decorating and entertaining at Hallowe’en, Harvest Time, and Thanksgiving” contains lots of instructions, indicating that we’re at a moment where traditions are being invented. Of course all you need to have the perfect Halloween are Dennison products, which all seem to be made of orange and black crepe paper. It seems like full-blown commercial Halloween is right around the corner, but yet when I look at the photograph of Batgirl, St. Ann (wow, she’s the outlier here!), and Wonder Woman from New York city photographer Larry Racciopo’s Halloween (1980), it doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far at all.

Costumes 1920

Halloween Costumes 1980 Bat Girl, St. Ann, and Wonder Woman photographed by Larry Racioppo, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Fabled Friday the 13th

What’s wrong with Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month? I thought I might try to uncover the foundations of this supposedly long-held western superstition but as is generally the case, all I found was a mishmash of “biblical”, “medieval”, and mostly-Victorian assertions. The biblical basis is the Last Supper, at which there were thirteen attendees including Jesus of Nazareth and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, followed by the fateful/fatal Friday on which Jesus was crucified. Somehow, somewhere (the story goes) the gathering of 13 and the Friday execution are assimilated to create a dreadful day on which evil or (in Chaucer’s middle English verse) “mischance” can occur: And on a Friday fil al this mischaunce (The Nun’s Priest’ Tale).

Friday 13 Flinch Cards

There is an entire book about the number 13 and its associations are easily discerned, both negative (the antithesis of the perfect 12; 13 steps to the hangman’s noose; the 13th tarot card represents death; Apollo 13) and positive (a baker’s dozen; thirteen colonies, the thirteenth amendment), but the customary connection between the number and the day is a bit more elusive. One particular Friday the 13th that is often mentioned is Friday, October 13, 1307, the date on which the Order of the Knights Templar in France were formally indicted by King Philip IV “the Fair”, so that he might confiscate their vast wealth during the first years of the Avignon Papacy which rendered them defenseless. Certainly the Templars have resurfaced in the last decade or so with the publication of Dan Brown’s incredibly popular Da Vinci Code, but the Victorian era–a golden age of fraternalism–was also intensely interested in this suppressed and secretive order, and the fates of its members.

Royal 20 C.VII, f.44v

Tarot Cards XIII

British Library MS Royal 20 C VII, f. 4v: Templars being burnt at the stake; Tarot Cards no. XIII, representing Death, from the later 15th century (Victoria and Albert Museum Collection) and the later 19th century (see here for the full deck).

In the first decades of the twentieth century, this particular Black Friday (preceding our own commercial one) seems to have been become firmly established. There was the bestselling novel of Thomas William F. Lawson about a plot to bring down Wall Street on Friday the 13th (by sheer coincidence [?], the author’s namesake 7-masted schooner sunk on Friday the 13th) and then, in an obvious nod to the general acceptance of the day, Miss Rose Cade was crowned Queen of the Lemons on Friday, February 13, 1920.

Friday 13th.

Friday 13 Queen of the Lemons Rose Cade

Miss Rose Cade as Queen of the Lemons in California, February 13, 1920, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


%d bloggers like this: