Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pope Day in Boston 250 Years Ago: Turning a Day of Hate into a Day of Union

by Allen Woods

On November 5, 1765, colonial Boston celebrated a public spectacle unthinkable in modern America. The carnival atmosphere of 250 years ago hinged on a long-standing and widely-supported hatred and fear of Catholicism. In colonial Boston, gangs from the North End and South End looked forward to a traditional day of drinking and fighting on "Pope Day." Crowds in the street vented their hatred for Catholics in general, and specifically the Pope, with resounding cheers and jeers. Just as in previous years, the spectacle enjoyed nearly unanimous support.

But in 1765, Samuel Adams and John Hancock seized the anger in the crowds and managed to turn some of it in another direction. In the following years, the Pope and the Catholic Church were still ridiculed and reviled in Boston and many other colonies on November 5, but political leaders found a way to redirect some of the customary violence between the gangs. The newly-added targets were the villainous British officials who tried to enforce the Stamp Act and any loyalists who supported them.

"Pope Day" (often called Pope Night) was a tradition in Boston brought by its earliest settlers. English immigrants had a long memory for the Catholic Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters who hoped to blow up Parliament in 1605. English Catholics had hoped that King James I might reduce government actions against them compared to those under Queen Elizabeth I just a few years before, but they were sorely disappointed. Fawkes' name and "the Gunpowder Plot" became the symbols for a national holiday after he was arrested on November 5 in the basement beneath the House of Lords, intent on igniting the 36 barrels of gunpowder for a grand explosion. Effigies of Fawkes and other Catholics were happily burned each year across England as crowds celebrated around the bonfires. The torture and execution of Fawkes had delighted English Protestants.

It was the Americans who began calling it "Pope Day" although it was celebrated on the same day and employed many of the same customs. It was especially important in excitable Boston, where neighborhood crowds in the North and South Ends planned elaborate parades and built huge puppets or costumed figures mounted on what today would be called "floats." The largest had wheels over six feet tall and needed up to six horses to drag them through the muddy streets. The rougher residents of each area formed what we might call "gangs" today (although they weren't directly intent on criminal deeds or control) and each found pride in their construction. They built wagons with a monstrous caricature of the Pope, animated by a small boy hidden inside, with another figure nearby that was just as large and fearsome–the Devil himself–and who obviously controlled the Pope and his actions.

1768 sheet sold on Boston streets:
An image of one of the floats and verses
so people can sing along with the songs
of ridicule. Library of Congress
Boston's Pope Day parade always ended with a bonfire as well, but the North and South End gangs had established a yearly competition, probably fueled by a day of rum: they fought to capture their rivals' figures and burn them in triumph. Many in the neighborhoods looked forward to the brawl, and oft-told stories in the taverns celebrated the strength of young men who were especially able to protect their prized creations. But over the years, the Pope Day parades and brawls began to turn more dangerous, as each side added sticks and stones to their attacks. It was essentially a riot that couldn't be controlled by the Sheriff and just a few men. In 1764, one of the floats veered into a large crowd on the street and killed a child by running over its head. The brawl that year also took a toll: injuries were widespread and Henry Swift, leader of the North End, remained in a coma for days afterwards.

Massachusetts Historical Society
John Hancock probably supplied the 
money to clothe the gang leaders in fancy 
uniforms on November 5, 1765 and to help 
persuade them to make peace over special 
dinners for them and their men.
Samuel Adams, one of the best community organizers in history, quickly seized an opportunity. With money that probably came from wealthy John Hancock, Adams gave the leaders of the unruly gangs brilliant new, military-style uniforms and fed the crowds with great feasts before and after Pope Day. These were the same men who had recently trashed and torn down the mansion of the Lt. Governor who was trying to enforce the Stamp Act. He persuaded the two leaders, Henry Swift and Ebenezer Mackintosh, to march together in a show of unity against the British officials.

In 1765, they stilled burned the Pope figure in a bonfire, but there was no brawl between the neighborhoods. The violence would now be reserved for the British government and their supporters. They joined the Pope and the Devil on the Pope Day floats in the coming years. The patriot leaders capitalized on the raw violence and hatred of Pope Day, redirecting the gangs when they needed to threaten violence against British officials and their families. These threats, along with the destruction of windows, buildings, and other property (sometimes principled and sometimes wanton), put America and the British on the road to an armed conflict that neither could turn away from.

Pope Day died a political (and possibly moral) death in 1775 when General George Washington and the Revolutionary movement were trying to gain French Canadian Catholics as allies in Canada as well as looking towards what became the turning point in the war itself: an alliance with Catholic France. Early in his command, Washington banned all the customary anti-Pope celebrations by his army and stood strongly against them by other Americans. Eventually, the popularity of Halloween banished Guy Fawkes and fully-expressed hatred of the Pope from American memory.


Allen Woods is the author of the historically-accurate novel The Sword and Scabbard: Thieves and Thugs and the Bloody Massacre in Boston,, that details events of the time, including those leading up to the Boston Massacre. The documented arrival of British Customs officials by coincidence on Nov. 5, 1767 is a part of the action, as well as the union of the gangs beginning in 1765.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.