As we discussed last week (and we thank our many readers for so many excellent comments), Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday that may have a dark past, but is certainly alive and well and full of bonfires and fireworks in 2010. Yet while it may seem a quintessentially British holiday, there's also a strong history of the celebration in New England as well as Old.
The Massachusetts colony was largely settled in the early 17th c. by English Puritans, and those conservative Protestant values continued to rule the colony. The bonfires and effigy-burning of the Fifth of November was one of the transplanted traditions that prospered, but by the middle of the 18th c., it had developed a few distinctly Yankee quirks. Several colonial wars against the French served to increase distrust and fear of Catholics. While the memory of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot weren't forgotten (the "Remember, Remember" song was duly sung), in all the northern colonies the celebration was now called Pope Night, and a rowdy time it was.
In Boston, crowds of young men, sailors, and apprentices thronged the streets, dividing into two rival gangs, while costumed boys thumped on doors and begged money for drink. Each gang had their own procession and effigies of the Pope, friars, priests, and devils, and after a fierce brawl between the two gangs (ah, American contests of sports supremacy!), the winners captured the losers' effigies, and everything was finally burned in a satisfying bonfire. Special noisemakers, fashioned from conch shells and called "Pope's horns", added to the din, like 18th c. vuvuzelas.
As political tensions in Boston increased with England in the years before the Revolution, other effigies of unpopular public figures found their way into the procession, including the Catholic Stuart Pretender, Lord North, and Lord Bute. Later infamous traitor Bendict Arnold earned his place in the flames, too. A 1745 newspaper described the scene:
Tuesday last being the Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, two Popes were made and carried thro' the Streets in the evening...attended by a vast number...armed with clubs, staves, and cutlashes, who were very abusive to the Inhabitants, insulting the Persons and breaking the windows, &c., of such as did not give them money to their satisfaction...the two Popes meeting in Cornhill, their followers were so infatuated as to fall upon each other with the utmost Rage and Fury. Several were sorely wounded and bruised, some left for dead, and rendered incapable of any business for a long time to the great Loss and Damage of their respective Masters.
For more about Pope Night in the American colonies, check out this excellent site commissioned by The Bostonian Society. Also see one of our favorite history blogs, Boston 1775, which has numerous posts on the subject.
Above: Detail from Extraordinary verses on Pope-night, or, A commemoration of the Fifth of November, giving a history of the attempt, made by the papishes, to blow up king and Parliament, printed in Boston, 1768. Collection, Library of Congress