A Typical 5th of November in New England

The most detailed early description of a New England “Pope-Night” celebration comes from a history of Newbury, Massachusetts:

“Young men, as well as boys,...constructed a huge vehicle, varying, at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the light, five or six persons.

“Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope and several other personages, monks, friars, and so forth. Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick [the Devil] himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could devise.”
The effigies of the Pope and Devil were giant puppets, with a boy hidden in the platform beneath them moving their heads. In Newbury the boys would “call at the principal houses in various parts of the town, ring their bell, cause the pope to elevate their head, and look round upon the audience.” Then the young crowd would chant verses like these:
“The fifth of November,
As you well remember,
Was gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot. . . .
Here is the pope that we have got,
The whole promoter of the plot.
We’ll stick a pitchfork in his back,
And throw him in the fire.”
The boys’ “purser,” elected to look after their money, would step forward and collect coins from the audience. “Nearly all on whom they called, gave something,” recalled Newbury historian Joshua Coffin.

After night fell, the boys built a bonfire of the effigies, platforms, and any other wooden things they could steal, taking care to save the hard-to-replace wagon wheels and carved heads. They finished the evening by putting their money toward “a splendid supper.”

Part of the appeal of “Pope-Night” in New England, with its strict Puritan traditions, was that it allowed youths to go wild for one day—to make noise, demand money, and have a feast of their own. They could get away with that behavior on the 5th of November because it was patriotic disorder, aimed at the enemies of their country and religion.

Quotation source: Joshua Coffin, A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury (Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1845), 249-51.

Image source: “Boston affairs,” a drawing of a hand-drawn wagon in Boston, 5 Nov 1767, by Pierre Eugène du Simitière, Library Company of Philadelphia.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.