Boston’s Gangs on the 5th of November

By the mid-1700s the North End gang and the South End gang each had its own Pope-Night wagon and effigies, its own “captain” and “lieutenants.”

The gangs then added a new tradition to Boston’s holiday: a big fight in the middle of town. If the North End gang won, they burned the South-enders’ paraphernalia on Copp’s Hill. If the South End gang won, they carried the North-enders’ work to the Common. No other town’s 5th of November involved such regular violence.

In 1765, Boston’s political leaders became especially alarmed about that style of observing the patriotic holiday for three reasons:

  • The year before, a young boy had been killed during the gangs’ brawl.
  • Protests against the Stamp Act in August had escalated into attacks on royal officials’ houses, including the destruction of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion in the North End.
  • All that violence was making Boston look bad just when its leaders wanted support from other colonies and in London for repealing the Stamp Act.
To keep the gangs peaceful, Boston’s political leaders persuaded the North End and South End captains to lead a march against the Stamp Act instead of building “Pope-Night” wagons and brawling. Wealthy gentlemen supplied the money for a feast, and gave the two captains red and blue uniforms, gold-laced hats, speaking trumpets, and rattan canes.

The new gang captains seem to have succeeded to those uniforms two years later when the visiting artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière drew this picture and noted the leader’s “enormous trumpet.”

The decision by the London government to station regiments in Boston in 1768 produced more unity between the town’s gangs by giving them a common foe: those British soldiers, whom they saw as occupiers. In August 1770, Sgt. Thomas Thornley of the army’s 14th Regiment told a Boston magistrate that the previous 5th of November he had been:
“oblig’d to go through a large mob to the relief of the Sentries, the mob called him and his party Lobster scoundrels, what business had they there, & damn’d Governor [Francis] Bernard, the Commissioners, and the rest of the scoundrels of Ministers that ordered the Soldiers to Boston, on which he the Deponent was obliged to order his party to charge their bayonets to make way through the mob, all the while receiving a great deal of abusive language.”
By the time Thornley testified about his experience the previous November, the friction between locals and soldiers had led to the shootings near the Old State House that became known as the Boston Massacre.

Quotation source: Thornley deposition dated 25 Aug 1770, Colonial Office Transcripts, 5:88:412, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress.

Image sources: Headlines from “Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night,” An American Time Capsule, American Memory Collection, Library of Congress. Drawing of gang leaders by Pierre Eugène du Simitière, Library Company of Philadelphia.

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