Tales of the 5th of November

Some of Massachusetts’s most respectable citizens in the early republic had participated in the Pope Night revelry as boys.

Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) was a printer’s apprentice in the South End. On Pope Night in 1758 or 1759, he saw the North End gang rolling their wagon back up from the corner of Essex Street as South-enders threw stones, bricks, and sticks in a friendly way. According to his biographer, Isaiah

“pressed through the crowd to read the labels on the lanterns. A brick[,] aimed at the lantern, lighted on his head and struck him to the ground. The chances were for the little fellow to be trampled to death by the rushing crowd, but as his good fortune or a kind Providence would have it, the first man whose foot struck him, hearing his groans[,] lifted him up, and persons coming around with lights, one of them recognized him, took him in his arms, and carried him to his master’s house. A surgeon being sent for, it was found that no bone was broken, and in a few days he was able to return to his [printing] types.”
Thomas became one of Massachusetts’s leading printers and founder of the American Antiquarian Society.

Henry Knox (1750–1806) was an apprentice bookseller in the late 1760s, already known for being a big young man. One year, Bostonians later remembered, Henry was the “lieutenant” of the South End gang when one of the wheels came off their wagon. The youths feared the North-enders would soon seize their crippled paraphernalia and carry it off in triumph.

The story goes that Henry single-handedly held up the wheelless corner of the South End wagon until his friends could drag it away, safe from their crosstown rivals.

After the Revolutionary War broke out, Knox led an expedition to Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to haul its large siege cannon to Boston in early 1776. These guns, mounted on Dorchester Heights, proved crucial to driving the British military from the town. Knox commanded the Continental Army artillery for the rest of the Revolutionary War, and then served as Secretary of War for both the Continental Congress and George Washington. His home in Maine is now a museum.

Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) was from the last generation of Boston boys to celebrate “Pope-Night.” He was probably too young to be part of the gangs with the big wagons, but he remembered the holiday fondly for two things.
  • Every November Harry’s parents gave him “a new pair of leather breeches which would be preserved for best until the next Fifth of November.”
  • In the days leading up to that day he and other little boys “ran around to every front door in town ringing handbells and singing” this verse:
  • “Don’t you hear my little bell
    Go chink, chink, chink?
    Please to give me a little money
    To buy my Pope some drink.”
Otis became a Senator in the early 1800s, as well as a leading patron of Boston architects. His home on Charles Street in Boston is also a museum.

Text sources: Thomas anecdote from Isiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America, 2nd edition (Albany: Joel Munsell, 1874), 1:xxx. Knox anecdote from letter of George Ingersoll to Charles Daveis, 27 June 1849, Willard-Knox Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Otis quotations from Samuel Eliot Morison, The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765-1848 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), 1:5.

Image sources: Thomas and Knox portraits from the collections of The Bostonian Society/Old State House Museum. Otis portrait from Morison, Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis.

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