Guy Fawkes Night in New England

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November 3, 2017 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)


A fiery Guy; not to be confused with Guy Fieri

While Halloween is now past, in New England, until about a century ago, there was another night of masks and lights and merriment – Guy Fawkes Night.  Like their fellow Englishmen, the early colonists of New England celebrated the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  After Parliament made it an official holiday, the night of November 5th became a time for revelry, fireworks, and the ceremonial burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes (the most notorious of the Plot’s participants)… and sometimes riots and violence against Catholics.

There’s even a bit of verse to help teach the story:

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

In the American colonies, Guy Fawkes Night was more commonly known as “Pope Night” and was widely celebrated… eventually.  The Puritans, despite being staunchly anti-Catholic, rejected non-religious celebrations (and even the sacral ones were strictly limited), including Guy Fawkes Night.  This opposition softened as New England’s population swelled, however.  Charlestown, across Boston Harbor from Boston, first officially observed the holiday in 1662, though as a day of thanksgiving and not Guy burning and fireworks.  Under pressure from the crown, the Massachusetts colonial government eventually made it a public holiday “of thanksgiving and humiliation” in 1667, carefully omitting any mention of Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot.  By 1700, however, the occasion was observed across all of New England (and beyond), as Puritanism was on the decline and toleration of other Protestant denominations was the law of the land.


A contemporary image of Pope Night in Boston; aka why the 1st Amendment matters

Pope Night was especially popular in Boston where in the 18th century, it was often an occasion for revelry, rioting, and vandalism directed towards Boston’s well-to-do.  In Boston and other towns parades were held in which effigies of the Pope (sometimes accompanied by various devils) were parched through town before being ritually burned. Boston was divided by rival “gangs” of celebrants from the north and south ends of the city who brawled over which “gang’s” effigies would be burned. Various cities passed laws banning or limiting bonfires and where bonfires could be lit to limited effect.

As American’s ire was building against the mother country however, the violence of Pope Night turned towards British colonial institutions and the royal government. The usual rowdy battles in Boston were suspended in 1765 and replaced with a “Union Feast” where the two main rival gangs celebrated together in opposition to the Stamp Act.  Some historians suggest that these gangs and their Pope Night activities formed a nucleus for the Sons of Liberty.

In 1775 General George Washington prohibited soldiers under his command from observing Pope Night, in part because it seemed absurd to revile some of the very people the Revolutionaries hoped to make common cause with – French-Canadian Catholics – saying:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused…

After the American Revolution, some places in New England continued to observe Pope Night though the holiday continued to decline in importance throughout the 19th century.  In some places the rituals of the night transformed – the Papal effigies being removed usually – or transferred to other nearby holidays, including Halloween, Election Day, and Thanksgiving.  Alice Morse Earle (in her Customs and Fashions in Old New England [1893])  notes that, after the Revolution, some places added Benedict Arnold to the Papal and Diabolic effigies burnt on Pope Night.


A Pope Night effigy of Benedict Arnold.

The Holiday, in somewhat modified form, survived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (and other nearby places) until at least the late 19th century (as reported to The Journal of American Folklore in 1892), though it had been renamed:


In the clippings Albee sent, the Pope Night revelries in Portsmouth included the blowing of horns and “grotesque pumpkin lanterns” while in Marblehead, Massachusetts, there was “a huge bonfire on the Neck, around which the chaps with horns dance in fantastic glee”.

(See another report by Mr. Albee, from the previous year, with a bit more detail on the subject)

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an essay on the topic, recounting the persistence of certain elements of the holiday in the Newburyport/Amesbury area around the mouth of the Merrimack River; in one part he described the parade of effigies:

In addition to the bonfires on the hills, there was formerly a possession in the streets, bearing grotesque images of the Pope, his cardinals and friars; behind them Satan himself,a monster with huge ox-horns on his head, and a long tail, brandishing his pitchfork and goading them onward. The Pope was generally furnished with a moveable head, which could be turned round, thrown back, or made to bow, like that of a china-ware [M]andarin.

Edwin Valentine Mitchell (in his book It’s an Old New England Custom [1946]) reported the following Thanksgiving celebration involving bonfires in Connecticut, celebrated into the 20th century:

At Norwich, Connecticut, it was once the practice to celebrate Thanksgiving not only by eating turkey and cranberry sauce, but by lighting bonfires. In 1792 a young man was killed during the celebration.

“On Thursday evening last,” says a newspaper account, “a young man by the name of Cook, aged 19, was instantly killed in this town by the discharge of a swivel. The circumstances, as near as we can recollect, were as follows: In celebration of the day, (being Thanksgiving), a large number of boys had assembled, and by pillaging dry casks from the stores, wharves, &c. had erected a bonfire on the hill back of the Landing, and to make their rejoicings more sonorous, fired a swivel several times; at last a foolish fondness for a loud report, induced them to be pretty lavish of their powder the explosion burst the swivel into a multitude of pieces, the largest of which, bonfire-explosionweighing about seven pounds, passed through the body of the deceased, carrying with it his heart, and was afterwards found in the street 30 or 40 rods from the place where it was fired. While the serious lament the accident, they entertain a hope that good may come of evil, that the savage practice of making bonfires on the evening of Thanksgiving, may be exchanged for some other mode of rejoicing, more consistent with the genuine spirit of Christianity.”

But this local custom of lighting bonfires on Thanksgiving Day continued in Norwich throughout the era of wooden barrels, or down to about the year 1925.

“They were touched off Thanksgiving morning,” a man from Norwich told me, who as a boy had participated in these celebrations. “There were bonfires on all the seven hills of Norwich on Thanksgiving Day.”

Here’s an account of the event from a Norwich history from 1866.

UPDATE! I’ve come across the following on the ever-useful New England Folklore blog which showed that Norwich’s traditional of burning barrels for Thanksgiving might have continued into the 1980s.  This article from the Norwich Bulletin states:

barrelfireThere were so many in Norwich. Most of them were on the tops of Norwich’s seven major hills. The fire on Jail Hill could be seen the farthest, into Montville, but they burned barrels on Cliff Terrace, Fox Hill, Ox Hill, Bean Hill and then, of course, at Lake Street, where Norwich’s last barrel burn took place some 20 years or more ago, sponsored by Sal Colonna and the Ice House gang.

The gangs of kids — and they called themselves gangs — would arrange the barrel burns.

There was the Gas House gang on North Main Street, The Roath Street gang, the Jail Hill and Duvell gangs, and then the gang from Mount Pleasant on the West Side…

Amazingly, the story included an anecdote wherein the young barrel-thieves secure the blessing of the local Monseigneur for their crime, who absolved them for stealing barrels (typically used to hold garbage), saying “That is not a sin. You didn’t benefit yourself. You simply took the barrels to celebrate a holiday and give pleasure to others with the bonfire. That is no sin at all”.  Remember, Remember the 5th of November indeed.

Finally, I wonder if perhaps it was Pope Night the rustic Whateley family was celebrating at the end of October?  As Lovecraft says of them:

For a decade the annals of the Whateleys sink indistinguishably into the general life of a morbid community used to their queer ways and hardened to their May-Eve and All-Hallows orgies. Twice a year they would light fires on the top of Sentinel Hill, at which times the mountain rumblings would recur with greater and greater violence; while at all seasons there were strange and portentous doings at the lonely farmhouse.

Then again… probably not.

(In addition to the books and articles linked, I found Brendan McConville’s “Pope’s Day Revisited, ‘Popular’ Culture Reconsidered.” from Explorations in Early American Culture 4 (2000, 258-80) to be most useful; link requires registration.)

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