Fright Night


D.H.T.Shippey  &  Michael Burns

Children going door to door. Costumes on parade in the streets. Bonfires with shadowy figures dancing around them. No, it’s not Halloween; it’s Pope’s Night in 18th century Boston.

    While the origins of our modern Halloween have their roots in the traditions of many medieval countries, 1700’s Boston had its own night of fright and frolic. It may be hard to imagine an anti-Catholic Boston today when we so associate Bean-town with the Irish, the pubs and the Kennedys, but in the 18th century it was just that. Each year on November 5th the town became a wild party celebrating the very anti-Catholic Pope’s Night. As you will soon see, many of the Halloween traditions we have today seem to clearly parallel this ancient celebration of religious intolerance.

      Massachusetts in the 1700‘s was a very English colony, and England’s enemies were France and Spain (both Catholic). England had suffered and survived through civil wars between Catholic and Protestant royals and the attempted destruction of Parliament by the infamous Catholic partisan Guy Fawkes. Back in Mother England, the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day was a long established annual observance, with fireworks and the burning of large Guy Fawkes effigies. Massachusetts carried on that tradition, but seems to have taken its contempt for the Catholic Church further by turning Guy Fawkes Day into Pope’s Night and Boston into the center of the celebration.

       The revelers were divided into two rival factions: North End and South End. In the days leading up to Pope’s Night the young boys would go door to door ringing bells and carrying hand made Pope figures that were dressed wildly and seated on boards or small carts. These were meant to act as concept models for giant figures built by the opposing sides and placed on decorated carts similar to modern Mardi Gras parade floats. As it was printed in a contemporary broadside verse

“The little Popes, they go out First,

With little teney Boys:

Frolicks they are full of Gale

And laughing make a Noise.”

As the boys came to the door of a house they would call out

“Don’t you hear my little bell

Go chink, chink, chink?

Please to give me a little money

To buy my Pope some drink.”



   The rival cart designs or North and South.

At which point the homeowner would either give some money to the boys or risk reprisals in the form of pranks or vandalism. If your mind is already making the connection to modern children yelling “Trick or treat” you are right on target. Only in the 18th century the threat of “Trick” wasn’t an idle one.

On the night of the 5th the “gangs” would make two separate parades through town pulling decorated carts that usually featured giant effigies of the Pope, the Devil and hated political figures. Woodcuts from the period show some revelers dressed in devil costumes and others wearing bishop’s mitres, beating on drums and blowing conch shells (called “pope horns”). Also riding the cart was a young man dressed as a woman called the “Nancy Dawson” after a famous stage actor of the era. As this bizarre pageant passed, the revelers would again expect money to be given from homes or those standing by. If you failed to pay a group of carousers they would invade your home and act out a long moral play, whether you wanted to watch or not. At the end of the night the North and South end boys would meet in the middle of town. What can only be described as a knockdown brawl would break out and the winners would carry off the wagons, effigies and money of the losers. The prizes were pulled back to the winners’ part of town, where they would all be burned in a giant bonfire and the money spent on a feast. If the North End won the fight, their celebration was held on Copps Hill and if the South was victorious the fire and feast was on Boston Common. I would guess the feast probably featured a lot of beer.


      As the Revolution drew closer the Pope’s Night Celebration became more political and the new figures being lampooned were British officials. The town of Boston, now occupied by British soldiers, became a tense place during what really amounted to a night of mob rule. After Lexington and Concord, many of the tradesmen and laborers that made up the North End and South End gangs were encamped together as soldiers outside the city. Still, many planned to hold their annual celebration when the new Commander in Chief George Washington posted orders forbidding it. One of the many excellent reasons for not allowing a drunken parade and brawl at the time was that Washington wanted the war to be a united effort by all the colonies. That would mean reaching out to members of many faiths and denominations, including the large number of Catholics in Maryland and Quebec. Truly, it was going to be hard enough to organize the new Army and get them housed, equipped and functioning under discipline without letting an annual rumble break out. Also, Washington personally had little respect for such an intolerant celebration.

     Some of the traditions of Pope’s Night live on. It is not difficult to imagine post war Americans retaining fond memories of their past escapades and reviving their practices in different forms years later. Today we can still see costumes of devils and political figures, costume parades, noise making, parties, bonfires, the begging of treats and occasionally some mischief. It isn’t hard to see moving a celebration five days earlier to coincide with other harvest festival traditions. Looking back, we should all be thankful that our modern holiday is safer than that of our forefathers. I won’t have to worry about neighborhood children extorting money from me or a costumed home invasion this year. Still, there are a few politicians I wouldn’t mind burning in effigy. 

Don’t you hear my little bell

Go chink, chink, chink?

Please to give me a little money

To buy my Senator a drink.”

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