Ben Miller

Gang Warfare in 18th Century Boston

In Colonial (American) Period, Crime, Justice and Punishment, Customs and Traditions, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on February 16, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Pope Night in Boston

By Ben Miller

Anyone who thinks that New York City is a dangerous place now (or even was in the dreadful 1970s) needs only to take a look at the film Gangs of New York to get a little perspective, and realize that however bad things may seem at present, the rule of law and order in the American northeast has vastly improved over the last one hundred fifty years.

Boston, as it turns out, was the setting of equally sensational pitched battles between hordes of armed street-fighters—and much earlier so than New York.

During the eighteenth century, on November Fifth of each year, thousands of racially-diverse ruffians from Boston’s two most notorious gangs would fill the streets in celebration of Guy Fawkes’s foiled attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 (popularly known as the Gunpowder Plot).

These were the North End and South End gangs, and their elaborate pageantry and ceremony must have been quite a spectacle to behold. Each had its own wagon and effigies, its own “officers,” “captains,” and “lieutenants.” Each had its own huge vehicle, varying from 20 to 40 feet long, 8 or 10 feet wide, and 5 or 6 feet high, from the lower to the upper platform. Their festivities exhibited a blatant, vitriolic anti-Catholic bias (Fawkes and his group had been Catholics trying to topple a Protestant government). Each year the respective gangs, dressed in masks, costumes, tricorns and pointed grenadier hats, would parade an effigy of the pope and one of the Devil, “clad in tar and feathers” on a large platform, which was carried by a crowd on a large platform surrounded by burning firecrackers. Small boys concealed below the platforms worked strings attached to the figures, which would “elevate and move around at proper intervals the movable head” as they were carried toward Boston Common. Some gang-members would blow horns and conch-shells known as “Pope-horns.” Every house along the route was required to contribute money “to the expense of the show.” If they did not, windows would be broken, or the house otherwise damaged. The procession would continue through the Common, past the state house, and would typically end on Cornhill or Copp’s Hill, where the effigies were consumed in giant bonfires—and the two mighty clans would engage in a violent contest of strength and arms.

South End Wagon

In 1745, a newspaper described one of these events:

Tuesday last being the Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, two Popes were made and carried tho’ the Streets in the evening , one from the North, the other from the South End of the Town, attended by a vast number of negroes and white servants, armed with clubs, staves and cutlashes, who were very abusive to the Inhabitants, insulting the Persons and breaking the windows, &c., of such as did not give them money to their satisfaction, and even many of those who had given them liberally; and the two Popes meeting in Cornhill, their followers were so infatuated as to fall upon each other with the utmost Rage and Fury. Several were sorely wounded and bruised, some left for dead, and rendered incapable of any business for a long time to the great Loss and Damage of their respective Masters.

Another letter-writer recounted,

What a scandal and Infamy to a Protestant Mob, be it of the rudest and lowest Sailors out of Boston, or even the very negroes of the Town, to fall upon one another with Clubs and Cutlashes in a Rage and Fury which only Hell could inspire or the Devil broke loose from chains there could represent! …what madness must seize the two mobs, united Brethren, as they would appear against Popery, to fall upon each other, break one another’s Bones or dash one another’s Brains out?

North End Wagon

A 1755 account noted that “the Devil, the Pope, and the Pretender [Catholic King in exile], at night were carried about the city on a bier, their three effigies hideously formed, and as humorously contrived, the Devil standing close behind the Pope, seemingly paying his complements to him, with a three-pronged pitchfork in one hand, with which at times he was made to thrust his Holiness on the Back, and a lanthorn in the other, the young Pretender standing before the Pope, waiting his commands.” In later years these were sometimes accompanied by additional figures who had “incurred the indignation and hatred of the mob,” such as as Admiral Byng, Earl Bute, and Lord North. One period source notes that “ancillary devils and popes were drawn or carried by men and boys, as various in size as the men and boys who bore them; some even on shingles and bits of board.”

Pope Night Wagon

In 1764, outrage erupted after a young boy fell under the North End gang’s “pope-wagon” and died of a head injury. In his diary, John Rower recounts the incident as follows:

Nov. 5. A sorrowful accident happened this forenoon at the North End. the wheel of the carriage that the Pope was fixed on run over a Boy’s head & he died instantly. The Sheriff, Justices, Officers of the Militia were ordered to destroy both S° & North End Popes. In the afternoon they got the North End Pope pulled to pieces. they went to the S° End but could not Conquer upon which the South End people brought out their pope & went in Triumph to the Northward and at the Mill Bridge a Battle begun between the people of Both Parts of the Town. The North End people having repaired their pope, but the South End people got the Battle (many were hurt & bruised on both sides) & Brought away the North End pope & burnt Both of them at the Gallows on the Neck. Several thousand people following them, hallowing &c.

The next year, in an effort to dampen the violence, some of Boston’s political leaders persuaded the North End and South End “captains” to put aside the tradition of building “Pope-Night” wagons and fighting, and instead lead a march protesting the Stamp Act. Wealthy locals organized a feast at their own expense, and presented the two gang captains gifts of “red and blue uniforms, gold-laced hats, speaking trumpets, and rattan canes.” Two years later, the artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière visited Boston and drew a series of sketches, including this picture of the two new gang leaders, still sporting their rich uniforms, canes and trumpets:

Gang Leaders: The Captains of the North and South End gangs

Gang Leaders: The Captains of the North and South End gangs

By the 1770s the South End gang consisted of two thousand men and was led by a Scottish-born shoemaker named Ebenezer MacIntosh, described as “slight of build, of sandy complexion and a nervous temperment.” The North End gang could boast of a similar number and was led by Samuel Swift, a Harvard-educated fifty-year old, who had originally studied for the clergy but had turned instead to law. Swift in particular had influential friends, including members of the Loyal Nine (forerunner of the Sons of Liberty) who tried to use the gangs to their advantage, leveraging them as muscle, and hence a threat, against British rule. In 1765 McIntosh was arrested after a mob of his men burnt loyalist Governor Hutchinson’s house to the ground, but was immediately released after the leading figures of the town intervened on his behalf. Such was the power and sway of the gangs.

The climactic battles of November Fifth were fought near Mill Creek, a dividing line between the gangs’ respective territories. The memoir of Isaiah Thomas describes the moments preceeding the initial onslaught:

Assembling about dusk, North end and South end under their respective leaders, processions were formed, the lanterns, great and small, lighted, and through a speaking trumpet the order was given to “move on.” With this the noise and tumult began, the blowing of conch shells, whistling through the fingers, beating with clubs the sides of the houses, cheering, huzzaing, swearing, and rising about all the din the cry “North end forever” or “South end forever.” The devils on the stages were not the only or chiefest proof that the underworld was let loose. The procession that first reached the Mill creek gave three cheers and rushed on to meet their foes. As they approached the strife began; clubs, stones, and brickbats were freely used, and though persons were not often killed, bruised shins, broken heads and bones, were not infrequent.

Samuel Breck, another participant, described the manner in which the ensuing battles were fought among the more juvenile gang-members:

Spokes were fixed in a large mast, on the top of which was placed a barrel of pitch or tar, always ready to be fired on the approach of the enemy. Around this pole I have fought many battles, as a South End boy, against the boys of the North End of the town; and bloody ones, too, with slings and stones very skilfully and earnestly used. In what a state of semi-barbarism did the rising generations of those days exist! From time immemorial these hostilities were carried on by the juvenile part of the community…nothing could check it. Was it a remnant of the pugilistic propensities of our British ancestors; or was it an untamed feeling arising from our sequestered and colonial situation?

Whichever gang won the annual battle would publicly anoint its captain “First Captain General of the Liberty Tree.”

Above: young Boston gang members dressed in costume

During the 1760s, the arrival of British troops in Boston provided the gangs a common foe with which they could both satiate their blood-lust, and riotous acts against soldiers became a common feature of pre-Revolutionary Boston street life. In August 1770, Sgt. Thomas Thornley of the army’s 14th Regiment recounted to a local magistrate how on 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.

Ironically, despite the considerable efforts made by the gangs to help foment revolt against Great Britain, it was the American Revolution which eventually brought their celebrations to an end. Breck states that with respect to the battles and parades, “everything of the kind ceased with the termination of our Revolutionary War.” The anti-Catholic sentiment expressed on November 5th was, of course, contrary to professed American ideals of religious toleration. When Catholic France began to be seen as a potential ally in the war against the British, and large numbers of Catholics from Maryland and Pennsylvania began filling the ranks of the Continental Army, American leaders decided to vigorously discourage anti-Catholic displays. Thus came the orders of General George Washington:

At this juncture and under such circumstances, to be insulting [the Catholic] religion, is so monstrous as not to be suffered or excused; indeed, instead of offering the more remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our brethren, as to them we are indebted for every late happy success over the common enemy in Canada.

With this, Pope Night celebrations largely came to an end, and accounts of gang warfare in Boston dwindled. After Benedict Arnold’s defection to the British in 1780, crowds began replacing effigies of the Pope with those of Arnold, lending the processions a less religious and more patriotic air. During the 1790s, local newspapers occasionally printed complaints about “Anticks”—young rogues, possibly remnants of the old gangs, who visited houses around Christmas, performing traditional mummers’ plays and asking for money. Samuel Breck recalled

They were a set of the lowest blackguards, who, disguised in filthy clothes and ofttimes with masked faces, went from house to house in large companies, and, bon gré, mal gré, obtruding themselves everywhere, particularly into the rooms that were occupied by parties of ladies and gentlemen, would demand themselves with great insolence. I have seen them at my father’s, when his assembled friends were at cards, take possession of a table, seat themselves on rich furniture, and proceed to handle the cards, to the great annoyance of the company. The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue between two or more of them. One of them would cry out: —

‘Ladies and gentlemen sitting by the fire,
Put your hands in your pockets and give us our desire.’

When this was done, and they had received some money, a kind of acting took place. One fellow was knocked down and lay sprawling on the carpet, while another bellowed out: —

‘See, there he lies!
But ere he dies,
A doctor must be had.’

He calls for a doctor, who soon appears, and enacts the part so well that the wounded man revives. In this way they would continue for half an hour; and it happened not unfrequently that the house would be filled by another gang when these had departed. There was no refusing admittance. Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose.

Just what happened to the gang-members after this is a matter of conjecture, although we do know that, after the commencement of the Revolution, South End gang leader Ebenezer McIntosh fled British-held Boston with his two small children. After reaching American lines, he made his way on foot to North Haverhill, New Hampshire, where he remained, and died in 1812.

The writer and blogger J. L. Bell makes a good case that certain elements of Pope Night did not die out, but survived to be transformed into customs which were incorporated into another well-known American holiday. Namely, the act of dressing up in costume, lighting bonfires, and going door to door asking for coins. These traditions only needed to shift six days earlier–from November 5th to October 31st, which is, of course, Halloween.


Sources and Further Reading:

South end forever, North end forever. Extraordinary verses on Pope-night. or, A commemoration the fifth of November, giving a history of the attempt, made by the papishes, to blow up king and Parliament, A. D. 1588. Together with some account of the Pope himself, and his wife Joan: with several other things worthy of notice, too tedious to mention. Sold by the printers boys in Boston [1768].

Thomas, Isaiah, The history of printing in America, with a biography of printers, New York: Burt Franklin, 1874.

Pierce, Edward Lillie, Letters and diary of John Rowe, Boston merchant, 1759-1762, 1764-1779, Boston: W.B. Clarke, 1903.

Sons of the American Revolution, Minnesota Society Year Books. Minnesota Society, William Henry Grant, 1889-1895.

Bourne, Russell, Cradle of Violence: How Boston’s Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

Morgan, Edmund S. & Morgan, Helen M., The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1995.

Fradin, Dennis, Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence, Clarion Books, New York, 1998.

Rothbard, Murray N., Conceived in Liberty, Vol III, Advance to Revolution, 1760-1775, Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, 1999.

  1. Wonderfully written. I knew the North vs South Boston gangs but had no idea it was thie vicious and had never heard of the battle of the Popes! Well done Mr. Miller! I look forward to more of the same and will pass it around.

    • My dear fellow Abijah, so glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for spreading the word. Rest assured there will be more articles pertaining to lost Georgian-era culture and forgotten colonial customs.

      Shall we be crossing blades again this year? I hear that Sgt. Woolf and company won’t be attending 😦

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