Pope’s Day in Early New York City

By Luke J. Feder

A 1769 woodcut of Pope Night celebrations in Boston

A 1769 woodcut of Pope Night celebrations in Boston


On the evening of November 5, 1755, New Yorkers paraded through the city streets with effigies of the Pope, Pretender, and Devil. The revelers had propped up the effigies on a bier and had ensured that each was “hideously formed, and as humourously contrived.” As the festivities continued, the Devil disingenuously offered his respects to the Pope, but then used his pitchfork to “thrust his Holiness on the Back.” Meanwhile, the Pretender lingered patiently for the Pope’s orders. Participants continued through the streets with effigies in tow. The Seven Years’ War between Britain and France had begun roughly a year before, so New Yorkers stopped at the temporary home of Jean Erdman, the Baron Dieskau, a captured general for the French army. The baron sought “to prevent Mischief” by giving the crowd “some Silver.” In response, members of the crowd yelled, “Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!” Lastly, they “march’d off to a proper Place, and set Fire to the Devil’s Tail, burning the Three to Cinders.”[1]

Pope’s Day emerged in colonial America as the counterpart to England’s Guy Fawkes Day, which was also celebrated on November 5 to remember the failed Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Catholic Guy Fawkes had planned to assassinate King James I and members of Parliament by detonating a bomb made from gunpowder, but authorities had thwarted the scheme. Colonists substituted Fawkes with an effigy of the Pope and also included an effigy of the Devil—visually and symbolically linking Catholicism with arbitrary power. They probably obtained this custom from their English brethren who used effigies of the Pope and Devil to denounce King Charles I’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria who was a Catholic. Pope’s Day occupied an important position within the political culture of the English colonies. It was an evolving celebration that incorporated different rites and symbols depending on the political, religious, and local circumstances.[2]

While November 5 began as a means of expressing English identity and celebrating the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism, the holiday in both England and colonial America began to take on anti-Stuart overtones during the Exclusion Crisis. Members of Parliament -- especially those from the Country Party—sought to eliminate James Stuart, the Duke of York, proprietor of New York, and heir to the thrones of England and Scotland, from the line of succession due to his Catholic religion. During this era, English crowds once again used effigies of the Pope to denounce Catholicism and by extension the House of Stuart. After the Glorious Revolution, which deposed the now King James II, the celebration took on even more anti-Stuart and anti-Catholic connotations. It also helped to legitimize two successions of foreigners to the English throne -- the Dutch House of Orange in 1689 and the German House of Hanover in 1714 -- based on their Protestantism. Pope’s Day spread throughout the colonies, serving to reaffirm imperial ties and helping to anglicize Dutch, Germans, and other predominantly Protestant ethnic groups.[3]

In the late-seventeenth century, New Yorkers probably did not officially observe Pope’s Day until after the Glorious Revolution. As proprietor of New York, the duke and later king had expanded religious toleration in the colony to include Catholics, Quakers, Lutherans, and even unofficially Jews. Under his rule, it was unlikely that the colonial or city governments would have sanctioned a Pope’s Day celebration. New York City’s first Pope’s Day was more than likely in November 1689 just after the Glorious Revolution and under the leadership of German-born Jacob Leisler who had lead the overthrow of the colonial government loyal to James II. While New Yorkers did burn an effigy of the Pope in 1689, the majority of these early holidays would have been more dignified and far less raucous than those that occurred in the mid-eighteenth century. On November 5, 1737, for example, members of the provincial and city governments toasted to the royal family and “under the Discharge of the Cannon and at Night the City was illuminated.”[4]


In 1748, New Yorkers copied their compatriots in Boston and celebrated the first of the more disorderly versions of Pope’s Day. They paraded through the streets holding -- or perhaps pulling on carts -- effigies of the Pope, Devil, and Pretender. After the death of James II in 1701, Bostonians incorporated an effigy of the Pretender -- James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of James II and known by his Jacobite supporters as King James III. The practice grew popular in both England and North America especially after the First Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 when James III and his supporters took advantage of the uncertainty over the Hanoverian succession and invaded Scotland and England. New York’s elites and non-elites, alike, watched as the revelers marched through the city before finally stopping at the Commons, where they committed the effigies to flames.[5]

As November 5 became more popular among the masses, the holiday took on more subversive meanings. Historian Paul A. Gilje posits that political and economic discord lay beneath the patriotic overtones. While the Pope signified the arbitrary nature of Catholicism, it may have also symbolized a distrust of “all church hierarchy.” The effigy of the Pretender represented not just the dreaded House of Stuart, but also the aristocracy. Gilje suggests, “Under the guise of patriotism, the common folk could denigrate and humiliate this effigy, which represented an individual ordinarily untouchable.” The Pretender served as a warning to those in power -- even the monarch -- who might trample on the English Constitution and the liberties it protected.[6]

During the pre-Revolutionary era, Pope’s Day influenced much of the imagery that crowds utilized to protest unfair imperial policies—especially the Stamp Act.[7] In 1765, the holiday came early to New York City. On November 1, the day the Stamp Act was supposed to go into effect, New Yorkers participated in the largest and most destructive of the city’s Stamp Act riots. Demonstrators -- or “Rabble or rather Rebels” as Captain John Montresor, an engineer for the provincial government, referred to them—gathered at the Common and then walked with lights through the Fly Market. Roughly two thousand New Yorkers marched to the Merchants’ Coffee-House, where they stopped briefly before proceeding to the walls of Fort George. Outside the fort, they broke into Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden’s stable and took his coach. Colden, who was a Scotsman and in charge of the province until the arrival of the new governor, had become one of New Yorkers’ favorite symbols of tyranny -- whether rightly or wrongly deserved. The demonstrators paraded the coach through the streets before returning to the Common, where they erected a gallows and hanged an effigy of Colden from it. “[I]n his right Hand he held a stamp’d Bill of Lading, and on his Breast was affix’d a Paper with the following Inscription, The Rebel Drummer in the Year 1715: At his Back was fixed a Drum, the Badge of his Profession.” Next to the effigy of Colden, New Yorkers also hanged an effigy of the Devil, “a proper Companion for the other, as ‘tis suppos’d it was intirely at his Instigation he acted.” In his hand, the Devil held a boot. The protestors next carried the gallows and coach “in a grand Procession” to Fort George and finally to Bowling Green, “under the Muzzles of the Fort Guns, where a Bon-Fire was immediately made, and the Drummer, Devil, Coach, &c. were consumed amidst the Acclamations of some Thousand Spectators.” According to the New-York Mercury, Colden and other public officials witnessed the entire spectacle from the fort’s ramparts. The riot continued until four in the morning. During that span of time, protestors also destroyed the home of Major Thomas James who had helped to increase the fortifications at Fort George in order to guard the stamps.[8]

New Yorkers had infused the Pope’s Day iconography with their own symbols to make their message more effective and clear. Instead of the Pope, demonstrators incorporated an effigy of Lt. Governor Colden. They placed an effigy of the Devil next to Colden, linking the agent of hell with the agent of the Stamp Act. This imagery also represented the struggle between good and evil, liberty and arbitrary power. New Yorkers also connected Colden with the Jacobites, the supporters of the tyrannical Stuart monarchs, by referring to him as the Rebel Drummer. The association had no basis in fact, but rather local rumor. The Devil’s boot was a not so veiled reference to John Stuart, the third Earl of Bute, an advisor to King George III and a distant relative to the deposed James II. Many provincials blamed Lord Bute for the Stamp Act -- even though in actually he was not a supporter of the act. For symbolic purposes, however, protestors sought to capitalize on his connection to the House of Stuart. The Rebel Drummer and boot symbolically linked the Stamp Act with Stuart absolutism. Most importantly, a holiday that had previously helped to legitimize the Hanoverian administration now associated it with illegitimate government. While there were threats on November 5 of “storming . . . the Fort this Night under cover of burning Pope and pretender,” Colden and protestors had reached a temporary peace after the stamps were turned over to the city government.[9]

November 5 was very much part of a transatlantic political culture. On both sides of the Atlantic, English subjects preserved, appropriated, reinvented, and discarded elements from this political culture to suit their local needs and circumstances. They used the same rituals, rites, and symbols, but often with diverging connotations. Pope’s Day was an important component of this political culture and, as with other aspects of it, took on a different meaning from place to place.

Luke J. Feder teaches at The College of New Rochelle, Brooklyn Campus. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Stony Brook University.

[1] I. N. Phelps Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, vol. 4 (New York: Robert H. Dodd, 1922), 673; New-York Post-Boy, November 10, 1755; quoted in Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, vol. 4, 673; and Paul A. Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 26.

[2] Alfred F. Young, “English Plebian Culture and Eighteenth-Century American Radicalism,” in The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, eds. Margaret Jacob and James Jacob (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984), 198; Peter Shaw, American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 15-16; Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 56-63; and Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 20-23.

[3] McConville, The King’s Three Faces, 57-59. For a succinct discussion on Protestantism and British identity, see Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 11-54.

[4] Ned C. Landsman, Crossroads of Empire: The Middle Colonies in British North America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 32-37; Jason K. Duncan, Citizens or Papists?: The Politics of Anti-Catholicism in New York, 1685-1821 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 24; McConville, The King’s Three Faces, 57; and Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, vol. 4, 554.

[5] New-York Weekly Journal, November 7, 1748; Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, vol. 4, 673; Young, “English Plebian Culture and Eighteenth-Century American Radicalism,” 198; Shaw, American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution, 16; and McConville, The King’s Three Faces, 58-59. For a more information on the Jacobites, see Paul Kleber Monod, Jacobitism and the English People, 1688-1788 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Colley, Britons, 71-85; and Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism, 1715-1785 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 101-17.

[6] Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy, 28-29. Historian Simon Newman also notes the subversive elements of Pope’s Day (see Parades and the Politics of the Street, 20-22).

[7] For a brief overview of the resistance against the Stamp Act in New York City, see Luke J. Feder, “The Sense of the City: Politics and Culture in Pre-Revolutionary New York City” (Ph.D. diss., Stony Brook University, 2010), 25-68.

[8] G. D. Scull, ed., The Montresor Journals, Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vol. 14 (New York: Printed for the Society, 1882), 337 (Hereafter cited as Montresor Journals); “Joseph Allicocke to John Lamb, November 21, 1765,” John Lamb Papers [Microfilm], New-York Historical Society, New York, New York, Reel 1; New-York Mercury [Published as No Stamped Paper to be had], November 7, 1765; and Jesse Lemisch, Jack Tar Vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1997), 80. For more on Major Thomas James, who New Yorkers, in part, blamed for the increase in fortifications at Fort George, and the events that led up to the destruction of his home, see Feder, “The Sense of the City,” 35-50.

[9] Lemisch, Jack Tar Vs. John Bull, 109-10n; Shaw, American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution, 8; and Montresor Journals, 338. On the political maligning of Lord Bute, see John Brewer, “The Misfortunes of Lord Bute: A Case Study in Eighteenth-Century Political Argument and Public Opinion,” Historical Journal 16 (March 1973): 3-43.