Just as the clock is striking twelve, thus adding another year to the era of American independence, your eyes will be drawn irresistibly to a towering monument of hogsheads and barrels and casks that raises its huge form one hundred and thirty-five feet high, and bulks against the midnight sky.
That's how Reverend James L. Hill, a Salem minister, described the massive bonfire lit each July on the night before the Fourth. For weeks, volunteers assembled materials, stacking them into a towering pyramid reaching high into the air. Fat hogsheads on the bottom supported row upon row of oily casks, topped with layers of smaller kegs. The pyramid claimed 8,000 barrels; some years, it had 40 tiers. At midnight, a bundle of burning rags was run up to the top on wire pulleys, igniting the pile and announcing "that the night has turned into the morning of a new year of liberty." The flames reflected off the yellow wildflowers blanketing the hillside, and flickered across the faces of the twenty thousand in the crowd.
But if the residents of Salem could boast that Gallows Hill was home to the tallest bonfire in the world—the current Guinness record fails to measure up—they preferred not to focus on the site's haunted past.
In the fall of 1692, 19 innocent men and women were hung from the hill's eponymous gallows, accused of witchcraft. A century later, Salem had not grown much more tolerant. Colonial Salem, like other towns in the region, celebrated Pope-Night, a commemoration of Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot in England that blended anti-Catholicism with drunken carousing. A rowdy procession wound its way through the streets of Salem, bearing effigies of the Pope, Satan, and despised politicians. Afterwards, the young men "gathered all the tubs, tar barrels, and other combustibles" they could beg or steal, threw the effigies on top, and ignited a large bonfire on Gallows Hill.