The Night Before the Fourth

The great bonfires of Gallows Hill—and what they tell us about America.

Boston Public Library / Flickr

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.

General Washington condemned the "ridiculous and childish custom" in 1775, calling the insult to Catholicism "so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused," and most New Englanders soon abandoned their celebrations. But the last regular procession would not wind its way through Salem until 1817, and there were periodic revivals over the next few decades. In 1835, Hawthorne sent one of his narrators up Gallows Hill, grumbling that, "Every fifth of November, in commemoration of they know not what, or rather without an idea beyond the momentary blaze, the young men scare the town with bonfires on this haunted height, but never dream of paying funeral honors to those who died so wrongfully."

Bonfires were a regular feature of life in the early republic. They may have been lit on Gallows Hill to celebrate victories, in war or at the polls, or to mark other civic occasions. Certainly, they were lit in New England towns at every available excuse. When the Declaration of Independence was ratified, and John Adams wrote that its anniversary "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other," he was drawing upon the full and familiar array of holiday celebrations.

And his words proved prophetic. In the young republic, the Glorious Fourth was the premier political holiday, filled with partisan speeches, processions, and public feasts. Celebrations lost much of their civic character after the Civil War, becoming rowdier, drenched with liquor and punctuated with exuberant gunfire. In Salem, the young men returned to Gallows Hill, where their fathers and grandfathers had built bonfires to mark Pope-Day, and proved similarly devoted to the momentary blaze. The pyramids they constructed were not only physically imposing, but also practical. Old barrels were abundant and available, a by-product of the industrial age.

These wild, towering conflagrations garnered support at the beginning of the 20th century from an unlikely quarter: the national movement for a Safe and Sane Fourth of July. In 1903, the year that the Journal of the American Medical Association first compiled statistics, celebrations of the Glorious Fourth left more than 400 dead and nearly 4,000 injured. Blank cartridges, fired off by children with toy guns, were the leading cause of injury. "Patriotic tetanus" often ensued; the bacillus claimed most of its annual victims in that first week of July. Parents, one reformer wrote, "each hoped that the Angel of Death might pass by our own child and that it might be only a strange little toddler whose eyesight would be destroyed or whose pretty baby fingers would be torn and mutilated."

Fortunately, New England had an alternative tradition readily at hand. Compared to the deadly mayhem of firecrackers and guns, a public bonfire seemed positively innocuous. It could be carefully sited, supervised and controlled. It could supplant the smaller, improvised bonfires that boys built by taking everything wooden that was not nailed down, and which often set neighboring houses aflame. It could replace the blazing tar barrels, lighted and rolled unevenly through the streets. Local politicians, once burnt in effigy at rowdier bonfires, could instead wave to the assembled crowds and light the pyre. In 1915, Boston officially sanctioned one of its three annual conflagrations, in Roxbury; the crowd there tripled that year, to more than 30,000. More than 200,000 gathered at the official bonfire in 1929, as the city congratulated itself on creating a "general observance of 'the night before' under safe and sane conditions," leaving behind "the old idea of individual parties where danger lurks."

These public spectacles also served another purpose, pulling together the diverse denizens of industrial New England into a single civic celebration. Springfield, a leading reformer soon boasted, had instituted "a great festival in which all citizens, young and old, native and foreign-born, realize their unity in a common celebration." The small gatherings in each neighborhood of the increasingly stratified cities were replaced by a single, massive affair. Recent immigrants rubbed shoulders with respectable bankers, while their children scampered up lamp-poles, craning for a better view. All across Massachusetts, and in the adjoining states, cities and towns vied to assemble the largest bonfires.

But none truly rivaled Salem. Its towering pyramids were a national marvel. In 1930, a newsreel crew captured workers, perched proudly along their 100-foot pyramid, and then the inferno that night, as thirty layers of barrels lit the sky. Even decades later, when Life ran a history of the Fourth, it dug out a photograph of the pyramid of barrels in Salem in 1909 to illustrate the turn toward safe and sane celebrations. The bonfires of Gallows Hill, first lit in rituals of intolerance, had been transmuted into patriotic pageants celebrating civic unity.

Sometime in the 1960s, though, the bonfires finally tapered off. There is a ready material explanation. In 1909, well over 100 million wooden barrels were produced each year. By 1947, the last year the census bothered counting, the total was closer to 25 million, and falling fast. The piles of barrels behind every corner grocery became heaps of soggy cardboard. The bounty of discarded wood used by generations of thrill-seeking boys simply disappeared.

Fireworks displays, long a part of the festivities, were becoming cheaper and more sophisticated. They became the centerpieces of civic celebrations, most often after nightfall on the Fourth itself. And those celebrations became ever safer and saner, shedding their dangerous allure in favor of a more family-friendly approach. This year, Salem's fireworks display will follow face-painting and a concert on Monday night. There will be no bonfire.

But something has been lost, as well, in the domestication of the holiday. The rowdy, youthful exuberance of a new nation has faded. But the sense of aspiration and possibility has not; our union still strives to become more perfect. A century ago, Reverend Hill contemplated the ironies of the great bonfires of his city. Gallows Hill, after all, was a byword for injustice. But the fires seemed to suggest that even there, better things were possible. He imagined that:

The stars that may have hid their faces at certain scenes enacted upon these promontories … look down kindly upon young America, full of the fresh feeling of life.