NOTE: Normally, the feature stories published in Mobile Mask magazine do not appear here on the web site. However, the 2015 magazine story about Joe Cain was so important that we have published it here. Below the story, you'll find additional info about Joe Cain Day.
Changing Joe's Story
Mobile Mask Has Uncovered Startling Facts
That Should Alter the Way We Tell Joe's Tale
By Steve Joynt
Editor/Publisher Mobile Mask
Certain people in history have two distinct life stories: the real story, the best historians can tell it; and the legend, which develops and spreads for a variety of reasons.
Oddly, the real story never seems to dampen enthusiasm for the telling of the legend. We’re all pretty sure that George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree.
There’s simply no proof that it happened, even from our first president’s own writings. But we continue to tell the story, especially to our children.
Historical fact and legend coexist peacefully, intermingled in our collective consciousness, each offering further understanding of a person or at least how others saw them.
The story of Joseph Stillwell Cain, who is widely recognized for initiating the way Mobile now celebrates Mardi Gras, is liberally peppered with legend and even plain old mistakes.
In 1930 – just 25 or so years after Joe’s death – the tale of his Mardi Gras ride through Mobile was told by author and journalist Erwin Craighead.
“It happened in 1866 that Joe Cain, who was clerk of the market and passed for the town wit, began a celebration all his own, a one-man show.” Craighead then quoted Benjamin B. Cox, who wrote his own book about Mobile in 1909, as saying, “... Cain appeared on the streets as an Indian chief, calling himself Slackabamirimico, and hailing from Wragg swamp. Another account says Cain arrived in a decorated charcoal wagon and dispensed music.”
Already this sounds quite familiar to anyone who lives in Mobile.
Julian Lee “Judy” Rayford repeated Craighead’s description and further fleshed out and embellished the tale in his 1962 book, “Chasin’ the Devil Round a Stump,” with passages such as, “He came out in his charcoal wagon dressed as the great Chickasaw Chief, Slacabamorinico, and he had a cabinet of six comic advisers sitting in the wagon with him …
“In 1867, Joe Cain appeared again in a tall plumed hat. He had epaulettes on his swallow-tail coat with great big brass buttons. He wore red knee boots with spurs on each one. And he went along banging discordant music out of a huge bass drum so big he could barely see over it to navigate. He was so funny, the children followed him around Mobile the whole day.”
The next year, all seem to agree, Joe was followed on Mobile’s streets by the Order of Myths on Fat Tuesday 1868, and Mobile’s modern Mardi Gras celebration was well on its way.
It paints a marvelous picture. If only it was true.
From Joe Cain’s obituary to his epitaph, others strove to tell his story, all beginning with the same date of his first ride: Fat Tuesday 1866.
To be blunt, that year is wrong. And Joe never rode through Mobile on Fat Tuesday 1867 because he was in New Orleans that day.
According to newspaper accounts of the time located by Mobile Mask, Joe Cain and the Lost Cause Minstrels first rode through Mobile on the afternoon of Mardi Gras Day 1868. He was first not by two years, he was first by several hours, just ahead of the first Order of Myths parade, the theme of which was Thomas Moore’s “Lalla Rookh.”
Obviously the best source on this would be Joe himself. There is evidence he attempted to publish a memoir, but that apparently never happened. One of his descendants has been searching for it for years to no avail.
However, the History Museum of Mobile has in its files a small newspaper clipping titled “Myths and Mardi Gras” that was penned, it says at the bottom, by Joseph S. Cain. The date and name of the newspaper are missing, but an educated guess would place it in the Mobile Daily Tribune close to the turn of the 20th century.
This 298-word article is remarkable for a number of reasons. In it, Joe established Mobile’s Mardi Gras history from the New Year’s Eve parading groups, starting with the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. The second half of the article is about what he himself did, and that account is probably as surprising for what it doesn’t say as what it does. (The full story by Joe Cain can be found elsewhere on this web site, just click here.)
In the story, Joe wrote, “In 1866 Washington Fire Company No. 8, of Mobile, of which I was a member, attended the Annual Parade of the New Orleans Fire Department, as the guests of Perseverance Fire Co. No. 13. In that year Mardi Gras occurred on the 5th of March, the day after the parade of the Fire Department. I appeared on the streets of New Orleans … in Mardi Gras costume, and was (in) the special care of No. 13.
“My experience on that occasion was so pleasant that I determined on my return home, that Mobile should have its own Mardi Gras celebration …”
Even in Joe’s account, there are factual errors – most notably, again, the year. He did not go to New Orleans in 1866 for the fire department parade. He and other members of Washington No. 8 went to New Orleans in 1867.
The firehouse for Washington No. 8 was located on the west side of Lawrence Street in Mobile, between Dauphin and St. Francis streets, and Joe, who lived about 16 blocks away on what is now Augusta Street, was a member for many years.
It was a fire company of some renown, especially when it came to competing against other departments at “washing” or pumping water. According to the “History of the Fire Department of New Orleans,” published in 1895, “This Mobile company (No. 8) was the crack organization of all the South, noted throughout the country for its prowess and for the excellent discipline and training …”
The company’s motto was “Here We Are.”
That same history book reported that the annual New Orleans parade of volunteer fire departments, which celebrated the founding of the Fireman’s Charitable Association in 1834, was always held on March 4, starting in 1837. So Joe got that part correct.
And Fat Tuesday – the date of which fluctuates wildly because of the way Easter Sunday is determined – was March 5 in 1867, the day after the fire parade. In 1866 Fat Tuesday was February 13, nowhere near the time of the fire parade.
Joe also reported the wrong host for the company’s New Orleans trip. According to a story in The New Orleans Times on March 1, 1867, about the upcoming 30th fire parade, “Our sister city across the lake does not intend to be unrepresented either, but sends one of her best fire companies, Washington 8, to take part in the proceedings of the day. This company, one hundred strong, will be accompanied by many of the dignitaries of the city of Mobile, and during their sojourn, both will be the invited guests of Phoenix Fire Company No. 8 …”
Mobile papers at the time confirmed that the men of Washington No. 8 were traveling to New Orleans at the invitation of Phoenix No. 8.
How can we be sure that Joe actually went? In the strictest sense, we can’t.
However, The New Orleans Times printed a list in its March 4, 1867, edition of the names of the members of Washington No. 8 who were in town for the parade, and there, between “John F. Petty” and “David McCullough,” was the name “Joseph Cain.”
What about the mistakes, though? How could that have happened?
Joe was likely in his 60s when he wrote the short article “as a general reply to innumerable inquiries,” and recalling events 30 or so years in the past. Who among us might not be a year off or get a few details wrong under similar circumstances?
For example, Joe’s article made reference to Joseph Ellison, a former Mobilian who helped form the Mistick Krewe of Comus in New Orleans. But the article called him “Joe Elnos.” That could’ve been a product of Joe Cain’s faulty memory or a newspaper staffer had difficulty reading his handwriting (surely it was handwritten when he submitted it – typewriters were not in wide use at the time) or a simple mistake was made by the typesetter in the back room.
Any of those factors could also explain the misspelling of Michael Krafft’s name or the wrong date for the founding of the Cowbellions in Joe’s article.
What we wouldn’t expect Joe to get wrong was the actual sequence of events: He went to New Orleans for the fire parade and stayed for Mardi Gras. The next year, according to his article, “the L.C. Minstrels, organized by myself, made their first parade and created an immense excitement.”
That year, he wrote, was 1867. But because he was a year off on the New Orleans trip, it was actually 1868.
One could call the authenticity of Joe’s article into question. After all, we have not been able to place it in the specific newspaper it came from – not for lack of trying. Even if that could be found, could it be said for certain that Joe wrote it?
Consider some of the other evidence weighing in on the article’s version of events. The Mobile newspapers in 1866 at the time of Fat Tuesday reported nothing out of the ordinary, and frankly, this was a time when even the smallest excitement made the papers. On Ash Wednesday that year, for example, there was an item that began, “A drunken fellow was rushed out of the restaurant of Mr. Weidman, on Royal Street, this morning, and the doors, which are chiefly glass, closed on him. The drunken chap backed to the curb and took a running jump at the door …”
Scour those newspapers just before, during, and after Fat Tuesday, and there will be not one mention of a man in a wagon making a curious racket. No Lost Cause Minstrels, no Chief Slac.
By contrast, consider this opening paragraph in the Mobile Daily Register on Ash Wednesday 1868: “Yesterday was a new era in the mythical, mystical, poetic, romantic, and artistic history of Mobile. The mystic societies of New Year’s Eve have long since become celebrated, but the last day of the Carnival had heretofore been unnoted in our local calendar.”
Heretofore unnoted. One would think that if Joe Cain had brought Mardi Gras merriment to the streets of Mobile in 1866 and again in 1867, the newspaper in 1868 would not have referred to Mardi Gras Day as "heretofore unnoted."
That same story in the February 26, 1868, issue of the Register wrote mostly of the “brilliant procession” by the Order of Myths, but there was also a description of “much curiosity and merriment … caused by the appearance of the Minstrel band of the L.C.’s … The Minstrels, who were gotten up as monkeys, were mounted upon a dilapidated wagon and discoursed wild, and, we must say, most discordant music. They were followed by large crowds of boys, shouting and yelling, and presented a most ludicrous and laughable sight. After traversing different parts of the city, they halted in front of our office and regaled our ears with a monkey serenade.”
Interestingly, there was no mention of Joe Cain or a man dressed as an Indian named Chief Slacabamarinico. In Joe’s article many years later, he also never mentioned what we have come to know as his alter-ego.
Joe’s name did show up in that same 1868 issue of the Register in a short item headlined “The No. 8 Horses.” The item said that “a large number of the members” of Washington Fire No. 8 “assembled on Monday night at Tom Burke’s.” The meeting was called by J.B. Reilly, who recently won two of No. 8’s horses in a raffle. “A large amount of champagne was quaffed, and the gentlemen present enjoyed themselves hugely.” A short list of some of those present included “Jos. Cain.”
As a last bit of evidence, consider this excerpt from the Register on Ash Wednesday 1869, recounting the previous day’s events in the second year of modern Mardi Gras in Mobile: “Earlier in the day the L.C. Minstrels paraded around downtown Mobile portraying animals. This impromptu society was started last year by 16 Confederate soldiers who called themselves the Lost Causes.”
From further newspaper accounts, the Lost Cause Minstrels continued on, appearing every Fat Tuesday with a different theme, different costumes, even adding a second wagon. By 1874, the papers started naming Chief Slacabamarinico as the group’s leader or conductor, but they never named Joe Cain.
Joe moved south to Bayou La Batre in 1877, and after 1879, the Minstrels disappeared from the Mardi Gras lineup, simply vanished into the Carnival mist. Joe died in 1904.
Accepting this major change in the Joe Cain story, that he and the L.C. Minstrels did not ride until 1868, begs a couple of important questions.
Was Joe Cain the first to bring a Mardi Gras celebration to the streets of Mobile?
Yes. No question. He was recognized in his lifetime as the founder of Mardi Gras.
Would Mardi Gras have come to Mobile and grown in the same way without him?
Yes, with one exception – Joe Cain Day.
Because of the highly flawed legend of Joe Cain, which Mobile schoolchildren know by heart – Joe, the Confederate veteran, brought Mardi Gras back to Mobile by dressing up as Chief Slac and leading the Lost Cause Minstrels through town, much to the chagrin of occupying Union forces – Joe Cain is viewed as the patron saint of Mobile Mardi Gras.
As such, the city has built a truly unique and beloved celebration around him, and none of that should change.
But maybe we should wait and recognize the 150th anniversary of his first ride in 2018, not 2016.
Joe Cain Day
A Unique Celebration
Since 1967, the Sunday before Fat Tuesday has been known as Joe Cain Day in Mobile, Alabama, to honor the man who got the Mardi Gras ball rolling in 1868.
The celebration was established by local historian Julian Lee "Judy" Rayford, who believed Cain to be Mobile's most important historical figure. In 1966, Rayford had the bodies of Cain and Cain's wife, Elizabeth Rabby Cain, disinterred from their burial plots in Bayou La Batre and reburied in the Church Street Cemetery in downtown Mobile.
The next year, Rayford, dressed as Cain's Indian chief character, Slacabamarinico, led something of a jazz funeral procession through downtown streets to the Church Street Cemetery. Rayford made it an annual event and passed the torch to J.B. "Red" Foster, who portrayed Ol' Slac for 15 years.
Wayne Dean Sr. has portrayed Chief Slac in the Joe Cain Procession - the centerpiece of Joe Cain Day - for more than 30 years now. The procession has become one of, if not the, most popular events of Carnival in Mobile. Many revelers say that Joe Cain Day is their favorite of the season, and they especially like the family atmosphere. Folks set up grills and tents all along the parade route, and Joe Cain parties are held in homes and yards throughout downtown.
At one time, the procession was known as The People's Parade because, quite simply, anyone could show up with a homemade float and join in. It got so big, however, that the police department had to cap the number of units in the procession.
For the most part, these are not the fancy floats, covered with mythical figures or cartoon characters, used by the other parading societies. For Joe Cain, it's usually a neighborhood or a large group of friends building plywood floats on trailer beds. Some even use old school buses. The groups have names such as the Mystic Order of Dead Rock Stars or the Cain Raisers Society.
In 2015, the Joe Cain Marching Society obtained its own parading permit and processed right behind the floats, led by Wayne Dean. The separation was the result of a disagreement between the Marching Society and the Joe Cain Parading Society, but the result may just mean an even longer parade.
Another big part of Joe Cain Day is a mystic group formed in 1974, known as Cain's Merry Widows. These ladies dress all in black, including veils, and they zealously guard their true identities. The whole idea of the group is perfect Mardi Gras comedy, since Cain only had one wife. These 20 or so ladies (their character names include Sue Ellen, Scarlet, Emmy Lou, Pearl, Tara, Savannah, Gertrude, Salome, and Mary Jane) make several appearances downtown during the day.
Crowds love the ladies' reputation for prodigious drinking and their constant bickering over which of them Joe loved best. Their throws - black beads, black roses, and black garters - are among the most coveted of Mobile's Mardi Gras. The widows first travel to the Church Street Cemetery to wail over Cain's grave. Then they visit the Joe Cain house on Augusta Street to toast his memory. Lastly, they ride a black bus in the Joe Cain procession.
In 2003, another group of mysterious women sprang up to take part in the Joe Cain Day festivities, the Mistresses of Joe Cain. These ladies, while they wear large hats with veils, hardly look like mourners, since they're dressed entirely in bright red. They walk in the procession and hand out red roses adorned with red ribbons, with their noms de Mardi Gras stamped in gold.
At last count, there were 20 Mistresses, with names such as Zora, Scarlet, Bee, Garnet, Kitty, Tallulah, Jezzie, Belle, Ruby and Gizele. Unlike the Widows, the Mistresses "don't cry over losing Joe. We celebrate his life, and he is with us always because of course he loved us best!" according to Zora.
Sometimes the Mistresses and Widows get into a mock catfight before the procession gets started.
To make it a full day of events, there's a 5K race called the Joe Cain Classic, which always ends with a party in front of the Joe Cain house. MAMGA's King Elexis I arrives at the foot of Government Street and precedes the Joe Cain Procession with a long motorcade. After the Joe Cain Procession, Le Krewe de Bienville parades at 5.
All over Mobile on the following Monday, there's plenty of tired folks doing their best to rest up for Fat Tuesday.