How Mobile’s Modern Mardi Gras Got Its Start
Historians and others can argue about which group of early explorers first hoisted a drink on Shrove Tuesday, yelled “Happy Mardi Gras!” then fell down and whether they were closer to the present locations of Mobile, Alabama, or New Orleans, Louisiana, when they did it.
It seems like such a small point.
It’s far more interesting to explore the events that led directly to the Mardi Gras we know: the secret societies, the high-class balls, the elaborate parades, the tons of throws.
And all of that has to start in Mobile on the day after Christmas 1831. A captain whose ship was tied up in Mobile invited a young cotton broker named Michael Krafft to enjoy dinner with him aboard ship, according to an account written by Charles Kennerly, who described Krafft as “a fellow of infinite jest and was fond of fun of any kind.”
After dinner, as Krafft made his way home through the dark streets of Mobile, he came upon a hardware store. “For some reason or other,” Kennerly wrote, “Krafft sat down in the doorway, and in so doing, his head … dislodged (a) rake and string of cowbells. They came rattling down on him, whereat he gathered up the bells and tied them, bell by bell, to the teeth of the rake.”
Krafft resumed his trip home with the jangling rake. “This extraordinary spectacle, of course, attracted the attention of ‘the boys,’ and by the time (Krafft) had reached Royal Street, he had a crowd around him.” Someone asked Krafft, “What society is this?”
“Michael, giving his rake an extra shake and looking up at his bells,” Kennerly wrote, “responded, ‘This? This is the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.’ ”
There have been many versions of this story written and rewritten, told and retold, but Kennerly’s is likely the closest to true, since he was one of the original Cowbellions. According to him, Krafft’s harmless little escapade and witty retort wound up in the area newspapers right away, and the papers openly speculated on whether the Cowbellions would show up again on New Year’s Eve.
It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Folks turned out on New Year’s Eve to see what would happen, Kennerly among them. He joined 40 to 60 men who gathered at “the place of rendezvous,” a coffee house in Exchange Alley. The men were “formed and put in line of march about nine o’clock. Having got into the street, we were met by a messenger from the mayor, John Stocking, who invited us to call at his residence and partake of a collation.”
The band of men did go to the mayor’s residence, where they were fed, and they stopped at several other residences. They had a grand time. “I had no expectation of hearing anything more of the matter,” Kennerly wrote, but nearly a year later, “I saw in the papers a notice calling the Cowbellions together at the appointed time.”
The Cowbellions indeed continued on. By 1833, according to historian Julian “Judy” Rayford, the men paraded in masks and fancy costumes, and many were on horseback. In 1840, the Cowbellions presented a parade of six floats – “the first of their kind in the United States,” Rayford wrote – with the theme “Heathen Gods and Goddesses.” Krafft never saw the grand spectacle, as he died of yellow fever in 1839.
The Cowbellions grew into the country’s first mystic society, a secret and exclusive group that existed solely for the purpose of parading and throwing elaborate parties. The Cowbellions begat the Strikers, a group of younger men who, apparently, could not earn admission into the Cowbellions. A third group, known only as T.D.S. (though folks sarcastically referred to them as the Tea Drinkers Society), formed, and its original members included a young man named Joseph Stillwell Cain.
All of these groups paraded on New Year’s Eve.
In 1857, six Mobile men who had moved to New Orleans decided to form a Mardi Gras mystic society. These men had been members of the Cowbellions, though one of them was later said by Joe Cain to have been a former Striker. Together, they formed the Mystick Krewe of Comus, which presented the first Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, literally reviving the holiday in that city.
According to David Bagwell, an attorney and Mardi Gras historian in Fairhope, Alabama, the Strikers received an invitation to the first Comus ball.
Less than 10 years later, Joe Cain went to New Orleans to see a parade. Cain, a clerk at the city of Mobile’s Old Southern Market, wrote years later about his trip and the subsequent events:
“In 1866, Washington Fire Company No. 1 of Mobile, of which I was a member, attended the annual parade of the New Orleans Fire Department as the guests of Perseverance Fire Company No. 13. In that year, Mardi Gras occurred on the fifth 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 (on) the special car 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, and so announced in the Mobile Daily Tribune of that period.
“In 1867, the L.C. (Lost Cause) Minstrels, organized by myself, made their first parade and created an immense excitement.”
Cain’s account does much to leave himself out of the spectacle, which is interesting, since every school-aged child in Mobile knows the story of Joe Cain dressing up as an Indian chief and giving himself the ridiculous name of Slacabamarinico. As the story goes, Old Slac drove a coal wagon through town, trailed by the Lost Cause Minstrels, who were not musicians at all, though they made quite a lot of noise with their homemade instruments.
What caused Cain to choose to portray an Indian chief, reportedly of the Alabama Chickasaw tribe? The answer may lie in the fact that when his New Year’s Eve group, T.D.S., paraded in 1855, the theme was “The Chiefs of the Principal Tribes of Alabama Indians.” Perhaps he used parts of the leftover costume from that parade for his famous ride of 1867.
In that same year, Mobile’s first and still-parading Mardi Gras group, the Order of Myths was formed and presented its first parade in 1868, with the theme “Lalla Rookh.”
One newspaper account from that year told of “the Minstrel band of the L.C.’s” parading first. “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.”
Next, about 8:30 p.m., the OOM took to the rain-soaked streets. According to the same newspaper account, the Order of Myths “presented a gay and animated appearance and were enlivened by crowds of men and boys masked and most fantastically dressed.”
Mardi Gras in Mobile had officially begun, and it would grow at a tremendous rate. A second group, known only as H.S.S. formed in 1869 and first paraded in 1870. By 1873, H.S.S. was bankrupt, and the remaining members reformed as the Infant Mystics, which still parades today.
Though it has been reported – namely by Rayford – that Joe Cain was somehow part of the formation of the OOM, Bagwell wrote definitively that he was not. Cain did, however, have some connection with the Infant Mystics. In that group’s own written history, it says that after the first I.M. parade in 1874, “Joe Cain was thanked for the use of his flats and for his voluntary aid in forming and conducting their procession.”
By 1875 – just six years after the first OOM parade – yet another parading group that still exists today, the Knights of Revelry, hit the streets on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 9. One newspaper account of that day estimated that 50,000 to 60,000 people were in the streets to enjoy the parades of seven mystic societies.
The census count for Mobile in 1880 was only 29,132.
But what, Bagwell asked, became of the New Year’s Eve societies, especially the famous Cowbellions? “Some Cows started joining the OOM,” Bagwell wrote, “but most stayed in the Cows, too. By the end of the 1870s, about 16 percent of the Cows had joined another group, though most of them also stayed in the Cows until the 1880s.”
So for more than 10 years, the residents of and visitors to Mobile enjoyed elaborate parades on both New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras Day.
“For whatever reason, at the end of the 1880s – certainly by the early 1890s – the Cows were never heard from publicly again,” Bagwell wrote. “We know that the remaining Cows had a very rough draft constitution in 1889 … but apparently it never quite got off the ground. By then, the Cows were getting a little age on them and probably just dropped out of parading life.
“Thus, Mobile mysticism moved from New Year’s Eve to Mardi Gras.”
And for those wrapped up in the whole New Orleans vs. Mobile argument, this much is clear: Modern Mardi Gras in New Orleans began because of the influence of Mobile, and modern Mardi Gras in Mobile began because of the influence of New Orleans.