Ask McGehee

Prior to this year, have Mardi Gras parades ever been cancelled due to a pandemic?

The only parades Mobilians could enjoy between 1917 and 1920 were the ones promoting the sale of war bonds, like this one on Government Street. Photo courtesy Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The cancellation of Mardi Gras events back in 1918 and 1919 was the result of World War I rather than a pandemic. The United States had entered the conflict in April 1917, less than two months after King Felix III (John T. Cochrane) had crowned Queen Mabel Moore in Mobile. The war had erupted in 1914, and Mobile’s once lucrative trade with Europe was devastated. Surely, the specter of war had loomed as the parades rolled that year.

As the clock struck midnight on the first day of 1918, there was no celebratory New Year’s Eve ball for the city’s oldest mystic organization, The Strikers. And sadly, this was a milestone year — the group’s 75th anniversary. Mardi Gras would have been celebrated on February 12, but both Mobile and New Orleans cancelled the event entirely.

But war was not the only reason. Government officials were extremely wary about having masked crowds wandering the darkened streets of port cities. Sabotage was always a concern.

Worries Beyond War

As February passed, cases of a new strain of a devastating respiratory virus began to be identified in the crowded ranks of enlisted men, and the numbers increased rapidly as the months proceeded. As it spread into the general population, the most disturbing aspect was the high mortality rate among children under the age of 5 and otherwise healthy adults aged 20 to 40. In fact, it has been estimated that from 8 to 10 percent of all young adults were killed by this virus.

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Like COVID-19, there was no vaccine in 1918, and the only methods known to slow its spread sound eerily familiar to us today: the wearing of masks, good personal hygiene, disinfectants and limited public gatherings. Although history shows that the virus was first identified in China, France and the United States, wartime censuring kept that information silent.

Neutral Spain had the dubious honor of publicly announcing its existence, and the deadly virus was named “Spanish flu” as a result. Despite vociferous complaints from the Spanish government, the name stuck.

On November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed, officially ending the war. There were celebratory parades in Mobile as troops came home, and Mobilians tried to get back to business. The Strikers did ring in 1919 with a ball celebrating their 76th anniversary, and Mobilians were glad to look forward with optimism.

There was apparently some effort to revive Mardi Gras for the 1919 season, but the general attitude seemed to be that there just was not enough time to do it right. So, Mobile went without parades for a second year in a row.  

Besides those parades, there was something else missing: liquor. The United States had passed wartime prohibition as a measure to save grain, but that was only expanded in 1919. In January, nationwide prohibition was passed with a start date in January 1920.

The “Spanish flu” continued to take lives during the winter of 1919 – 1920, so it is not surprising to find Mobile’s recently reorganized board of health requesting the cancellation of a third Mardi Gras due to the crowds. However, Mobile’s economy had yet to recover from the effects of war, and the city’s government refused to cancel Carnival.

Mardi Gras Resumes

Fred Taylor Peck, manager of the Battle House Hotel, served as King Felix III that year and crowned Dorothy Wefel as his queen on February 14. On Monday evening, the Infant Mystics rolled out their parade with a theme of “Dreams” while the Order of Myths’ Tuesday night parade was cancelled due to torrential rains, which signaled a soggy start to the Lenten season. Just how many new cases of the flu could be attributed to the crowded parade route is unknown. In retrospect, Mobilians were tired of the war in Europe and the tragedies it brought. Its citizens, like the rest of America, were looking for “normalcy,” and what better way to escape their worries than Mardi Gras?

The worst of the flu had largely dissipated before the 1921 season was underway, and Americans would not think about wearing masks and avoiding crowds again for nearly a century.

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