Ask McGehee: Who was the British nobleman who served as king of Mobile’s Mardi Gras?

British nobleman, Sir Arthur Shirley Benn
Above Sir Arthur Shirley Benn was the only Mobile Mardi Gras monarch to be knighted by the king of England. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The only British-born monarch of Mobile’s Mardi Gras was Arthur Shirley Benn. The year was 1896, but he served under the name of “Emperor of Joy” rather than King Felix. And, as was common in the early decades of our Carnival, he was older than today’s kings and had been married for nearly a decade by that time.

Benn was actually born in County Cork, Ireland, to British parents in 1858 and would first appear in the 1887 edition of Mobile’s city directory. At that time, his occupation was given as a partner with the timber exporting firm of Guy, Bevan & Co., whose office was on St. Francis Street. The residences of all three partners in that firm are listed as being in “London, England.”

Within a year, he joined Scottish-born Robert Hunter to form Hunter, Benn & Co., Lumber and Timber Merchants. Their second-floor office was located on the northwest corner of St. Michael and Water streets.

A Spring Hill Wedding
On the morning of May 9, 1888, Benn married Alice Maria Luling in her parents’ antebellum mansion located in Spring Hill. According to a news account, the ceremony took place “in the front parlor of Mr. Luling’s elegant residence with the halls and other rooms beautifully decorated with flowers and plants.”

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The bride’s father, Florenz A. Luling, was a German immigrant who had made his fortune in New Orleans as a commission merchant dealing in tobacco, cotton and sugar. After building one of the grandest mansions in that city, he tragically lost two sons in a drowning accident. One can assume that may have been his reason for moving to Mobile around 1871.

The family’s previous residence may account for mention in that wedding announcement that “the wedding breakfast embraced every delicacy that could be procured in Mobile or elsewhere served by a chef who came from New Orleans for this purpose.”

Arthur Benn was soon a member of the city’s oldest mystic societies and was elected to the board of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce. His lumber business apparently flourished, and he was appointed British vice-consul. Not surprisingly, he would be selected to serve as Mobile’s Emperor of Joy during the 1896 Carnival season.

A Castle on Government Street
In 1890, the Benns built a turreted five-bedroom home on the southeast corner of Government and Everett streets. The lot, which stretched back to Church Street, contained a tennis court, stables, a barn and a two-story house for the household staff.

A 1902 party was described in detail in the Mobile Register, which noted that, because of the fine night, the guests had wandered out into the back garden which was adorned with “bright Japanese lanterns, sweet with the odor of flowers and cool with the gentle breezes and the play of fountains. Altogether it was one of the most delightful affairs ever given in Mobile.”

Parliament and Knighthood
It was with much regret that that newspaper announced a year later that Arthur and Alice Benn were moving to London where he would look after his firm’s interests. They sold their home and never lived in Mobile again, although there were frequent return visits.

Arthur Shirley Benn would serve five years in Parliament and was ultimately knighted by the king. Sir Arthur Benn died in 1937 at the age of 79 and was buried in a London cemetery beside his wife and her father. 

Benn’s subsequent obituary in the Register noted, “during his residence here Mr. Benn made a host of friends through his business, his gracious manner, admirable sense of humor and brilliant mind. In his death, Britain has lost a valuable conservative leader and Mobile has lost a true friend.”

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