Mystic secrets have a way of slipping loose, and word is out about a new history that is one of the most remarkable books ever written about our unique Mobile Mardi Gras tradition. Quietly printed for members of one of Mobile’s oldest parading Mardi Gras mystic societies for their 2018 sesquicentennial, “History of the Infant Mystics” by Walter Edgar casts new light on the development of Mardi Gras in Mobile. The splendid illustrations and wealth of tantalizing, piquant details brilliantly convey the mini-universe that is Carnival.
Not since the grand and waggish “Our Creole Carnivals” by T.C. DeLeon, published in 1890, has so good a book been written about Mobile Mardi Gras. While capturing much of DeLeon’s playful tone, Edgar’s book features solid research and careful scholarship, not surprising in view of the fact that Edgar is a well-known professor of American history at the University of South Carolina specializing in Southern studies. The author of “South Carolina: A History” and numerous other works, he is also the host of “Walter Edgar’s Journal” on South Carolina Public Radio. Yet even after many years in South Carolina, Edgar retains a deep and loyal feeling for his native Mobile.
The book casts new light on the beginnings of the mystic societies in an age that feels increasingly remote. Even in the 1820s, Edgar observes, “Mobile had begun to acquire a reputation for fun and frolic.” It is well known that, though Mardi Gras festivities could have taken place in the French colonial era of the 1700s, the Mobile parading tradition began in 1831 when Michael Krafft led a spontaneous street procession of comical costumed mummers ringing cowbells and brandishing rakes and hoes through the streets of Mobile on New Year’s Eve. Before long the group was perpetuated as the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, “a formal organization with Masonic overtones — including mystery, symbolism and secrecy.” Organized parades with masks, costumes and floats followed, and by the 1840s, Edgar notes, “the form of a Gulf Coast Carnival, centered on a mysterious, secret organization that stages a themed parade, tableaux, ball and supper had taken shape.” Other mystic societies arose, such as the Strikers (1842), TDS (1844), Calfbellions (1844), Jim Oakes (1845) and the Indescribables (1846).
Not so well-known is the fact that, as Edgar explains, groups of teenagers and young boys often followed the parades in a spirit of pure fun, and these groups themselves sometimes organized later into formal societies. For example, a group called “The Rising Generation” started as an informal association, and in 1844 some of the members might have been as young as 10 years old. But they began to put on a parade and host a ball within a decade. “In essence,” Edgar says, “it appears that the organization matured with its members.”
And so it was with the IM in the aftermath of the Civil War when the main focus of Mobile Carnival shifted from New Year’s Eve to Mardi Gras. The Cowbellions once again paraded on New Year’s Eve, 1865, and in 1866 both the Cowbellions and the Strikers paraded. However, in contrast to a popularized chronology put forth in 1930 by Erwin Craighead, editor of the Mobile Register, in his book “Mobile: Fact and Tradition,” it was not in 1866 but rather Feb. 25, 1868, that both Joe Cain’s Lost Cause Minstrels and the newly-formed Order of Myths held the first Mobile Mardi Gras parades. Why the shift? For one thing, Joe Cain had fortuitously been in New Orleans for the annual fireman’s parade on Lundi Gras 1867, and witnessed the “spectacular” Comus parade the next day, Edgar tells us. Comus itself had been organized by a group of Cowbellions who had moved from Mobile to New Orleans and wanted to organize a Mobile-style parade there. So lines of Carnival communication between the two Creole cities would have been well established. Finally, the new parades were partly intended as an act of defiance against the Reconstruction authorities. Edgar quotes the Mobile Register for Ash Wednesday 1868, which so rightly observed, “Yesterday was a new era in the mythical, mystical, poetic, romantic and artistic history of Mobile … The last day of Carnival had heretofore been unnoticed in our local calendar.”
In addition to the parades, groups of youngsters marched in the streets as mummers in 1867, 1868 and 1869, cutting hijinks and playing music. One of them was the “Flour-bag Club,” whose members followed the LCM at Mardi Gras and threw flour at each other — actually an old European Carnival tradition. Most likely it was this group that evolved into the HSS, which paraded 1870 – 1873 before disbanding, deeply in debt after blowing their budget on a lavish parade. Their mysterious mystic initials might have stood for “High Society Stuff” or “Heavy Samplers’ Society.” In 1873 the HSS were reorganized as the Infant Mystics, with a number of prominent men included who could put the IM on a firmer financial footing. The new name provided a link to the older antebellum mystic societies of the Mobile tradition, signifying a young group yet still a mystic one. Appropriately cryptic symbols were chosen for the IM, chiefly a knight, an elephant and a cat on a cotton bale.
But the greatest of these was the cat, “the guardian genius of the order, the symbol of silence and secrecy.” “History of the Infant Mystics” is replete with references to grimalkins and moggies, to “his feline majesty” and “his catship.” Members of the IM are called “Catts” throughout the book, and in 2018, we learn, “the youngest Kitten was 26 and several ancient Toms were older than 90.” A rollicking tale of the IM unfolds during Reconstruction, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the two world wars, and the hippie ’60s and ’70s, when miniskirts and turtlenecks were banned at the balls. Dens and float barns come and go or go up in flames. Great designers and float builders are named and described, masters of chicken wire, papier-mâché, glue, paint and gold leaf, such as Edward J. Pine, Barbara Ann Guthans, John Gus Hines, David Schmohl, John Augustus Walker, Steve Mussell and the legendary Webb Odom, wizard of the Mobile style of pastels, sculptural effects and “the mystical,” as he is quoted saying. Memorable highlights are recalled, such as Gus Walker’s 1937 art deco “Hunting of the Snark” parade, or the 21-float “March of the Ages” in 1881, hailed by historians as one of the greatest parades of 19th-century Mobile. In 1887, for the extravagant IM ball, the entire Princess Theater, not merely the stage, was transformed into an ice palace “dazzling with electric lights” by designer E.J. Pine. When the breathless newspaper write-up appeared the next day, there arose such a clamor that the theater had to be opened to the public and an estimated 10,000 Mobilians filed in to see the decorations.
Edgar recounts how maskers once stood like statuary on the floats in the 1800s when it was all about the gorgeous spectacle. But they began to toss candy and serpentine in the 1920s and doubloons and beanbags in the 1960s. He tells of the decline of flambeaux, flares, confetti and mule-drawn floats, and the rise of electric lighting in 1909 or the city’s rigid new public safety rules, which require parades that once took two hours to finish in an hour and 15 minutes, careening through Downtown streets at blitzkrieg speeds. Leading ladies, costumes, themes, favors, invitations, bands and the complicated logistics of putting on a parade are explored and explained. Whereas in 1873 the IM were limited to 100 unmarried young men over the age of 18, the number of active and honorary members, married and otherwise, now exceeds 600.
In 2015 the IM leased the historic Protestant Orphan Asylum building on Dauphin Street near Broad Street, built in 1845 and now known as Cotton Hall, as well as the adjacent Heritage Hall from the Historic Restoration Society for their posh new headquarters and den. A new float barn is to be constructed next door along Broad Street, complete with viewing windows for the public to observe the process of float construction. This will guarantee that for many years to come, the IM will enjoy the multigenerational fellowship so evident in Edgar’s history, and Mobilians will be regaled when, as T.C. DeLeon said, “Mobile’s streets glitter like the gardens of the gods.”
Frank Daugherty is author of the comic Mardi Gras-themed novel “Isle of Joy.”