Organized into three brief parts to make it accessible even for those who don’t normally like reading histories, Ann Pond’s new books cover the origins of the Carnival celebration from about 1820 to 1870 … with all the social, political and economic problems of that time period.
“‘Cowbellion, ’ tells the story of Michael Krafft, who created the first mystic parading association, the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. ‘Masons and Mardi Gras, ’ details how Mobile’s parading tradition spread to New Orleans and explains all the mysterious names and symbols. ‘CAIN’ is the story of Joe Cain’s real life, which is very different from all the stories we’ve read up until now, ” says Pond.
Here, find a brief selection from each of the books.
Book I “Cowbellion: The Origin of America’s Mardi Gras”
There are myths from the early Colonial period that have been written and rewritten in an effort to show a link between the modern tradition and the early French settlement. But none of this really has much to do with how we in America celebrate Mardi Gras today. The origins of Mardi Gras must be viewed in the proper context. The kinds of parades and productions that go along with Mardi Gras in America today were developed exclusively on American shores. They were influenced by European customs to the same degree as any other element of American culture. Apple pie is more closely related to its European origins than Mardi Gras.
The story began with Michael Krafft, whose life was important both because it was typical and because it was extraordinary. In the 1820s, the nation’s economy was expanding and so was its size. The northeast was industrializing, transportation was improving, and the addition of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the Union between 1812 and 1819 opened up new markets of commerce, providing access to abundant agricultural resources as well as access to the Gulf of Mexico. Krafft was part of the great wave of farmers and merchants who migrated to the South at this time, hoping to cash in on the lucrative cotton trade. He symbolized the transient lifestyle of the young urban merchant, moving frequently, buying, selling, and shipping goods between the northern and southern ports. He also died a typical death, a victim of yellow fever, during one of the worst outbreaks of the century.
Yet, typical as he was in many ways, he stands alone as the animating force behind the Cowbellions, the group that laid the basis for America’s Mardi Gras celebration with its unique combination of fraternity, mysterious ritual and a festive annual street parade. Originally titled the Cowbellian de Rakeian association, it was the first of its kind, bringing popular holiday revelry under the control of an exclusive and secretive society.
The Cowbellions were organized in the City of Mobile around the year 1830, and within just a few years their parades were known in all of the country’s urban ports. By the end of the decade, the word “cowbellion” was being used in a more generic sense to mean any parade or procession of respectable young men, costumed and accompanied by loud music, for the sole purpose of entertainment. The Cowbellions were enormously successful at peaking interest and drawing crowds, and they had a lasting influence on American culture.
The form of festivity that was created in antebellum Mobile, although it typically took place on New Years’ Eve in Mobile, is considered the beginning of the celebration that now takes place in America on Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday, ” the day before Ash Wednesday. What links the Cowbellions to Mardi Gras is not the day of the parade but the spirit of the “carnivalesque.” Ever since Ash Wednesday was marked on the Christian calendar, the days before were considered a time of celebration throughout Christian Europe. This was “Carnival” (literally referring to the eating of meat, or indulging the senses).
The time of spring planting has been a time of celebration for all known human civilizations. Yet, as the Christian church developed an official calendar of worship, the 40-day planting season recognized among the Romans became 40 days of preparation for the [resurrection] of Jesus, beginning on Ash Wednesday. Carnival, in turn, became a last chance for self-indulgence before this period of quiet solemnity. The Carnival, like all festivals before it, was met with music, dancing, disguises, feasting and revelry of all kinds.
Book II “Masons and Mardi Gras: Secrets of the Mystic Krewes”
In the 1820s, Mobile was beginning to attract national attention as a major cotton depot, but it was still rugged and underdeveloped … Business was the chief focus of the city’s energies. It was not a family-oriented place … There was little in the way of public entertainment …
Aside from Mobile’s annual Masonic Ball, there were a few “Cotillion Parties” held during the winter months. Some were private affairs and others were “City Cotillions, ” announced in the newspaper during the social season from November through April or May.
Early public cotillions were held at Murray’s Exchange Coffee House on Royal Street. Even though they were technically open to the public, tickets were two dollars each and were only sold in advance with application. Because the streets of Mobile and New Orleans presented somewhat permeable social boundaries, those who had upper class ambitions sought ways to socialize in a private setting. Public ballrooms in both cities were sometimes rented out by private groups for “subscription” balls. However, Mobile’s population was not large enough to support as many of these as New Orleans, where they were very popular.
Even though Mobile was a much smaller city, young men and women of marriageable age needed some opportunity to socialize within the “right” circles, and prominent families needed a way to become better acquainted. Cotillions were the most popular way for Mobile’s elite, mainly the physicians, attorneys, artists, and those who were building wealth from the quickly growing cotton market, to socialize.
Because the economy of this region remained so unstable throughout the antebellum period, experiencing waves of great prosperity followed by years of financial panic, social prominence did not always accrue with material wealth alone. Other factors, such as education, cultural awareness, manners and gentility were almost equal in significance … In the Deep South, power was determined almost exclusively by image, comportment, and association with the right group, and fraternal societies were extremely important for creating and maintaining power.
Mobile and New Orleans were both dominated by young and mostly transient bachelors who needed the benefits of associations to establish themselves. In Mobile particularly, men outnumbered women about three to one; and for both sexes, the vast majority were between the ages of 20 and 40. The reason for the preponderance of single men was cotton. Mobile’s economy was more dependent than any other city on the trade of cotton. Young men ready to rise in the new world of international trade were traveling south in droves. It was not a business for the weakhearted, and Mobile presented them with no luxuries, but they still kept coming. From close to 3, 000 in 1830, the population had exploded to just over 12, 000 by 1840 and Mobile’s population was over 20, 000 by 1850. New Orleans’ growth was almost as dramatic; the population in 1850 was four times larger than it had been in 1820.
What was an unattached young man in this environment, on his own and far away from home, going to do during the holidays? There were many “saloons, ” or “exchanges, ” for drinking with friends, but not much else…
It is not surprising then that the Cowbellion de Rakin society was founded by a group of creative yet anxious young merchants looking for holiday entertainment. The benefits of association were already apparent to them. But, if they were going to form a private group, like the many “orders” or “societies” that existed in other port cities, on what model would it be based? Would their association be purely benevolent, established for the purpose of giving back to the community, like volunteer fire companies, or militia units? Would it be a secretive fraternal “order, ” created for the purposes of both charity and self-improvement, somewhat like the International Order of Odd Fellows? Would it have some specific military or political agenda like the Order of the Eastern Star or the Knights of the Golden Circle?
Regardless of the specifics, the basic rituals of all these associations were modeled on the practices of the Freemasons. They combined a mission of benevolence and self-help with the search for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment, achieved in ceremonial rites that emphasized the need for total dedication. Within their lodges, members found the sense of unity and belonging that they had promised to defend to their death. The Cowbellions’ main objective in the first few years of their existence was not to create the kind of intense ritual experience that might be found in older associations. In the early 1830s they wanted to gain just enough organization to make their public exploits acceptable. The association they created in the early 1830s was, like many other secret societies that formed around this time, modeled generally on the example of the Freemasons. They all had similar initiations, in which a candidate was blindfolded, brought into a room surrounded by other men who recited a scripted conversation, having the young man promise his secrecy and dedication to the group. These groups all drew from a catalog of common symbols like the skull, the serpent, etcetera. What the Cowbellions gained from the Masons in the beginning was the value of mystery, an idea of how to create a meaningful ritual experience.
Book III Cain and his lost generation
One of the highlights of the carnival season in Mobile is “Joe Cain Day, ” celebrated each year on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. The day begins when a group of women known as Cain’s Merry Widows, shrouded in black, make their pilgrimage to Cain’s Downtown gravesite. They wail, weep and argue over who was his favorite. Then, although still in mourning behind their black lacy veils, they join in the festivities. Cain himself is represented leading the procession wearing a Native American costume and is called “Old Slac” or just “Chief.” …
Four years after Comus formed [in New Orleans], the Civil War interrupted holiday festivities in both cities. It was just after the war that Joe Cain and his Lost Cause Minstrels appeared, part of a long evening of festivity. It was the first time that Mobile had ever recognized Mardi Gras with a public celebration. The Lost Cause Minstrels were the first to appear on the street that evening and were well received as a comical act preceding the night’s main event, the Order of Myths. The O.O.M.s, as they were called, tried to outdo even the most expensive and elaborate New Year’s Eve parades, like those of the Cowbellions.
Joe Cain and his Minstrel Band never intended to outshine the spectacle of the big parades. They tried to bring a sense of lighthearted burlesque to the parading tradition, as it existed in Europe and to a lesser extent, also in New Orleans. That comical element had not been a part of Mobile’s festivities since the first few years of the Cowbellions. Cain and his Minstrel Band represented Mobile’s version of the “people’s daytime” Mardi Gras while the mystic societies of Mobile were still focused on the nighttime revelry of the elite …
From the Cowbellions to Comus and then to the Order of Myths, each of those organizations created major change, but each continued the same purpose and spirit. The men of the mystic societies used their parades to emphasize how different they were; how much wealth they had, so much that it could be poured into frivolous entertainment for the public. They also used the parades to reveal their knowledge and wisdom, so great that the common person had no idea what their parades were all about.
Joe Cain and the Lost Cause Minstrels on the other hand, used Mardi Gras to break down barriers, bringing the people into the celebration by connecting with them on the street both mentally and physically, giving them something to laugh about, something they understood and felt a part of. Cain never bought into the idea that the parade was an opportunity to manipulate public opinion or flaunt social status. Even when Cain paraded with the antebellum T.D.S. [Tea Drinkers Society] organization, the themes of that group were never as overly-intellectual or intimidating as those of the other organizations. In 1868, Cain became a true catalyst for change. Following his inspiration, the people of Mobile began dressing in costume during the day and gave themselves a part to play in the revelry of the season.
Joe Cain was recognized during his own life as a leader in that shift toward a “people’s” celebration. His obituary called him the “Father of Mardi Gras in Mobile, ” and the Minstrels were recognized each year in the press as the “oldest” of the Mardi Gras parading groups. But by the 20th century, Joe Cain and his Lost Cause Minstrels had been nearly forgotten.
Cain was resurrected from historic obscurity by Julian Lee Rayford during the 1960s to become a symbol once again of the power of the people and everyone’s right to a moment of self-expression. But the new 20th century manifestation of Joe Cain differed from the reality in many ways. Rayford described Cain’s appearance after the war this way:
In his masquerade as a Chickasaw, Joe Cain did a great deal more than imitate a cigar store Indian. He cheered the spirit of a people despairing and depressed. He told them that though they might be defeated, they could still look up in pride — for the Chickasaw Indians were never defeated in all their history.
That was not the real Joe Cain. But, at least on Joe Cain Day, those details don’t really matter … Rayford made Cain into a symbol of local pride, individual rights and freedom from oppression. In other words, he was the essence of the “Lost Cause, ” refusing to abandon his values.
All three books are available at the Urban Emporium, Cream & Sugar in Oakleigh, the Oakleigh Historic Home Gift Shop, Ashland Gallery, The Ivy Cottage and at the Carnival Museum Gift Shop. Or find them online at Amazon.com (Kindle), Google Books and ann-j-pond.squarespace.com
text by sallye irvine and ann Pond • photos by elizabeth gelineau