Raising Cain

From Chapter 3:
Post-Civil War Mardi Gras

“The City (Mobile) is a sad picture to contemplate. The people look sad and sorry. The best people of the City are poor and poorly clad. Store shelves are forsaken of their silks and occupied only with the flies and the dust. The people are distressed. No money except coin and greenbacks will pass. They have little of the former — none of the latter. The stores are empty and forsaken, except here and there an old man seated like some faithful sentinel at his post.” — Cincinnati Daily Commercial,  May 5, 1865

Joseph Stillwell Cain was born on Dauphin Street in Mobile on October 10, 1832. His parents had moved to Mobile from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1825. Cain was infatuated with the various Carnival and social organizations in the city and became a charter member of the Tea Drinkers Society (TDS) at age 13. None of the young men who formed the TDS were over 16 years old. Their parents speculated that TDS stood for “The Determined Society.” However it wasn’t long before the boys revealed their real name, claiming they “didn’t dare drink anything as weak as tea!” They shunned elitist society drinks, such as eggnog and champagne, choosing instead lager beer as their “common man’s” traditional beverage. It was their “everyman” popularity that presented no barrier to a young man’s entrance into Mobile Carnival life. They paraded each New Year’s Eve until the war and afterward until the early 1880s.

When the Civil War ended, Union troops took control of the city. Mobilians, first led by Joe Cain, were determined to have a little Mardi Gras fun despite their presence. Joe and most of his friends had served in the Confederate army. He had lived briefly in New Orleans after the war but returned to Mobile in 1866, determined to revive Carnival celebrations in Mobile. He preferred the way New Orleans celebrated up to and on Mardi Gras Day, as a great culmination of the pre-Lenten season.

In 1866, he and six original members of the Tea Drinkers Society decided Mobile needed a little Mardi Gras Day tomfoolery. They dressed as a Chickasaw Indian war tribe, all the while wearing their Confederate uniforms under their costumes. Joe proclaimed himself Chief Slacabamarinico (slaka-BAM-orin-ah-CO), a fictional Chickasaw Indian chief, supposedly from Wragg Swamp, which is west of Midtown Mobile, now filled in and the site of Mobile’s major malls and shopping centers. Mobilians often refer to the chief simply as “Ol’ Slac.”

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The Chickasaw Indians were never defeated in battle by French or American troops. As they paraded through the streets with Joe atop an old coal cart lovingly named “Hickory” after their hero Andrew Jackson, they were clanging anything they could use to make loud noises. They were “giving it” to the Yankees occupying the streets in their federal uniforms, saying, “You’ll never defeat us again, just as the Chickasaws were never defeated, and the South may have been defeated in war, but we’re not crushed or conquered!”

The following year, Cain and his friends appeared again on Mardi Gras Day. Ol’ Slac wore a tall plumed hat, a swallowtail coat with big brass buttons and red knee boots with spurs. He carried a big bass drum as big as he, it was said, on which was written “The Lost Cause Minstrels.” This name, to be sure, was a reference to the lost cause of the “War of Northern Aggression.”

In 1868, Joe appeared for the third time on Mardi Gras Day, again as Chief Slacabamarinico, leading the Lost Cause Minstrels, who were dressed as monkeys. One newspaper reported:

Notwithstanding the rain yesterday, Mardi-Gras was celebrated with great spirit. Early in the evening much curiosity and merriment was caused by the appearance of the Minstrel band of the L.C.’s. The Minstrels, who were gotten up as monkeys, were mounted upon a dilapidated wagon, and discoursed wild, and, we must say, discordant music. They were followed by large crowds of boys, shouting and yelling, and presented a most ludicrous and laughable sight. After traversing different parts of the city, they halted in front of our office, and regaled our ears with a monkey serenade.

Joseph Cain is credited by some historians with not only being a founding member of the Tea Drinkers Society and the Lost Cause Minstrels but also having influenced the founding of some of the oldest mystic societies in existence to this day. It has been written that he — along with other members of the TDS, Lost Cause Minstrels, Cowbellions and Strikers — helped found the Order of Myths (OOM), today the oldest Mardi Gras parading society in the country. He is also credited with convincing Dave Levi, founder of the Comic Cowboys (1884), to take his vaudeville show to the streets as a parade.

Cain had been a cotton broker, volunteer fireman and city clerk and had worked in the coroner’s office. He retired to Bayou La Batre, a fishing village just south of Mobile, to live with his son. However, he participated in Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations until his death in 1904. He was buried in Oddfellows Cemetery just outside that sleepy little village. In 1966, he was exhumed and moved by city proclamation, along with his wife, Elizabeth, into Mobile’s oldest cemetery, Church Street Graveyard.

It was Julian Lee Rayford’s “Chasin’ the Devil Round a Stump, ” published in 1962, that revived the memory of Joe Cain and led to the present-day celebrations of his life and brought about his being moved to Church Street Graveyard in Downtown Mobile. Rayford wrote, “Here was a genuinely great man, the greatest man in the entire sweep of Mobile’s history. No private citizen anywhere in the United States since 1600 has made more of an impact on a community — or left a more enduring impression of his personality. All the half a hundred great events of Mardi Gras since 1866 grew out of Joe Cain.”

From Chapter 8: Joe Cain Day

Have you heard the expression “raise Cain?” It may originally come from Cain in the Bible, but we in Mobile have reason to claim the phrase, as we “raise Cain” from the grave each Sunday before Mardi Gras Day.

It is the daylong celebration of the man credited with reviving Mardi Gras after the Civil War, Joseph Stillwell Cain. This celebration is called the People’s Celebration because there are no private mystic societies or royal courts involved. As many as 150, 000 people pour into Downtown Mobile to pay homage to this beloved Mobilian with ceremonies, parties and the largest parade of Carnival.

The celebration begins with Joe Cain’s Merry Widows arriving at the Church Street Graveyard at 11:25 a.m. in a bus with their chosen male escorts dressed in costume de rigueur, or white tie and tails.

The 16 Widows, dressed in full 19th-century black funeral attire with full black veils, proceed while wailing and faking fainting spells, as they make their way through the gated entrance to Joe Cain’s grave site just inside the graveyard walls.

The Widows all have make-believe names on nameplates on top of their veiling. They stay in character all day long, and one of my favorite Mardi Gras treats is to speak at length to any of these ladies whose real identity is today’s best-kept secret of the Carnival season.

Only the Widows are allowed in the graveyard, except for Mobile’s great Excelsior Band, which plays “funeral” jazz as the ladies scream at one another on top of the grave, accusing the others of killing Joe by all sorts of unseemly methods. Throngs of onlookers perch precariously atop the graveyard walls and teeter on ladders, trying to view the oddest tradition of Mobile’s Carnival.

Before long, the Widows begin laughing, throwing their hands in the air and tossing their beads and black roses to the crowds on and beyond the walls. Only these ladies may throw black beads and black roses at Mardi Gras. Catching their emblem beads, which are black discs that read “Cain’s Merry Widows, ” is said to be good luck.

The Widows board their bus and head to Joe Cain’s original home at 906 Augusta St. in Oakleigh Historic District. Here, for decades, each owner of the home has invited the ladies in for cocktails. The current owner, John “Hap” Kern, enjoys continuing the tradition opening his house each year to the Widows, his friends and throngs of onlookers who crowd the street to get a glimpse of the joyful occasion.

At 12:20 p.m., the mourning ladies leave the home and head Downtown, where they disperse, placing beads around the necks of often-startled tourists. They have no idea what these strangely dressed women — a couple of whom may not be women at all — are up to!

As the throngs pour into Downtown, the excitement builds in anticipation of the longest parade of Mardi Gras: the People’s Parade! At 2:30 p.m., the parade begins on Route A, the popular two-and-a-half-mile route that twists and turns through the Central Business District.

At the same time, another secretive group of women will also be converging on Downtown Mobile. These women lead the parade. Introduced in 2003 and organized by one of Joe Cain’s great-nieces, these are the Merry Mistresses of Joe Cain. They, too, dress in 19th-century funeral attire with heavy veiling. The difference, however, is that their dresses are cut to just above the knee, and all of their attire, head to toe, is fire-engine red!

These ladies also have Old South make-believe names, but these names are a little racier, such as Zora, Jezzie, Belle, Ruby and Gizelle. They carry dozens of red roses, which they toss to the delighted crowds.

The Mistresses are not allowed in the graveyard at the time of the Widows’ 11:25 a.m. visit, but they sneak in later in the afternoon, after the parade, to throw their red roses on Cain’s grave in the Church Street Graveyard.

As the giant Route A parade begins at 2:30 p.m., the Merry Mistresses prance along. They are first, followed by Chief Slacabamarinico (Joe Cain), portrayed by locally revered Bennett Wayne Dean Sr., a Methodist minister and author. He stands atop a replica of the coal cart used in the original parade of 1866. Following the chief are all the Widows on the “funeral” float, tossing black beads and black roses to the crowd.

Throngs of floats follow the Widows. Some are elaborate and painstakingly executed by local families, groups of friends, businesses, churches or schools. Some are simply flatbed trucks with local bands of all types. The parade is truly a representation of its given name: the People’s Parade.

The parade lasts all afternoon due to its size. Along the route, the Widows and Mistresses are likely to break line and get into a catfight or two with one another, with accusations of all kinds thrown about, including poisoning or even murder. The Mobile Police have been known to add more fun to this great street theater by “arresting” a few of these unruly women.

Recently, a new party has been created called the Joe Cain Foot Marchers Ball, which allows even out-of-towners to feel they are a part of the action. It is hosted by the Joe Cain Marching Society. Problem is, it is in June!

Before you can catch your breath, another parade hits the streets at 5 p.m. La Krewe de Bienville is the only mystic organization formed for visitors to ride on a float and attend a Mardi Gras ball. You can simply purchase tickets through the organization. To ride on one of the group’s floats is extra special because the parade attracts the largest crowd, other than Mardi Gras Day, of Mardi Gras revelers downtown.

Often, if other parades have been rained out prior to this Sunday, they are placed after the La Krewe de Bienville parade. This creates even more excitement, as parades may last several more hours.

This day of the Joe Cain Parade, or People’s Parade, and the La Krewe de Bienville parade, which offers visitor participation, is truly a day of inclusion. 

In the Words of the Widows

A few of the members of this theatrical society describe their relationships with their beloved Joe.

SUE ELLEN Joe was the love of my life — he died in the featherbed with me in his arms. We met in Bienville Square on a Sunday afternoon. He asked me to stroll, and by the evening, he was hooked! Other widows say it was my biscuits that killed him, but they are just jealous of the attention Joe gave me — he really and truly loved me the best!

SCARLET No matter what all these hussies say, I am and always was his favorite! But I was not always a prim and proper lady. With a name like Scarlet, Joe had to keep me under wraps constantly, because I am a spitfire! I continue to be one, though I am a lonely widow. Boo hoo!

SAVANNAH I hail from Georgia, and I was, without a doubt, Joe’s favorite. Joe used to say that I was just as sweet and juicy as those fine peaches he used to enjoy eating out of the palm of my hand. Just thinking about it makes me miss him even more, but I have to go on to keep his memory alive and to celebrate the time I did have with him!

GERTRUDE I was one of Joe’s younger wives. All those children we had were enough to prove I was his favorite! I remember when those dreadful Yankees tried to dampen our spirits; Joe and I got out in the streets and showed everyone how to have a party! He lived and he loved only the best! Here’s a toast to you Joe; you will never be forgotten!

CAMELLIA I was Joe’s favorite. We would go down to Mobile Bay and watch the stars above. Everyone knew I was his favorite and that when they were looking for the state flower, the governor said I know the perfect flower — Joe’s sweetie “Camellia.” Love you and miss you Joe!

MAHALIA My Native American name “Mahalia” is what first attracted Joe to me, but after he got to know me, he knew that I was the one that was always ready to party and raise Cain! … Hell yeah, he loved me best!

L. Craig Roberts has been a respected architect in Mobile for more than 30 years. When he isn’t busy designing some of the city’s most exquisite structures, he leads personalized guided tours through historic Mobile.

text by l. craig roberts courtesy of The History Press of Charleston, S.C.

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