The Blizzard Carnival

The Mardi Gras of 1899 put the resolve of Mobile revelers to the ultimate test.


Illustration by Colleen Comer

Born in 1865, Frances V. Beverly toiled away at her home on Government Street throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, writing what she hoped would become the almanac of Mobile. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Beverly died in Mobile in 1954, leaving behind piles of manuscripts hidden from the very audience whose lore and customs she so tirelessly documented for posterity — that is, until now. In this series, MB presents the Frances Beverly Papers.

On February 11, 1899, Mobile had the greatest surprise of her 188 years. Mardi Gras during all of those years had seldom had anything but good weather. Even if there is a forecast for rain, something happens and there is not enough to spoil the fun, but that February broke all records and will never be forgotten by Mobilians.

It was called the “Blizzard Carnival.” The weather began to stage a series of unheard-of meteorological stunts, as a kind of preliminary to what it intended to do. About midnight on February 11, the wind decided to blow and, not being exactly what the weatherman had ordered, it stopped shortly and tried raining steadily for a few hours. Nobody paid any particular attention to that because it was not the first time that a hard rain had ushered in the Carnival season. It began to get a little chilly, and everyone drew up an extra blanket, snuggled up close to his bedfellow and went off to sleep, perfectly satisfied that morning would bring the usual fine Mardi Gras day.

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At daylight, sleet began to fall, and by Sunday morning at church time, the streets were covered with a glittering coat of ice, an innovation for Mobile, and people began to grumble. Then the weather seemed to become embarrassed, and as long as it had started something, it acted like it could not stop, and it did not. It kept steadily on, alternating rain, wind, sleet and then began to snow as if it meant business. That Sunday night was the coldest night ever experienced in Mobile. Fires were absolutely of no use; they were red, and that was all that could be said of them. Blankets felt like tissue paper, and clothing was not there, as far as feeling was concerned.

Everything froze, from the bottles of ink to the roast beef. The butchers invited their customers in and presented them with an ax, and they were told to cut off what they could, and they made no charge. Beautiful iced cakes, made especially for the Carnival guests, were like monuments of granite.

Monday was a horrible nightmare. Nothing did its duty — even hot water bags were no comfort. Everybody was out of humor; visitors forgot their company manners and were cross and resentful because they were uncomfortable. It was clear, and the sun shone with insolence on Monday, but it was so cold that breathing was difficult. The parade was called off, and the snow was piled up everywhere, and the streets were so slippery that it was difficult to navigate.

Monday was a failure, as far as festivities went, but on Tuesday, in spite of the fact that it was cold and the snow still piled up in shady places, they had the parades. The maskers on the floats were stiff with the added accumulation of heavy underwear and so full of whiskey that they could hardly stand, but they managed to get it over with only one or two falling from their stations.

Heaven was besieged with prayer that night that an epidemic of pneumonia might not follow, and that is the one time on record that prayers and whiskey worked together in perfect harmony, and as far as could be ascertained, not a man suffered any ill effects. Only the mothers and wives suffered, as they stood on the cold streets watching their sons and husbands riding by in the cold north wind, with silken breeches and surtouts. Of all of the many Carnivals, this year is one that will never be forgotten — the Blizzard Carnival of 1899.

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