What Happened to the Cowbellions?

Mobile’s original mystic society, which reigned supreme over celebration and mirth in 19th-century Mobile, danced into oblivion some 60 years after it was founded.

An invitation to the Cowbellions’ 1872 ball. Courtesy of a private collection

On the 13th of next month, Mobile and surrounding towns (and, yes, New Orleans as well) will celebrate Fat Tuesday. All of the marching bands, merry-making, serpentine and strong libations will start to be commonplace in the weeks leading up to that date, collectively known as Mardi Gras

It is undisputed that Mobile invented the way that both New Orleans and Mobile now celebrate Mardi Gras — the themed parade with illuminated floats, the turnout of the population for the parade and the celebration of the Mystic society after the parade. But what most locals don’t realize, however, is that these celebrations were originally something done on New Year’s Eve and not on Mardi Gras at all. That’s right. Mobile’s mystics began by ringing in the New Year long before they ushered in the start of Lent. It all happened a long time ago with a now-defunct group called the Cowbellions.

In the foremost history of late antebellum Mobile, “Cotton City,” author and former Mobilian Harriet Amos Doss said that “the Cowbellion de Rakin Society… was the oldest and most prestigious mystic society,” and that “it assuredly carried social prestige that would be advantageous to urban leaders.” She quotes the editor of the “Mobile Daily Advertiser” as saying that the Cows were “composed mostly of young men moving in the most respectable walks of life . . .bound together by ties of warmest friendships.” But those ties had a somewhat loose origin.

One Night of Frivolity (and Booze)

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According to an 1890s newspaper article, it was Christmas Day in 1831. Michael Krafft, a local cotton broker who was described as a man of “infinite jest and fond of fun of any kind,” who had “a cocked eye which gave him a quizzical appearance,” was down at the waterfront and got into a wine-filled Christmas dinner on the sailing ship of a sea captain named Joseph Post of the Hurlbut Line of New York packets. Post was known as “Pushmataha” or “Old Push” after the Choctaw chief who sided with the whites in the Creek Indian War. Krafft and Old Push made a day of their winey luncheon, and Krafft didn’t leave until about nightfall. He came out into a cold drizzle and borrowed a sailor’s sou’-wester hat and a “monkey jacket” to sortie out from the ship.

Most know the basic story. Krafft walked down to Commerce and Conti Streets at Joseph Hall’s hardware store and leaned against some rakes and cowbells in a sort of rustic display out front. They made a racket. Just for fun — everything in Mardi Gras is just for fun — he put the cowbells on the rake and paraded up and down the bar area ringing the cowbells. A passerby asked, “What society is this?”

And Krafft said, “This? This is the ‘Cowbellion de Rakin Society!’” He then fell in with James Taylor, “Jim,” the forgotten cofounder of Mobile Mysticism. They paraded around and rode a mule into a saloon on Exchange Alley, to the general delight of the tipplers and drunks in the bars on Christmas night.

During the week between Christmas and New Year’s of 1831, newspapers demanded that the society turn out again on New Year’s, and they did. A group of men stood around the E.P. Dickinson Clothing Store on Dauphin Street. Later, in the 1890s, Mayor Pat Lyons said that right then and there was the beginning of the Cowbellion de Rakin mystic society. The crowd, 40 or 50 strong, assembled in the upper floor of a coffeehouse on Exchange Alley, and at about 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, they began parading. Mayor John Stocking sent a messenger to invite them to his house, and after the parade, they joined him for a big spread of food and drink, and later visited some local oddball that Lyons would call “the original George Davis.” Ultimately, they marched back to the coffeehouse and dispersed. And that was our “original Mardi Gras,” but it was on New Year’s Eve.

Michael Krafft died in 1832 before the second parade, but that year, the Cows picked up speed, and at least by 1842, the Cows had a theme and a parade with torches, floats, transparencies for lighting and all the mystic stuff that we now identify with Mardi Gras. 

So how did an organization based on frivolity and celebration, who counted the pillars of local society among its membership, eventually fade into oblivion?

There are lots of vague legends and unsupported notions, but nobody has ever made a study of it. Heck, until recently, they couldn’t. They didn’t even know who the Cowbellions were. It is not a secret — most of it is in publicly-available records in the library — but apparently nobody much has ever studied it, put it together and wrote it down.

Above A portrait of Cowbellions founder Michael Krafft circa 1840. Courtesy the Mobile Carnival Museum. A bell-shaped program from the 1872 ball with engraved envelope. Courtesy of a private collection.

A Slow Decline

By the 1840s, the once-carefree Cowbellions appear to have become a stuffy champagne-drinking society that took itself very seriously — so much so that when the second mystic society, the Strikers, were formed in 1842, they made fun of the uptight Cowbellions by adopting bock beer as their official drink, rather than the Cows’ champagne. The Cows were organized along military lines. “The Captain” was in charge, and they had a secret committee, a blackball system and a ritual initiation, just like some — or maybe even most — of the stuffy old Mardi Gras mystic societies we have today in Mobile. 

Some old Mobilians now gone to their final reward told me many years ago when I asked them why the Cows died out, that they heard from their fathers and grandfathers that Cowbellions got so selective that they would not even elect their own sons to membership. That’s hard to nail down too. I think that’s false. But either way, more of the fun young people were being drawn to other groups. 

By the 1850s, Mobile had at least three parading mystic societies who vied for competition in membership: the Cows, the Strikers and the T.D.S., which stood for “The Determined Set,” all of whom celebrated on New Year’s Eve. But after the Civil War, Mobile Society adopted the custom of dressing up and calling on homes on New Year’s, and this interfered with the Cowbellions’ and others’ parades. A preference for celebrations leading up to Lent became the norm. Ervin Craighead, a great Mobile amateur historian of the Gilded Age events, seemed to think this, although he did not say it as clearly as I wish he had. It is hard to nail down that kind of thing.

A few years ago, somebody gave a trove of Cowbellion documents to the city
museum, which had a lot of names of most or even maybe all the Cows. And I got access to the early post-Civil War membership records of both the Strikers and the OOMs for comparison. (I did not have access to IM membership records, but it is extremely unlikely that many, if any, Cowbellions joined the IMs because by then, the Cows were old and the IMs were quite young, being for a time ‘the Gumdrop Rangers.’) A close examination of membership rosters shows where and how the men put the Cows out to pasture. 

The emblem float for the parade of the same year is decorated with the emblems and mascots of all three organizations. This lithograph would have been printed in out-of-town newspapers to advertise the parade. Courtesy Mobile Carnival Museum

Where’d all the good men go?

In 1878, there were about 120 living Cowbellions identifiable to the secretary of that society, of whom 82 signed the 1878 C. de R. S. Constitution, and a few more signed a resolution. Some of them had an illegible hand (I have no standing to complain), but I have identified 104 Cowbellions by name who appear to be active during the 1870s and 80s.

And of those members, only four were initiated before the Civil War! At least 95 new Cows were initiated in the 14 years between the end of the Civil War and 1879, some 6-7 per year on average. Very few Mystic Societies today, which have not died off, do much, if any, better than that.

Interestingly, during that same 14-year period, The Strikers initiated 277 people, almost 20 a year on average. The Strikers in those days, like the SCS until just after World War II, threw you out if you got married, and a whole generation of young rebel soldiers came home and got married, so it took plenty of initiates to keep the outfit going.

The invitation to the 1880 ball, which combined the Cowbellions, Strikers and T.D.S. Courtesy Mobile Carnival Museum

The Cows, in any event, were holding their own for a while in the 1870s and ‘80s.

At the same time, the OOM was founded in 1867 for the 1868 Mardi Gras season and beginning in the first two years of its history, some Cows started joining the OOM, staying in the Cows, too. Cowbellions A.P. Bush, R.C. Crawford, J.E. Michael, Judge Joseph Seawell, Henry Hall, George Ketchum and Caleb Toxey joined the OOM’s before the 1870s (all but Judge Seawell stayed active with the Cows; Judge Seawell, whom OOM records by former Strikers’ President Harry Pillans described as “an ancient and seasoned Cowbellion,” became the first President of the OOM). By the end of the 1870s, about 16% of the Cows had joined the OOMs. That hurts, though most of them also stayed in the Cows until the 1880s.

During the 1880s, at least 11 more Cows joined the OOM, bringing to 27 the number of Cows going to the OOMs in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. That’s a loss of at least 27% of the Cows’ members to the OOM’s by the 1880s. That really hurts.

By contrast, few of those old Cows joined the Strikers. This should be no surprise, for the Cows and the Strikers both celebrated the same night. It would be tough to be a good member of both. 

Most amazing of all, five men were in all three Societies: the Cows, The Strikers and the OOM! (Imagine the dues!)

By 1880, New Year’s Eve mysticism was certainly dying out in Mobile. For December 31, 1880, there was one final rally, which set the high-water mark of Mobile’s New Year’s mysticism. It was the so-called Semi-Centennial of Mysticism, the 50th anniversary of these sorts of celebrations in Mobile. The Cows, the Strikers and the T.D.S. hosted a joint parade and ball, with an invitation and program, quite rare today, showing the Cowbellion owl with a clutch of eggs including the Strikers and the T.D.S. It looks grand in retrospect, but it was the death rattle of Mobile’s New Year’s Eve parading mysticism.

The ties between the Cows and the OOMs continued to be strong and in about the middle of the 1880s, there was a trial period for a merger of the Cows and the OOMs, with the understanding that if it did not work out, the members could stay in either or both groups. The joint organization was named MKA for “Michael Krafft Association,” after the founder of the Cows and thus of all of Mystic Mobile. About 1889, the attempt collapsed.

For whatever reason, at the end of the 1880s — certainly by the early 1890s — the Cows were never heard from publicly again. We know that the remaining Cows had a very rough draft Constitution in 1889, talking about how to handle seniority from the MKA and such, but apparently it never quite got off the ground. By then, the Cows were getting a little age on them, and knowing that it takes an awful lot of people to pull off a parade and dance, they probably just dropped out of parading life. It is clear, however, that all of Mobile Mardi Gras — and New Orleans as well — owe their merry making, parades and costumed balls to a drunk cotton broker, his buddy on a mule, and the city of Mobile for welcoming, if not damn near insisting, this frivolity prevail!

David Bagwell is a retired attorney and amateur historian living on the Eastern Shore.

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