Mobile Mardi Gras: Alabama’s French Catholic Holiday First-in-the-Nation

Mobile society parade on the Death and Folly float with the Order of Myths Society and their trademark broken column. (LC)

Mobile society parade on the Death and Folly float with the Order of Myths Society and their trademark broken column. (LC)

There may not be a trace of French in the Deep South accent of Alabamians and New Orleans may seem to have the lock on Mardi Gras, but it all started as a Catholic holiday in the first French colonial capital in the U.S., Mobile, Alabama.

And that was fifteen years before New Orleans had its first Mardi Gras.

Members of the Excelsior Band performing jazz at Mobile Marid Gras.

Members of the Excelsior Band performing jazz at Mobile Marid Gras.

Even the 2005 devastation of the region due to Hurricane Katrina couldn’t stop Mobile from putting on its biggest party of the year, drawing in more visitors to the state than at any other time.

In fact, today’s Mobile Mardi Gras is the oldest in the nation, begun in 1703 the soldiers and settlers celebrated Mardi Gras beginning in 1703. France’s King Louis XIV had ordered two brother Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville to ensure his nation’s claim to the territory named for him (La Louisiane) comprising present-day Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Sailing up the Mississippi River they set aground on March 3, 1699, the day before Ash Wednesday and actually named the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras, in honor of the day.

Three years later the 21-year old brother Jean established the first French colonial capital in the New World, present-day Mobile, Alabama.

Mobile's founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

Mobile’s founder Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

A poster for the 1900 Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama - the first in the nation.

A poster for the 1900 Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama – the first in the nation.

A year after French soldiers completed Fort Louis there, they held the first bona fide Mardi Gras celebration, that final day of revelry and feasting before the restrained forty days which followed, those of the Lenten season leading up to Easter Sunday.

In Mobile, the actual holiday itself was soon known as the Day of the Fattest Ox (Boeuf Gras), and was marked by engorging on the fattest and best foods.

The very first masquerade ball, Le Masque de la Mobile, began the second year, in 1704. Seven years later a Mobile’s Boeuf Gras Society, the very first of the “mystic societies” which would come to work together to stage the all-city event in later centuries. That first one was formed to create a massive paper ox head and parade it through the fledgling village on a cart.

During the 1700s, the British and then the Spanish took control of Mobile. The sudden restriction placed there by them on Africans who were not slaves and those of mixed Caucasian-African backgrounds led most of them to leave and resettle in New Orleans.

A member of the LaShe Society, described as one of naughtier females.   (Press-Register, John David Mercer)

A member of the LaShe Society, described as one of naughtier females. (Press-Register, John David Mercer)

The Spanish influence did change Mardi Gras, incorporating their culture’s torchlight parades. The English introduced the Anglican custom of large feasts with the richest possible foods to be consumed on the last day before Lent began.

There are “mystic societies” formed around various professional or social associations, the first formed a year after the first celebration, some ceasing to exist after the Civil War and new ones rising in the last half-century.

The oldest continuous one began imn 1867, Mobile’s Order of Myths Society, which is marked by the symbolism of the partying (“Folly”) warding off the end of life (“Death”).

The Cowbellian de Rakin scoiety marching in Mobile.

The Cowbellian de Rakin Society marching – but not in Mobile.

One of the most unusual ones was formed in 1831, by a Swedish-American settler Michael Krafft, who migrated to Mobile from Pennsylvania. In the Swedish custom of making loud noises to welcome in the New Year, he began ringing cowbells and marching with friends carrying rakes, pitchforks, hoes and other farm implements.

A year later they repeated their parade but as part of the official Mardi Gras celebration, and called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, using highfaluting French-sounding words in humor. Although they died out, the society was later revived.

The Civil War seemed to have done in the Mobile Mardi Gras parade, but two years after it ended, one local by the name of Joe Cain revived the tradition of a parade, riding through town with six fellow ex-Confederate solders on a wagon carrying charcoal.

Joe Cain as the mythical Chief.

Joe Cain as the mythical Chief.

Making up a mythical figure known as “Chief Slacabamorinico,” he came to lead parades. A century later, a day was set aside in Mobile to honor him for returning the tradition; always celebrated on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, its known as Joe Cain Day. And there is still a traditional Chief Slacabamorinico to led the parade.

The Order of Osiris ball.

The Order of Osiris ball.

Today, there are forty or so different mystic societies. At one time, membership was reliant on secrecy and this required the wearing of masks to disguise one’s identity. Revealing it were grounds for permanent dismissal.

While some are still restricted based on family or school connections, the consortium of societies provide the fabric for civic works as well as professional networking. In 1890, the first Jewish mystic society formed. In 1894, the first African-American one was created. In 1980, the Order of Osiris, composed of gay and lesbian society members, was founded.

Mobile’s Mardi Gras season parallels an old-fashioned custom that has now largely disappeared, the “social season” which began along with the holiday season by which time many wealthy families returned to cities or large towns from their summer places in the cooler mountains, countryside or shore.

Debutantes are presented at the Camellia Ball, November 21, 2012.

Debutantes are presented at the Camellia Ball, November 21, 2012.

The Mardi Gras season in Mobile begins at different points, depending on the mystic society, including New Year’s Eve parties and the “Camellia Ball,” at which young women, the daughters of the elite class made their first appearance at formal social events.

All of it culminates on “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of socializing with a vengeance. For two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, the various societies hold their parades on different days, but all join in the final all-day parade on the last day.

Moon Pies, unique to Mobile's Mardi Gras.

Moon Pies, unique to Mobile’s Mardi Gras.

Like New Orleans Mardi Gras, glass and plastic beads, and “doubloons,” plastic stamped coins in the tri-colors of the holiday (green, purple and “gold” – although many such trinkets appear more orange) are thrown by the “crewes” of each society’s floats, but in Mobile there’s also the custom, begun in the 1950s, of throwing moon pies, those graham-cracker flavored-marshmallow chocolate covered treats.

Begging for beads in Mobile.

Begging for beads in Mobile.

Another distinction between Mobile and New Orleans are the strict rules by which the public are held. Although Lundi Gras, the Monday before Fat Tuesday, is set aside for family celebrations with schools being closed, children are present at the big event and none of the wild behavior, extreme intoxication and showing off of breasts or genitals are permitted. Nor are the societies permitted to throw unwrapped food, boxes or condoms, as some do in New Orleans.

While society members on the floats are expected to remain masked, it is only from nine in the morning until nine at night that spectators can cover their faces, an ordinance meant to rid the event of the earlier problem of masked bandits who would swoop through crowds and avoid being identified and to also disassociate any local memories of the once-active Ku Klux Klan. At one point in the 19th century, even free African-Americans were prohibited from gathering in groups for a ball or party, while those of mixed-race were allowed the same right as white people.

Orvile Cawthorn, Mobile's 1905 King of Mardi Gras.

Orvile Cawthorn, Mobile’s 1905 King of Mardi Gras.

At the end of the night, each society holds a highly formal ball where, if not in costume, guests are expected to wear long, formal gowns and white-tie and tails. It also marks the annual crowning of “King Felix,” to rule over the succeeding Mobile Mardi Gras.

The old Spanish custom of torch-parades and lighting the streets and floats with burning flames has given way to electric-lights.

Post-Mardi Gras cleanup need not be all that dull (this is in Australia).

Mardi Gras cleanup need not be all that dull.

Even though Mobile’s early French population rapidly inter-married with Anglo, Spanish, African and other groups within the growing port city, and its Catholic customs quickly faded under a Protestant majority, Mobile takes the arrival of Ash Wednesday seriously.

At the stroke of midnight in Mobile, all drinking, dancing and partying instantly ceases. People are expected to quietly but quickly head home.

The Mobile city departments move into action, clearing the streets of any debris or signs of parades or parties. Social custom also dictates that no beads be seen during the days of Lent.

And yet, while the French-American origins of the holiday may now seem quaintly unimportant and largely forgotten, one need not look that far away, be it on a parade float, the window of a bake shop selling King Cake in the tri-colors of purple, gold and green, the invitation to a mystic society masquerade ball or on the paper cornice decorations that will end up in the trash truck on Ash Wednesday to see it.

It’s recalled by the simple and familiar Fleur de Lis, the ancient symbol of Mobile’s founding culture by the King of France, a long three centuries ago when it was that nation’s French capital city of America.

Fleur de Lis.

Fleur de Lis.


Categories: Diversity, History, Holidays

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23 replies »

  1. Thank you. Great read! I spent 10 years enjoying Carnaval in Haiti where the bands begin rolling through the streets on the first Sunday after Independence Day, January 1, gathering followers dancing in the streets. Like Mobile, in Port-au-Prince, all reveling stops at midnight as Ash Wednesday begins and everyone goes home quietly.

  2. Merci! And I learned a lot about Mobile, AL. Happy Mardi Gras! ~FTW

  3. Wonderful read, Carl. Happy Mardi Gras to you! Here in Pennsylvania, it’s Fasnacht Day. There’s even a Facebook page about this tradition. Everyone around here kind of pigs out on them before Ash Wednesday.

    https://www.facebook.com/events/253239624806856/permalink/254074924723326/

    They come in all shapes and varieties. If you’re ever in Southcentral Pennslyvania, be sure to try one or two or more. Only on “Fat Tuesday”, of course!

    • That sounds interesting – a German custom, I take it. I know there were some specific German food customs for New Year’s – I did an article about it last year, should be under the “Holidays” tab at th etop. Meanwhile, I will check out the link you sent. Many thanks for reading and writing.

  4. Excellent article! Appreciate the link back to the froomzblog. Up until I started researching why people wore masks on Mardi Gras, I have never heard of any of the mystic societies 🙂

  5. Thanks for a great summary of Mardi Gras in Mobile. As one whose family has lived there for over 200 years, I think you did a great job of capturing our Mardi Gras celebration!! Laissez le bon temps rouler!!

    • Thank you very much Penny – although I see in the queue a number of corrections to photo captions, which is always welcome because it improves the story. I am very happy it got your stamp of approval. Thank you. And sorry for the delay.

  6. The photo you have of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society appears to be mislabeled. I recognize none of the buildings behind them. The street lamp that’s visible is not of a type found in downtown Mobile. I’ve never seen a Mobile boutique bearing the name of the one next to them, and as far as I know, has no businesses downtown that sell Versace or Prada. The sign for Maini Fashions rings no bells either.

    Since Mobilians in the mid-19th century went to New Orleans and helped them set up parades and societies, my hunch is this march in the style of Mobile’s Cowbellions was somehow appropriated and remained in place in the Crescent City.

    • I am going to say it is a very safe bet that you are absolutely correct and that I found the image so mislabeled on the Internet. I will try and check where it was from (I don’t have the article in front of me) but regardless I appreciate the correction – it only improves the article and forgive me for the delayed response – been busy. Cheers – and laissez le bon temps rouler!

  7. That photo you have of the cowbellion de rakin society is taken in New Orleans. That’s Canal Street in the background.

  8. Green, purple and gold…. (No orange) 🙂

    • I remember that and stand corrected – thank you….though I think at the hour I was trying to complete the article I was likely paying attention to the color my eyes detected instead of the correct description of it! Laissez le bon temps rouler!

      • There’s no green in Mobile’s Mardi Gras colors. Green is the color of faith that was incorporated in New Orleans. Purple is justice and gold is power.

        Also, I think the Infant Mystics were one of the first to take Mardi Gras to New Orleans. They assisted in the founding of Comus. Also, the Order of Myths have retained the flaumbeaux for their emblem float. Your first picture is of the OOMs emblem. Folly chases Death around the broken column of the life. Folly is ultimately victorious over death.

        Eugene Walter summed it up best. “If, as a child, you saw, every Mardi Gras, the figure of Folly chasing Death around the broken column of life, beating him on the back with a fool’s scepter from which dangled two gilded pig bladders, wouldn’t you see the world in different terms, too?”

  9. Carl, don’t get me wrong…I love Mobile, and it definitely has the claim to organized Mardi Gras in the Gulf South, but what the article fails to note, as does virtually every article about the city of Mobile being the site of the “first” observance of Mardi Gras in the Gulf South, is that the French weren’t in Mobile as we know it today, but 27 miles north, where Fort Louis de la Louisiane was located. They wouldn’t relocate to the current city site until 1711. It also conveniently jumps over the dates between 1699-1702, when the only French settlement on the gulf was located at Fort Maurepas, in present-day Ocean Springs, MS. When Iberville arrived in the Gulf, he had around 400 men with him. He parked his big vessels at Ship Island in February 1699, and after 2 weeks of getting to know the Biloxi and Pascagoula Indians on the Mississippi shoreline, he selected about 50 men (French-Canadians and buccaneers hired from San Domingue, modern-day Haiti) to go along in his 3-week quest for the mouth of the Mississippi River in small, shallow draft vessels. He entered the mouth on March 3, 1699, and as you note, held a brief Mardi Gras observation. His journals note holding a mass and the singing of the Te Deum. Meanwhile…back at Ship Island, there were 300+ continental French sailors anchored 10 miles south of the Mississippi coast aboard 2 frigates, la Badine and le Marin, as well as the 2 traversiers, the Precieux and Voyageur…it is somewhat disingenuous to believe that these sailors, who would have nothing better to do in the 3 weeks that Iberville went in search of the river, would fail to observe the holiday of Mardi Gras. I would bet it looked something more like a Captain Morgan commercial… In Jay Higginbotham’s definitive work on “Old Mobile,” his thorough documentation of the French colonial experience at Mobile, he even notes (page 107) that when the French had finally settled at Fort Louis de la Louisiane, they were able to resume their observance in 1703 (they did not observe it in 1702 because they were too busy relocating from Fort Maurepas to Fort Louis de la Louisiane) as they had done in 1700 and 1701. Where did that occur? At Fort Maurepas, in present-day Ocean Springs, MISSISSIPPI!

    Marc Poole
    Chairman, Ocean Springs Museum of History Commission

    • Thank you so, so very much Marc for taking the time to provide such a detailed and accurate accounting…with apologies to all Mobilians of course. I welcome your sort of commentary and I am certain that others coming to the site will also, and perhaps engage with you on it. I’ve not been to Mardi Gras in either Mississippi or Alabama yet but certainly intend to sooner rather than later. Cheers – and thank you again.

      • Thank you for the reply! As I mentioned, I love Mobile!…Ocean Springs always seems to get the short-end of the historical stick as it relates to the birth of the Louisiana colony. Granted, the French weren’t slinging beads and moonpies to each other back then, and it was surely a different kind of affair from what occurs today…for them, more an opportunity for indulgence with the meager rations and the “water of life” they survived on. The arrival of the cassette girls to the colony in 1704 at Old Mobile brought the opportunity for the observance to take on a more festive approach. Regardless, it most definitely is a shared history from coastal Alabama to Louisiana…should you happen to come down and experience it for yourself, you will undoubtedly have a great time!
        Laissez le bon temps rouler!

        • But I also really appreciated the effort you made to explain the facts in detail (something I would do myself). Is there any recreation or even model of Old Mobile in any of the museums? And yes, I agree – the arrival of girls always makes it more festive. Thanks again Marc.

          • Actually, there is, or was at one time, at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Here’s a link to an image:

            http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0f/Fort_Louis_de_la_Mobile.jpg

            It was a standard design similar to what had been established at Fort Maurepas, with some minor differences. In Mobile itself, at the site of Fort Conde’ (the site of the relocation in 1717), there are several excellent models that show the evolution of the fort throughout the colonial era. Also, in Wetumpka, Alabama, there is an excellent recreation of Fort Toulouse, a French outpost originally established in 1717.

            http://www.forttoulouse.com/

            We are actually in the process of having a model replica of Fort Maurepas built for the Ocean Springs Museum. There used to be a full-scale recreation (incomplete) that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, although it was not in the location of the actual fort…(that little detail is still a point of controversy).

            Today, there is the new Fort Maurepas Park at the site of the former recreation. Although there is not an actual “fort”, the layout is established as the footprint of the fort’s design…a nice public space, with a statue of Iberville. Once a year at the end of April, the 1699 “Weekend of Discovery” is held there…our own celebration of our area’s small role in the tapestry of French Colonial history…and a cool fireworks display to boot! Kind of like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July for Ocean Springs…

            http://www.1699landing.org/

            Best Regards!

            Marc Poole

          • Thanks Marc – I will look at each of these links one at a time when I’ve a chance. I appreciate your effort – I love this stuff.

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