How Mardi Gras Has Stirred the Southern Melting Pot for 400 Years
Story by Richard Murff • Header photo by Steve Mann
Starting on the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 the season is Carnival and Mardi Gras; the day before Ash Wednesday is its culmination. Not a celebration for the sake of being drunk: It is a feast before the coming famine, a celebration of life in the face of approaching death. The body will die but what of it? We are in God’s hands. Of course, all the public sex tends to take the modern Mardi Gras melee off-message, but these sorts of things don’t really work without the human element.
We need these rites.
Evidently, we always have. The first time the word turns up is in 985 AD: Carnelevare. It means, believe it or not, “to relieve from flesh.” In 1140 a steer was paraded around the streets of Rome on his way to be slaughtered before the pope ahead of the Lenten fast, and Mobilians and New Orleanians still do this with a fake beouf gras, or "big cow." Still there are no accounts of Carnivals being held as a pre-fasting bracer until the early 15th century, but those were pretty lively. Within a generation they’d become such hootenannies that the church was trying to stamp them out by claiming that Carnival was connected to the Roman Lupercalia or Bacchanalia. (These days, writers would do exposés on underage drinking or rich people sneering at the rest of us.)
When New Orleans and Mobile started throwing what we’d call the first modern Mardi Gras, the upper classes told themselves that they’d inherited a heritage and aristocratic spirit from the European nobility – which was true.
Except for the facts.
The Spanish started snooping around Louisiana’s coast in 1520 just in case the Aztec gold ran out before they could outspend England in a naval arms race. It wasn’t until 1662 that René Robert Cavelier came down the Mississippi and claimed the whole place for King Louis XIV. On March 3, 1699, one Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d’Iberville, set about exploring and naming things: Pointe du Mardi Gras and the adjoining swamp Bayou du Mardi Gras. The area was well identified, but not very profitable. There was nothing to do but eat oysters and die of malaria, yellow fever or some Natchez religious ceremony.
In 1704, the death du jour was yellow fever, which cleared the place out. In the aftermath, the first American Mardi Gras was held at Fort Louis de la Louisiane in 1705, a few miles north of present-day Mobile. Theoretically, the party was for Lent, but in reality is was an “Aren’t we glad to still be alive?”-type get together. If you really want to get to the ticking heart of the exuberant joy of Carnival, there it is: The loudest laughter comes from sorrow, not mirth.
By 1711 the locals were fed up with all the flooding so they moved. Legend has it that there was another Mardi Gras parade the following year with a beouf gras led around by a soldier named Nicholas Langlos. There are no first-hand accounts of the parade, or M. Langlos for that matter. This doesn’t bode well for real historians, but it does prove definitively that people were too busy trying to die to write things down for posterity.
The thing that must be remembered about the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean is that no one really wanted to be there: It was a likely death sentence. The idea was to make a fortune before getting killed by some dread disease or a revolt by the slaves whose lives you’d ruined, then remove yourself back to the old world – fortune intact – to buy a title and pretend your money was older than it was. To make matters worse, Louisiana was even less popular in France than it was in Louisiana. It was a draw on the French crown’s purse, and ventures on the gulf hadn’t taken off the way the Atlantic seaboard had. Most economists would argue that it still hasn’t. They’d also agree that a quick way out of a depressed real estate market is a liquidity bubble.
Enter John Law, a Scotsman. In 1716 he established what would become France’s first central bank and came up with “quantitative easing” (read: printing money) long before wrecking the economy became a contact sport for politicos and MBAs. In 1717 he bought the Mississippi Company, charged with the development of the colony, and a year later moved its capital to a modern city laid out with no concession to modern crowd control.
The place was a sinkhole, but Law sold a grand vision of Neuvelle Orleans even if no one actually wanted to live there. In France, Mississippi Company shares became so popular that the Banque Royal (of which Law was the director) began printing more money than it had gold, so that people could use it to buy more shares. Dividends were then paid in a now rapidly depreciating currency. The end of 1720 saw the only possible outcome to all this foolishness. Investors wanted to convert their shares into hard currency, and the Banque had to admit that the paper notes were backed by a Scotsman’s wishful thinking.
Louisiana dealt with the reality by ignoring it.
In 1743 Governor Marquis de Vaudreuil threw an elegant masked ball for the elite of New Orleans modeled on the Parisian Carnival. Centered on Lent, aristocrats and other well-to-do held masked balls and those who actually held jobs marched in the streets with their guilds. Mardi Gras had no king because France already had one, and that was plenty.
In truth, New Orleans balls had less to do with piety than marrying the youngsters off to the right sort, now that no one in France wanted to have anything to do with the place if they could help it. Yet the colonists were so deeply rooted in their French souls that they refused to believe it when word reached them that they were no longer, strictly speaking, French.
France ceded the colony to Spain in 1762, but neither crown thought enough of the place to change out the administration for a year. When Don Antonio de Ulloa, the first Spanish governor, finally arrived, he found a poorly run, corrupt city firmly in the hands of organized crime and smugglers. Not unlike today. Don Ulloa outlawed Mardi Gras “masking,” but he was ignored. Then he outlawed all trade with France, which was taken in stride until it was discovered that the ban included French wine. Then the colony revolted. Not that they had anything against the Spanish crown. They just really hated those pre-Franco Andalusian reds.
They all became French again in 1800, when Napoleon “convinced” the King of Spain to cede the colony back to France on the condition that it never be passed to a third party. Which he did in 1803 by selling Louisiana to the United States for $15 million. To sweeten the deal Napoleon threw in Spanish west Florida – like having a yard sale and hocking your neighbor’s lawnmower. Thomas Jefferson thought that a deal was a deal and established a long-standing American policy of ignoring all Spanish claims to anything.
None of which slowed the onslaught of Spanish immigrants and French planters fleeing ahead of Caribbean slave revolts. The population of New Orleans doubled between 1791 and 1805 – and doubled again by 1810.
By then they were Americans.
In 1805 the first masked balls were held for the Gens Colour de Libre, or Free People of Color. The balls originally were open to slaves as well. Then came the Blue Ribbon balls held for white men and black women which were reportedly so much fun that white women started to disguise themselves to crash the parties. They usually ended in violence – who can imagine why?
If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty about a great many things in the South, you have to quit listening to the white people’s version and look toward the people who did all the heavy lifting. Obviously, slaves would have no use for a ceremony that ends in a pastel sport coat to welcome 40 days of self-denial. These were strangers shackled to a strange land with no way of going home other than a hole in the ground. Their whole lives were Lent, so Carnival had a more visceral meaning. After getting their holiday allowance, slaves in Trinidad would flour their faces and hair. The practice spread to the white planters who liked to play the clown for the day, but the slaves weren’t laughing: In West Africa, rubbing white ash on your face and hair was a sign of mourning.
Still, just as white planters indulged in an absurd fantasy that they were connected to the European aristocracy, the slaves used Carnival to pretend that they had been kings in the old country. It was on the plantations of the Caribbean that the first “tribes” formed with elected kings and queens, royalty, flagmen and chairmen.
They gathered at clubrooms – called cabildos – on the plantations or in the city. The whites had their masks, while the kings and queens of the slaves' cabildos dressed in wild costumes and colorful turbans that looked more suited for a Turkish pasha than an African king. And they kept their rituals away from prying eyes.
The cotton men who first organized the white secret societies of the Mardi Gras were well aware of the barred doors and secret rituals behind which the “Negro Carnival” was held on the Feast of the Epiphany. They found it alluring.
In the first half of the 19th century the elements were coming together: the faux Parisian balls and the parades and secret clubrooms. The first Mardi Gras float, a six-foot fighting cock, rolled down the street in 1839. It was all impromptu and haphazard and tended to get out of hand — fast. By 1850, some 400 years after the first attempt to ban Mardi Gras, sensible people wanted to step on it again. The Creole newspaper The Bee wrote: “We are not sorry to see that this miserable annual exhibit is rapidly becoming extinct. It was organized in a barbarous age and is worthy of only such.” Unfortunately for the editors at The Bee, the party was only then finding its legs.
A group of young men of the “right sort” got together and formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus to throw the first nighttime parade in 1857. The krewe was named for the god of festive mirth because Dr. John Pope, who was credited with naming it, was crazy for the poet John Milton back when the “right sort” of people were still crazy for such folks. Among the krewe’s founders were members of Mobile’s Cowbellian de Rakin Society, founded in 1830. They’d been throwing parades around the Mobile bay for a generation. The fly in Mobile’s claim to the first regular Mardi Gras is that until 1866, the Cowbellians held their parades on New Year’s Eve. It’s fitting that the answer to who held the first Mardi Gras is as convoluted as the question.
The parades were put on hold for something decidedly more dramatic: the Civil War. The Federal Army that occupied the city didn’t really get into the spirit of the thing and thought the Union would be much better off if all those Catholic, foreign-looking people and their accents would just act like proper Americans. To put it mildly, the Yankee pragmatism didn’t take.
By 1872 the party had resumed with such force that the 22-year-old Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff altered his world tour to put him in New Orleans on Mardi Gras. In truth, he was smitten with was an English showgirl 14 years his senior named Lydia Thompson – the Madonna of her day – who was performing in the city. Regardless whom the Grand Duke was trying to shag, city leaders heard about their exalted guest and thought the goings-on needed some direction. They took a page from the cabildos and organized the mayhem around a king, to be called Rex. They resurrected the masked balls because they figured it was the sort of thing that Grand Dukes go in for, and the krewes banded together to form the Rex Organization.
In the end, the Grand Duke’s visit was something of a disappointment. He walked around smoking a cigar and worse, did it in front of ladies. There was a great deal of tut-tuting and a rumor that the Grand Duke never closed the deal with Ms. Thompson after getting diverted by a professional rival named Lotta Crabtree. (There is no good reason to subject that last bit to the indignity of fact-checking.)
By that point, the proverbial King Cake was already in the oven. But Mardi Gras is never really done. Even in relatively liberal New Orleans, once the whites adopted the alluring and otherworldly elements of the cabildos, they barred the blacks from the party. The Freedmen then organized themselves into tribes not built on the fantasy of the old world, but in homage to the new. They called themselves the Mardi Gras Indians out of respect to the put-upon Native Americans who hid so many slaves during their first dashes to freedom. Their colorful parades — once an excuse for gang violence — have become elaborate dance-offs that push the limits of “peacocking” and color photography.
Through it all, there is the scent of the ancient wafting through the modern: Ancient voodoo symbols like the Bone Man march alongside political commentary like “Chocolate City.”
It’s as astute as it is absurd, but that inversion of reality is the heart of the American Carnival. Our Mardi Gras is about as French as crawfish étouffée: It’s got the name, and the general principles are there, but the ingredients and methodology are a mash-up of overlapping cultures and local ingredients. It is the fantasy of heritage seen through a funhouse mirror. It is a Gumbo Ya Ya – everyone speaking at once to create a new sound that is nearly impossible to fully understand. The party never surges in commemoration of good fortune, but in the wake of tragedy – to celebrate making it to the other side of starvation, a yellow fever epidemic, the shackles of slavery, a civil war, a depression or a biblical wall of dirty water.
Carnival is a celebration of the elation we feel — not when things are great, but when we survive as the world comes unhinged.