Mobile Mardi Gras à la Joe Cain
By Gary Wright
Often, things are not as they seem;
usually, but not always, more so than ever
Joseph Stillwell Cain, Jr.
October 10, 1832–April 17, 1904
Widely known as the father of the rebirth of Mobile’s Mardi Gras, Joe Cain is a celebrated son of Alabama. Following the Civil War, Mobile, Alabama was still in the throes of reconstruction and very much under the hated jack-boot of Yankee occupation soldiers and money-hungry carpet baggers. The conspiracy theorist generals of the Union occupiers feared that Southern sympathizers were secretly planning to overthrow the Union government in the South and reinitiate hostilities. Mardi Gras celebrations were about the only source of gaiety for Mobilians, and the Mardi Gras partiers carried their roles to the extreme, particularly the secret societies which made up the life blood of Mardi Gras. The Yankee overlords, ever fearful of conspiracies, cabals, and free thinkers thought that the masks, the secret handshakes, and similar frivolities of the Mardi Gras were the hotbed of the imminent hostilities. Thusly, the Yankees outlawed all Mardi Gras parades, meetings, parties, and activities.
There was little for Alabamians to celebrate during those hard times of scalawags, scam artists, and cruel northern overlords. The one thing of mirth and merriment had always been Mardi Gras, and now even that was prohibited under threat of imprisonment. On ‘Fat Tuesday’ 1867, Joe Cain, in an unplanned and uncoordinated fit of pique, simply appeared and paraded through the streets of Mobile. He showed up—some say in a high state of inebriation—dressed in an improvised costume depicting a fictional Chickasaw chief named Slacabamorinico. The choice was an ill-concealed insult to the occupying Union forces, in that the Chickasaw had never been defeated in war. Joe was joined by six other Confederate veterans, parading in a decorated coal wagon, playing drums and horns, and the group became the “L.C. Minstrel Band,” now commonly referred to as the “Lost Cause Minstrels” of Mobile.
Joe Cain and his compatriots had to get liquored up to march, knowing they faced certain arrest. However, in that first parade, the Union soldiers, carpet-baggers, and Mobile citizens looked on in wonder and laughter as ‘Old Slac’ and his minstrels marched down Government Street and turned left onto Royal Street, ending up in a bar. Although that first parade after the Civil War may have seemed comical and unpretentious, perceptive Mobilians realized that this was history in the making and that ‘Old Slac,’ in his unpolished manner and drunken stupor, had put one over on the unaware Yanks. Secret societies, which quickly grew in number, were instantly born to plan for a Mardi Gras parade the following year. 1868 produced an even larger parade, and in succeeding years, it grew substantially.
Mobile had little hope for gaiety and fun while suffering under the heel of the jackboot by the occupiers. With little else to brighten their plight from occupation, the planning and organizing for Mardi Gras went entirely underground and took up the Mobilians’ entire year. Outwardly, the secret societies were made to look like nothing but a drunken party. Inwardly, it became a serious and expensive business. Mardi Gras had been 150 years old when it was abruptly canceled by the Yankee occupiers in 1865, and it had always been part of the fabric of Mobile society. Now, under Joe Cain’s guidance and ‘Old Slac’s,’ command, it resumed its rightful place as the centerpiece of Mobile’s formal and, at the same time, gaudy, culture.
Had the secret societies put as much effort into planning hostilities against the Union authorities as they did in planning their drunken parties, they might have succeeded in reconquering their homeland. However, much to the delight of the occupying Northern government, all the activities of the Mardi Gras societies was as it seemed—one big, drunken party. In their attempt to ferret out the conspiracies, the Union government spent lots of time, money, and effort in penetrating these societies. But, it is impossible to prove the unprovable, and most of the Yankee spies eventually joined the secret societies for real and became some of the best of party-goers.
As the years passed, ‘Old Slac’ became a permanent fixture in the Mobile parade, and is now an integral part of the festivities. When Joe Cain died in 1904, the drunken revelers couldn’t bear not having him in the parade. Quite naturally, and in the right sense of Mardi Gras, they knew Joe wouldn’t mind a good party. So, they dug him up from his grave behind the Mobile Public Library on Government Street and paraded him down the avenue in a wagon pulled by two mules and followed by a bevy of black-clad female mourners, each claiming to be “Joe Cain Widows.” The Sunday before Fat Tuesday has become a permanent tribute to his memory. Now known as “Joe Cain Day,” the entire day is dedicated to his memory, irreverent partying and merriment providing his legacy.
For moral, not to mention sanitary purposes, city officials quickly put an end to digging up ‘Old Slac’ every year, and on Joe Cain Day the Mobile Police Department still guards his grave to ensure that Old Joe stays put. However, a team of horses and a “borrowed” coal wagon parade his ceremonial remains through the City, followed by, you guessed it – his ‘merry widows,’ wailing and lamenting his passing. Usually fueled by liquor, his widows sorrowfully and loudly celebrate his passing in shrieks of wailing and lamentation while sporting outlandish black, widow-like dress.
Joe Cain, a celebrated son of Alabama.
Revelers outside Joe Cain’s former home during Mobile Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to Travel Southern Comfort board on Pinterest
Black and white of Joe Cain is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to the Encyclopedia of Alabama
Float image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to Wikimedia
Reveler image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to Wikipedia