Sunday, February 23, 2020

Joe Cain returned Mardi Gras to Mobile

  Though Mardi Gras had been celebrated for nearly a century and a half in both New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, as with many things, the Civil War had nearly ended this celebration permanently. Though no one ever gets to know what might have been, one thing is certain, Mardi Gras was no longer being celebrated once the long and gruesome war had come to end.

  To set the stage for what was occurring in the deep south at the end of this period of history, one must realize that what had been a thriving, jubilant society had come to a sudden and final death. The society of southern planters was in mourning for their fathers, sons, and husbands, and life as they had known it had been irrevocably altered. The south was occupied by an invading army and reflected this occupation in every facet of life.

  The year was 1866 and being deep in the heart of the south and a major seaport, Mobile was, of course, one of these cities that was forced to endure occupation by Union forces. Possibly to liven up the morose atmosphere of the city or out of spite for the Union soldiers that could be found loitering on most of the street corners of downtown Mobile, a group of gentlemen, led by one Joseph Stillwell Cain, came up with the idea to recreate the parades of old. A coal wagon was quickly commandeered from a nearby business and Joseph Cain, dressed as a fictional Chickasaw chief, led the impromptu parade down the streets of Mobile the day before Ash Wednesday.

  The snub of the Union troops was intentional since it was believed that the Chickasaw tribe had never been defeated in battle. Needless to say, the Union troops were not amused, but the snub proved to be the spark that Mobile needed to rekindle the flames of life. Since that time, the city of Mobile has continued the celebration of Mardi Gras and has not forgotten the man who gave it back to them.

  On the Sunday before Mardi Gras day every year, Joe Cain is remembered for his gift. In fact, the city named the day after him. First, there is a parade of sorts followed by a procession of mysterious women dressed in widow's mourning. These heavily veiled creatures are known only to themselves but profess to each have been married to Mr. Cain at some point. The processional continues until it arrives at the cemetery in which Joseph Cain's body is interred. After a period of good-natured bickering among the widows, with each declaring that she was the favorite wife of Joe Cain, flowers are laid at his grave and the city pays tribute to the gentleman that gave brought Mardi Gras back to life.

  It is quite a unique sight to see the widows and the processional. If ever you find yourself in Mobile, Alabama on the weekend preceding Mardi Gras day, pay a visit to downtown Mobile. It's an experience that can't be had anywhere else.

  About the author: Ronnie Tanner is a contributing writer at Toomeys Mardi Gras. He writes about Mardi Gras and other industry-specific topics.

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