A favorite quote likens journalists’ social status to that of prostitutes and bartenders, but their philosophical standing as “beside Galileo because they know the world is round.” Those attributes aren’t independent but intertwined.
Outside the power structure, you have nothing to lose by speaking truth. Yet to do so is a path to alienation and marginalization.
The same could be said of a good historian. Part detective, part epistemologist and philosopher, their dogged adherence to uncovering truth often puts them at odds with the status quo.
Ann Pond enters the fray with the last in her trilogy of books on Mobile Mardi Gras, “Cain and his Lost Cause Generation.” More than a regurgitation of threadbare popular myth, Pond’s citation of sources and unraveling of fable reads as well-grounded in diligence.
Pond’s preview revisits territory meticulously traced in the previous works — “The First Cowbellion” and “Masons and Mardi Gras” — and sketches the intricate symbiosis between Mobile’s New Year’s celebrations and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. It’s a good primer.
The first chapter delivers a wallop when it looks at the central question of how modern myths about the holiday emerged despite ample documentation to the contrary. Two names emerge as the wellspring.
Artist and writer Julian Rayford is well known as the man who gave us the modern Joe Cain Day and wrote the first book-length historical account of Mobile Mardi Gras, “Chasin’ the Devil ‘Round a Stump.” It canonized contemporary beliefs.
But where did Rayford gather his information? It seems to have come from Francois “Frank” Diard, an early 20th century Mobilian committed to elevating the status of his hometown without adherence to a historian’s ethics.
Diard amassed a so-called “family history,” an abundance of information and “records” about colonial Mobile and its residents as spurious as his claims of relationship to the Brothers Le Moyne, d’Iberville and Bienville. Pond said no proof of such lineage exists.
The problem with Diard’s research is his dedication to making his findings fit his end goal of giving Mobile as many credited “firsts” as possible. Among those claims are that Mobile and his family had the first azalea, the first garden, the first gumbo and the first Mardi Gras on the Gulf Coast.
Through his 38-year occupation with the Mobile Register and lifelong association with its editor Erwin Craighead, Diard’s claims were never subjected to due scrutiny. Plus, there is the human tendency to believe what is most flattering.
Diard claimed “Boeuf Gras” celebrations began in colonial Mobile and continued uninterrupted until Fat Tuesday of 1861. Pond and previous researchers say historical proof for this is nonexistent, not in d’Iberville’s journals, the Penicaut Narrative or historically documented stories from subsequent French immigrants. Diard disseminated these other fanciful ideas as widely as possible, including in articles written for national publication. After a while, it became the accepted narrative.
Rayford was undoubtedly influenced by Diard. Rayford also championed a vision of Joe Cain as a symbol of wresting power from elites and spurning outside influence.
Pond cites not only Cain’s participation in New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities of 1867 but newspaper accounts claiming the 1868 Mobile Mardi Gras celebrations “ushered in a new era.”
To Rayford, Cain was a worthy source of information about Mobile’s most cherished pastime. He extolled Cain’s virtues, engineered the long-dead city clerk’s disinterment from Bayou La Batre to historic Church Street Graveyard and spurred the inception of the Joe Cain Day procession on the Sunday preceding Lundi Gras.
Pond’s book goes on to discuss the Mobile of Cain’s youth, a town on the crest of the Cotton Boom wave. The social picture she paints is that of a frontier town on the rise, reinventing itself and hewing away the rougher parts of its culture.
Also included is an in-depth telling of the story of the Boyington Oak and the tragedy that led to its eerie legend. Fittingly, the oak stands not far from Cain’s current resting spot.
There’s no way to tell this story without ample focus on New Orleans, and Pond doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Her descriptions of the Crescent City culture and Mardi Gras customs are just as vivid and detailed as those of Mobile, detailing the similarities and differences.
Unsurprisingly, the nascent civic rivalry between both cities is obvious and manifested in the tourism marketing undertaken in the antebellum period. Let’s just say the “family Mardi Gras” angle was well underway long before Mobile even observed Carnival.
Anyone drawn to Mardi Gras or Gulf Coast history should dive into Pond’s entire trilogy at first chance. You can grab an inscribed copy at a couple of upcoming book signings: Thursday, Nov. 12, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Serda’s Coffee (3 S. Royal St.) and Wednesday, Nov. 18, 5-7 p.m. at the Mobile Carnival Museum (355 Government St.).
Copies also are available at ann-j-pond.squarespace.com. Kindle and electronic versions may also be purchased.
If “the truth will set you free,” then these three volumes are pure liberation.