The man responsible for reviving Mardi Gras in Mobile after the Civil War may be one of the only Mobilians to be buried three times.
Joe Cain lies in eternal rest with his wife, Elizabeth, at the historic Church Street Cemetery downtown, but the couple was actually buried in Bayou La Batre first, Wayne Dean said. Dean, who portrays Cain’s alter-ego, Chief Slacabamarinico, during the Joe Cain procession the Sunday preceding Fat Tuesday each year, said he was present when the Cains were moved in the late 1960s.
Before the move in 1966, Dean said Joe Cain was like a footnote in Mobile’s Mardi Gras history. At the time, Julian Rayford, the original Slacabamarinico, was concerned the city wasn’t doing enough to honor Cain, Dean said. The move prompted the first procession on Shrove Sunday.
“They wanted him to be more known for what he did,” Dean said.
The Cains were moved a second time within the Church Street Cemetery, Dean said. There current resting place is near the entrance and close to where Joe Cain’s parents are buried.
The initial move had two goals. The first, getting Cain some recognition, “we’ve accomplished quite well,” Dean said. “Joe Cain is more well known in our area than the governor.”
The second reason, which allows revelers to go downtown and parade without paying a fee, has been harder to accomplish.
“The city has limited the number of units,” he said. “They’ve since relaxed that.”
Before the procession, which now occurs on Joe Cain Day, Dean said there weren’t very many activities on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Dean was home from his studies at the University of Alabama when the first procession took place in 1969. The first ceremony was “very much a memorial,” Dean said, and included a priest. There was no money for a band.
“[The next year] was when it first started to take off,” Dean said. “I helped with marketing. We got the word out so well.”
Now, the procession includes a series of parades but begins with a visit to the cemetery from a group called the Merry Widows, owner of Secret History Tours Todd Duran said. He said the second move might have been predicated on the popularity of Cain himself and cemetery managers not wanting visitors to disturb other resting places.
“I just find the whole situation interesting,” he said. “It’s all part of the mythology of Joe Cain.”
Visitors now arrive at the cemetery between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and wait for the Widows to open its gates at around 9:15 a.m., Duran said.
“People always arrive early and sit on the wall so they can see what’s going on,” Duran said. “The city is very tolerant of it.”
Some visitors wear costumes and even bring step-ladders, he said.
“I think people like the theatricality of it,” Duran said. “It’s almost done like a jazz funeral.”
Duran credited books by Dr. Ann Pond for some of his knowledge. Pond’s books “The First Cowbellian: Mummers and the Birth of America’s Mardi Gras” and “Masons and Mardi Gras: Secret Origins of Mystic Krewes” are good examples.
For instance, Duran said Cain was invited to a fireman’s parade in New Orleans on Lundi Gras in 1868. He witnessed the parades in New Orleans that year before bringing the tradition back to Mobile the next year.
Duran hosts a Mardi Gras-themed walking tour through downtown. The tours begin at Serda’s Brewing at 3:30 p.m. on parade days. The price of the tours is $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 6 to 12.
Following Mardi Gras, Duran will host a general Mobile history tour. He’s currently working on a website, but those interested can visit Secret History Tours’ Facebook page for more information.
As Dean mentioned, the Joe Cain procession, or the “People’s Parade,” has been plagued recently by infighting between the traditional footmarchers and a group of revelers who take to floats, known as the Joe Cain Parading Society.
In 2014, organizers of the parading society said city permitting fees caused them to document and charge footmarchers for participation in the parade. Many marching organizers were outraged at the prospect of having to pay to participate in the parade on Joe Cain Day.
Dean said the city has since loosened the regulations and anyone who would like to can now march on Joe Cain Day. Dean said because the Joe Cain footmarchers have their own permit, anyone can join them.
“The footmarchers had always been there and been unlimited,” Dean said of the parade on Joe Cain Day. “It took a couple years to convince the powers that be. This is the first year anyone can join [since 2014].”