Author and historian Ann Pond’s second book in her trilogy on Gulf Coast Mardi Gras landed in the Artifice email recently. Its relatively short length relative to the first work — roughly 66 pages apart from footnotes — made it a quick read, but that’s no indictment of its story.
If anything, Pond has revealed a history far more baroque than the shortened version so widely disseminated in these parts. Interwoven with so much of the cultural landscape and our nation’s knack for reinvention, she has given us a tale quintessentially American.
The first book established the Gulf Coast backdrop in the colonial and early American era, along with the emerging prosperity of Mobile and the birth of the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations at the hands of Michael Krafft and friends. It also showed New Orleans’ own Fat Tuesday masking tradition documented as far back as 1730.
This work, “Masons and Mardi Gras,” briefly touches on those times then ventures headlong into titular matters. Pond maintains such fraternal organizations imbued the Cowbellion de Rakins and subsequent groups with uniquely mysterious elements.
Freemasonry was an important component of colonial America. Brought from Europe, it was “redefined and standardized” in the mid-1700s by American intellectual and political leaders. Its strong presence was evidenced throughout the philosophies and arguments of our Founding Fathers and George Washington even sported Masonic attire at his inauguration.
Mobile’s first Freemasons lodge was founded in 1813. Its Grand Warden even happened to hold the office of mayor at the time the Cowbellion de Rakins were organized.
Freemasons used mystique to their advantage. They draped their doings in ritual and secrecy, a fanciful adaptation which quickly migrated to the New Year’s Eve groups.
One of the Freemasons’ few public efforts were parades, which waned not long before the New Year’s groups launched their efforts. Ironically, the last procession of the last lodge of an order dedicated to “the refinement of virtue” marched past a slave market and public slave whipping post on their way down Royal Street.
Pond quoted New Orleans Picayune notes of Crescent City parades in 1837, but on Fat Tuesday. They were a shadow of the pomp and circumstance seen in Mobile streets on New Year’s at the time.
The author noted Mobile’s Krafft could have been in New Orleans in 1837 but the term “cowbellion” used in said article was a general term for a rambunctious gathering. It emerged in New Orleans newspaper accounts long before Mobilians’ impact.
Another influence in the 1830s and ‘40s was the emergence of live theater on the Gulf Coast. Theatricality grew in both cities’ Freemasonry, in Mobile’s New Year’s festivities in the form of tableaus and themed parades and in the masquerade balls popular in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday.
An interesting footnote is that John Wilkes Booth’s father visited Mobile for a stage performance in 1838, not three years after he wrote a letter to President Andrew Jackson threatening to cut the chief executive’s throat with a knife over a pair of captive pirates Booth wished free. Talk about foreshadowing.
The tone of Mobile’s festivities also changed over those first decades. When the New Year’s groups began at the spark of Mobile’s biggest-ever boom, observers found all levels of society gleefully merging in the soirees. Within 20 years, the events grew more exclusionary, with costumes ordered from Paris and members who took themselves far more seriously.
New Orleans still held generally rowdier and more-inclusive affairs. Another difference was the longtime popularity of New Orleans’ mixed-race balls, whereas Mobile passed city codes banning blacks from events.
As the Cowbellion de Rakins grew more refined through the 1840s, New Orleans’ events lost luster. Daytime costumers ebbed and the pranking of young boys became worse, with weapons being thrown amidst the traditional powdered sugar and flour. In 1848 the Picayune wrote “few respectable persons now dare to show themselves in the streets, and mob law has triumphed.” The evening’s balls, however, retained hearty endorsement.
In 1852, one last attempt at a daytime New Orleans parade was a shambles. The author credits two men — cotton broker Joseph Ellison and merchant Samuel Manning Todd — with a solution.
Both New Orleanians had dealings and connections in Mobile, with Todd having once held public office here. They solicited advice from Cowbellion de Rakins and members of similar Mobile groups and from that grew the Mystick Krewe of Comus, New Orleans’ first Mardi Gras parading society built on the Mobile New Year’s template.
As that came to fruition, war brewed between North and South. Before long, both cities were ravaged and their separate days of frivolity ceased. In 1864, the Mobile Advertiser and Register noted there were no New Year’s events.
“The Civil War might have caused an irrevocable break with the past in Mobile, as it did in many other American cities, had it not been for the richness, the quality and the depth of the ritual experience among Mobile’s elite,” Pond wrote. “There remained in Mobile an undeniable continuity with the past exhibited in its continued conservatism toward all social and economic aspects of life. Such a conservative response was well grounded in the functions of the antebellum fraternal order … The continuity of ceremonial ritual was synonymous with Old South values.”
Her extensive footnoting and documentation give this history heft uncommon to urban mythology and folklore. The arrival of the third book and the tale of Fat Tuesday’s renaissance is eagerly anticipated on this end.
For more on this book and its companions, go to ann-j-pond.squarespace.com. Kindle and electronic versions may also be purchased.