Number Forty Five: Alabama

I’ve been to Alabama many times, always for work, usually to Montgomery, occasionally Birmingham, once Mobile. Travelling for work loses its romance very quickly and becomes a really inconvenient way to get to the office. One hotel conference is pretty much the same as every other hotel conference room in the country.

This time we went to Mobile as tourists and did not once consider vetting items or equating tests. Geographically, historically, culturally, philosophically, Mobile is much closer to New Orleans than to Montgomery. It is a very old French/Spanish/Caribbean/African city, older than New Orleans, and Mobilians are quick to tell you, they started Mardi Gras in the Western Hemisphere, in 1703 or maybe 1699, before New Orleans was even a place. Its Mardi Gras celebration isn’t the Sunday School version we saw in Málaga but isn’t the debauchery of New Orleans or Rio either.

By all accounts, the ‘throws’ from the parade floats are vastly superior to the paltry beads you get in New Orleans. Although, from my experience, “Moon Pies” are something you have to grow up with to appreciate.

So we’re told; we weren’t there at the right time.

The original idea was a Catholic event that started on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, which was preparation for the deprivations to come) and continued through Lent. That approach waxed and waned for the next 100 plus years as the City passed from French to British to Spanish to US (in 1803). In 1830-1, a group of young gentlemen after welcoming in the new year and heading home, passed a hardware store that called to them. To their annoyance the store was not open at 2:00 AM, but they were still able to outfit themselves with cowbells, pitchforks, rakes, and other farm implements. Thus equipped, they paraded around town with much enthusiasm, giving others the opportunity to enjoy the melodious sounds of cowbells, intoxication, and various types of firearms.

When confronted by much of the local constabulary, who wanted to know who they were and what they were doing, they declined to answer either question other than, “We are the Cowbellions!” Because the revelers were the ‘right sort’ (i.e., male, Euro-American, well-educated, and well-off), the consequence of their disturbance was to start a tradition that moved the beginning of the celebration from Fat Tuesday to New Year’s. They formed a “Mystic Society”, i.e., secret, and celebrated the next year, and the next, . . .

Because the Cowbellions had a Mystic Society, all the other groups of the right sort wanted one too and the rest is history.

For decades, the Societies were male, white, well-off, exclusive, and secret.  The first group to break this barrier were working class white men, circa 1840. A group of cotton warehouse workers who formed the “Strikers”. I know what you are thinking but you’re wrong. Their job in the warehouse was to put an identifying mark on each bale, called “striking”. The other societies, which are now more or less equivalent to New Orleans’ Krewes and Málaga’s Confreres, had less descriptive, more frivolous names like the Order of Myths (OOM), the Knights of Revelry (KOR), Tea Drinkers Mystic Society, Cosmic Cowboys, Knights of May Zulu, and Polka Dots. I’ll get back to those last three, which first marched in 1884, 1938, and 1949, respectively.

Many of the societies continue to be irreverent today. Remember this is the Deep South and Alabama is serious about their football.

Mocking the President is one thing but the Alabama football coach? (I don’t get it either.)

Most of what I know we learned at the Mardi Gras Museum. There is lots of deep symbolism in everything they do but I think cat and goat have to do with some mischief that some societies got up to.

The most iconic icons are a character known as “Folly” who is typically chasing a character known as “The Devil” around a broken column. These symbols appeared shortly after the Civil War; you figure it out. Folly always wins. This is closely associated with a movement that sprang up during “Reconstruction” called “Lost Cause”. The lost cause was the war, the old South, wealthy plantations, and slavery. All fondly remembered.

Everything got put on hold in the 1860s because there was a war on, Mobile was lucky or unlucky enough to have a harbor that everyone wanted, and the Union army didn’t leave town for several years after the war. In April, 1866, one rebellious citizen, Joe Cain, decided enough was enough and led a procession around town dressed as a fictitious Native American, Chief Slackabamarinico, and confronted the occupying Union forces.

He didn’t get shot; he started another tradition. The celebration shifted back, for the most part, from the New Year to Fat Tuesday; it went on bigger and better than ever. Some of the most popular events now honor Joe Cain. These include a parade, balls, bands, and a trip to the cemetery to visit his grave. To show how serious they all are about Joe, tradition requires dancing on his grave and the appearance of several unknown women, in mourning clothes with veils, all claiming to be Mrs. Joe Cain. Apparently there is some historical precedent for these traditions.


Apparently, red ruffles are acceptable as mourning clothes but she doesn’t claim to be a wife. The guy in back with the mustache is Joe dba Chief Slackabamarinico.

The other big deal is the ordination of the king and queen. The king is King Felix, starting with Felix I, then Felix II, (you see the pattern here). Eventually, the Roman numerals got away from them and it was decreed that henceforth and forever all future kings would be King Felix III. I assume the queen has a name too but I don’t remember it.

What the queen does have is a cape. They typically weigh 35 to 40 pounds, cost several thousand dollars, and are passed down from generation to generation. There was one in the Museum that weighed 75 pounds; among other duties, the bearer has to navigate a staircase, and the collars are incredibly if not painfully uncomfortable. I think all the capes from all the queens were in the museum; after a while one starts to glaze over, despite the enthusiasm of the docent.

Being selected as the royalty is such a great honor that all kings and queens in the 300 years have come from the same 10 or 12 Euro-American, well-educated, and well-off families. We know they are well-educated because they all go to same two private schools.

Back to the Cosmic Cowboys, Knights of May Zulu, and Polka Dots. They are, respectively, Jewish, African American, and female. There is now at least one Society that is integrated but several chose to stop marching rather than allow those people in (they still have private parties.) The African Americans have run a parallel carnival of their own for the last century with their own king and queen. These have come from local elected officials, the Secretary of Labor under Clinton, and Olympic athletes rather than the ‘best’ families.

In the 1930s, there was a public masquerade ball that drew large crowds but because it was popular was quashed by the existing Societies who thought it ‘distracted from their mystic.’

I like the parallel carnivals, because they make Mobile richer, not because Mobile is two cities.

This is the family-friendly version.

We also took a couple excellent nice bike rides and visited a museum, which in addition to the usual museum stuff, had an exhibit of chairs, I guess.

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