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The History of Mardi Gras
From its beginning in 1874 in Mobile, Alabama, through good times, bad times, easy times, tough times. Reorganizing, rebuilding, strengthening and moving on through 138 years of outstanding preeminence, the Knights of Revelry have evolved into a singular and unique Mardi Gras society, presenting unforgettable, exceptional parades, receptions, and balls throughout the carnival season. The Knights of Revelry have moved into the new millennium with renewed enthusiasm, and stand poised to preserve and carry on this revered tradition into the future.
In 1702, the French, under the direction of Pierre de LeMoyne de Iberville, erected Fort Louis de la Louisiana at 27 Mile Bluff on the Mobile River. The modern tradition of European pre-Lenten festivals in the New World began there in 1705 with eating, singing, drinking, dancing, wearing masks and face painting.
The first true carnival celebration occurred in 1711 when Fort Louis was relocated at the present site of Mobile by the de Iberville brothers, Jean Baptiste LeMoyne and Sieus DeBienville. The following Fat Tuesday was commemorated in a parade down Dauphin Street by a group of soldiers organized as the Boeuf Gras Society. Boeuf Gras translates roughly from the French to Fat Ox or Farewell To Meat. Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday, when traditionally fat oxen were paraded through the streets of French towns in celebration of one last fling before the great Lenten fast.
The first settlers of Mobile introduced the custom, and in 1715 the Louisiana Territorial Governor Kerberec formally proclaimed this a provincial holiday. The Boeuf Gras processions continued after 1718 when the French capital was moved from Mobile to New Orleans.
Beginning with the first French settlers, masked balls and mystic societies have been an important part of the social life of Mobile. When Spanish colonials ruled the town in 1773, a form of Mardi Gras continued with a torch light parade on Twelfth Night , the last day of Christmas. The celebration continued until 1861.
Mardi Gras, as we know it today, developed over a period of time beginning on the day after Christmas in 1831 by Michael Kraft, a Mobile cotton broker. On that day, he was invited for lunch, wine, and whisky by Captain Joseph Posts whose ship, the Pushmataha was moored at the Government Street wharf. Lasting until near nightfall, Kraft, who was reputed to be cockeyed, left the ship in drizzling rain wearing a monkey jacket with a long flap and an oil cloth seaman’s hat, wandering down Government Street. He stopped at a hardware store at Commerce and Conti streets a acquired a rake to which he tied cowbells and preceded with a shaking noise through downtown Mobile. As onlookers gathered, Kraft proclaimed , “I am leading the ‘Cowbellion de Rakin Society’ whereupon he was joined by a crowd of revelers.
Thereafter, the Cowbellions paraded on New Year’s Eve in grotesque and fanciful dress, and began a tradition of gathering at the mayor’s home for refreshments. Within a few years, the Cowbellions’ celebration became more exclusive, with ever more elegant parades, dinners, and dances. In 1842 the Strikers Independent Society was founded, primarily to poke fun at the Cowbellions.
In 1844, Joseph Stillwell Cain founded the Tea Drinker’s Society , which celebrated the carnival season primarily with an afternoon tea dance. Much more than tea was served, for the participants' enthusiastic enjoyment.
In the 1850’s, six members of the Cowbellions moved to New Orleans where they formed its first Mardis Gras society, the Mystic Krewe of Comus. In New Orleans in that period, the pre-Lenten festival had descended into a crude and vulgar display. The Krewe of Comus is given credit for reviving Mardi Gras in New Orleans, bringing gentility and respectability to the city with parading societies and masked balls.
During the War Between The States, the Strikers did not celebrate. However the Cowbellions continued to do so. After serving in the Confederate Army, Joe Cain returned to Mobie. In 1865, in defiance of the Yankee-imposed curfew, Cain dressed as a Chickasaw Indian chief, Slacabomorinico, and with some followers, paraded in the streets of Mobile in a charcoal wagon, symbolically representing the war-ravaged and poverty stricken South.
Joe Cain injected a mystical element into the revelry with the mythical tradition of Old Slac and his retinue emerging from the ground on Fat Tuesday, rising from the dismal waste of Wragg Swamp, the known hideout of the notorious Copeland Gang.
In 1867, Joe Cain helped establish the Order of the Myths and became the first Folly to chase Death around the stump, a broken column symbolizing the fallen Confederacy. In 1868, a group known as the Gum Drop Rangers held their parade on Monday night preceding Mardi Gras. The tradition continued as the organization later reformed under the name H.S.S., and still later began calling themselves the Infant Mystics.
In 1874, the Knights of Revelry were organized as the third Mardi Gras Society, making their first appearance on Mardi Gras Day on February 9, 1875. A single carriage, now known as a float, moved through the streets, depicting General Sheridan riding on a hobby horse, with uniformed Union soldiers flanking its sides. The carriage bore the legend Louisiana Affair, a reference to political turmoil in Louisiana and the foremost issues of the day. The letters KOR were emblazoned over the Citizens Banditti and the depiction of Folly cavorting on the rim of a wine cup between two crescent moons representing Comedy and Tragedy.
A sign over the figure of General Sheridan read, ‘I am not afraid’, and another sign indicated a rider portraying the Governor of Louisiana. The costumed soldiers marching on either side of the carriage appeared to be driving other maskers, representing the citizens of Louisiana, at the point of their bayonets. This first parade of the Knights of Revelry was the first procession to be held in broad daylight by maskers on Mardi Gras Day in Mobile, Alabama.
With their inaugural parade, the Knights of Revelry established themselves Masters of the Serio-Comic Parade style, created by John Gus Hines, one of the original builders of Mobile’s Mardi Gras floats. Hines created floats for the Knights of Revelry for fifty years, followed by Webb Odom, who built through 1998. In 1999, Steve Mussell became the float designer and builder for KOR.