This is the day that Mobilians celebrate a favorite son and local legend.
It’s hard to separate the myth from the man but I will do my best to explain who Joe Cain was and why there is a Mardi Gras celebration and parade held in his honor.
The facts are this. Mobile was the first city to celebrate Mardi Gras in the northern hemisphere beginning in the year 1703. The citizens held parties and parades in celebration of Fat Tuesday every year until 1861, the year the War of Northern Agression broke out. From 1861-1865 most festivities ceased. After the Confederacy was defeated, the southern city faced financial ruin and despair and Mobile found itself under the control of Union troops. Then, along comes native son Joseph Stillwell Cain.
Cain had always been infatuated with Carnival and had belonged to a Mardi Gras society made up of mischievous youths prior to the Civil War. He was determined to revive Mardi Gras in spite of the Union presence.
In 1866, Cain and 6 other previous members of the youth society decided to hold a parade in the streets of Mobile. They dressed as Chickasaw Indians, all the while wearing their Confederate uniforms underneath. Joe proclaimed himself to be Chief Slacabamarinico (slaka-bam-orin-ah-co), a fictional Indian chief. Now simply referred to as “Ol’ Slac.”
The little group marched through the streets with Joe riding on top an old coal cart named Hickory, after his hero Andrew Jackson. They clanged anything and everything they could find that would make noise. Joe Cain continued this revelry each year on Mardi Gras for 3 years until once again, other societies were formed and joined in the celebration. From this, evolved the present day parades and balls.
The events held in honor of Joe Cain is unlike any other Mobile Carnival event and the day itself is only celebrated in this port city. Among the day’s most notable traditions are:
A group of women (we assume they’re all women but that is debatable) calling themselves Joe Cain’s Merry Widows, dressed in long black funeral attire and wearing long dark veils to hide their identities descend on the Church Street Graveyard where old Joe is buried. A spectacle of much wailing and name calling amongst the women as to who Joe loved the most takes place and flowers are lain upon the grave. All of this brouhaha occurs as a funeral jazz band performs on site. After the “mourning” is over, the widows break into a dance and toss coveted black beads and black roses to the onlookers.
After the drama at the cemetery is played out, the widows make their way to the original house that had been owned by Cain. There a cocktail party is held. At the appointed hour,the ladies will gather themselves and proceed downtown to the parade route.
The Joe Cain parade also known as the People’s Parade was established in 1967, it is the centerpiece of Joe Cain day. The procession is the longest of all of the Mardi Gras parades and attracts the most attendees, usually 100,000 to 150,000. The parade itself is unlike any other. Where as the other processions are hosted by societies or krewes and include several huge professionally designed floats, anybody can participate in the People’s Parade.
The “floats” are commonly homemade affairs. Some are more elaborate than others., many can be as simple as a flatbed truck or wagon. These floats are individually hosted, often by local businesses or families. The parade also includes large groups of foot marchers.
Various Foot Marchers
Five things you can count on seeing in this procession are, a funeral jazz band in the lead position along with Joe Cain’s Merry Mistresses, these are “ladies” dressed in short, sometimes skimpy, fire engine red dresses and veils (their red roses are much coveted as well). Third, “citizen” Joe Cain dressed in tux with tails, Ol’ Slac on board his mule drawn cart ( portrayed for the past 31 years by author and Methodist minister Wayne Dean), and throws. Lots and lots of throws, to the point of being black and blue from the pelting. We both took a beating at this one. And Don proclaimed this to be the most fun he’d had in weeks.
Wayne Dean portraying Chief Slacabamarinico
It was difficult for me to photograph the festivities as I was kept busy ducking and dodging. At one point my camera was hit so hard by a throw that it changed the setting on my it.
Once we escaped the madness we returned to our Suite Pea where we cheered Payton Manning on to another Super Bowl win.
Here’s lookin’ at you kid…….