On this day 160 years ago, an important page in American history was written when the Mistick Krewe of Comus presented the first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday.
Comus brought order to a random street celebration that had become so rowdy that the city government and the press had called for an end to it.
As early as 1850, the Creole newspaper the Bee editorialized, “We are not sorry that this miserable annual exhibit is rapidly becoming extinct. It originated in a barbarous age and is worthy of only such.”
Comus established the model for all future Carnival organizations and actually coined the word "krewe," giving it a pseudo-Old English spelling. The founders were the first to form a secret Carnival society.
By choosing a mythological namesake — Comus, from the Greek "Komos," meaning revelers — they established a custom that most clubs would follow. They also presented a themed, torch-lit procession with costumed maskers, followed by a masked ball in which four tableaux were presented.
Founded by six former members of the Cowbellians in Mobile, Alabama, Comus borrowed the floats and costumes that had been used in the Mobile group’s New Year’s Eve parade 55 days earlier.
The theme of the first Comus parade and ball was "Demon Actors" from John Milton’s "Paradise Lost," while the theme of the Cowbellians parade in Mobile was "Pandemonium Unveiled."
One of Comus' founders, pharmacist Dr. John H. Pope, is credited with naming the new group. He was a classical scholar and an admirer of Milton, the English poet who wrote "The Masque of Comus" and the classic "Paradise Lost."
The Comus parade was an instant sensation and received rave reviews. In just its second year, the krewe had gained such international fame that its parade was depicted in The Illustrated London News.
Mardi Gras was canceled during the Civil War. Had the men of Comus not returned in 1866, the annual celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans would almost surely have been discontinued. But the group flourished, and by 1873 railroads around the country began promoting trips to New Orleans, with the Comus procession as the main draw.
Comus presented nine parades before Carnival’s second krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, debuted in 1870. Rex and Momus joined the celebration in 1872, with Proteus following in 1882.
Before withdrawing from the parade calendar in 1992, Comus staged 114 parades.
The Mistick Krewe of Comus continues to present its annual ball on Mardi Gras night, when its court meets with that of Rex to officially close the Carnival season.