Next to New Orleans, the Alabama city enjoys the largest and longest-running parade season in America. This year in Mobile and the surrounding areas, 40 parades will roll, including six on Fat Tuesday.
As to which city was first, the answer depends upon several factors. What is certain is this: Mobile’s parades on Fat Tuesday did not begin until 1868, after the Civil War. Yet the claim that Mobile makes to be the birthplace of Mardi Gras parades in the United States is a viable one. The tricky part is that Carnival parades were presented on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans before they were in Mobile, whose Mardi Gras-like parades, which featured themed floats followed by a tableaux ball, were staged on New Year’s Eve.
And some Alabama historians claim, without much documentation, that the annual Masque de la Mobile feasts held on Aug. 25 were Carnival celebrations. These events were presented annually by the Societe de la Saint Louis (1704-1842).
A stronger case can be made for two other groups: the Boeuf Gras Society (1711-1861), which gathered on Fat Tuesday, and the Spanish Mystic Society, which appeared on Twelfth Night (1793-1833). But Mobile’s most significant contribution to Mardi Gras occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1831.
On that day, Pennsylvania-born Michael Kraft and a group eventually called the Cowbellion deRakin Society — named after the cowbells and rakes used as noisemakers — walked the streets in a spontaneous celebration. The Mobile party grew in size and fame each year to the point that in describing a local foot parade of boisterous masqueraders in New Orleans in 1837, The Picayune called them “Cowbellions.”
In 1840, the Mobile Cowbellions added floats and paraded with the theme “Heathen Gods & Goddesses.”
Two other “mystic societies” were founded in Alabama before New Orleans joined the parading fraternity: the Strikers (1842) and the Tea Drinkers Society (1846). In 1852, members of the Cowbellions paraded on foot in New Orleans, and the next year, the men participated in a local bal masque.
New Orleans’ first Mardi Gras organization, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was founded by former Mobile residents and “Cows” Samuel Todd, Joseph Ellison and William P. Ellison. Along with co-founders Charles Churchill, Franklin Shaw and Lloyd Addison, they received considerable help from the Cowbellions and the Strikers.
The theme of Mobile’s New Year’s Eve 1856 Cowbellions parade was “Pandemonium Unveiled.”
Fifty-five days later, with borrowed floats, costumes and flambeaux, Comus’ first parade and ball were titled “Demon Actors From John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ ” Cowbellions attended both events as guests of the Mistick Krewe.