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The Serpents of Bienville is an artist collective started in Southern Alabama by Amanda and Sean Herman. The project has grown from a study of southern mythology and folklore to include art, books, and merchandise available for purchase. The Serpents of Bienville is a celebration of the Southern Arts community and the people that carry on the tradition of creativity. Subscribe to our blog to hear about Alabama's history, oddities, lore and hidden treasures. Follow us on social media to stay up to date with new artists and projects in our community!

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Filtering by Tag: Joe Cain

Alabama Oddities Weekly Rundown Monday February 1st- Sunday February 7th

Amanda Herman

We here at Serpents of Bienville have a lot of different projects currently running.  One project that we are particularly excited about is the Alabama Oddities pieces that Amanda is writing for our social media sites.  She is doing daily updates, bringing you a new story every morning, of something strange and odd from our Southern home.  Not everyone has social media, so we will be doing weekly rundown's of her stories, which we will be publishing every Sunday.  We hope you guys enjoy, and remember to follow us on our social media sites to get daily Alabama Oddities stories.  With the opening of the new Serpents of Bienville Art Gallery we have been a little behind on the rundowns so here's one a day or two late. So enjoy!

Monday February 1st - 150th Anniversary I think…

According to numerous accounts written in the early twentieth century about Joe Cain and the first time he stepped out of the streets of Mobile as Chief Slacabamorinico, this Sunday will mark the 150th anniversary of the Joe Cain Mardi Gras celebration. Each account differs drastically, however, and each stands firm in being the absolute truth. Some say Old Slac was parading by himself, on foot. Another says that he was followed by the Lost Cause Minstrel Band. One more states that Joe was pulled in a coal cart with a handful of other comic friends. As the Mobile Mask (mobilemask.com) has revealed, however, 1866 may not even be the actual date of his first appearance. The parades and celebrations that Joe Cain was fabled to have witnessed in New Orleans and brought back to Mobile the following year, didn't even take place according to newspaper reports, until 1867. Yet, a newspaper clipping obtained by the History Museum of Mobile is supposedly written by Joe Cain himself, and states that he attended a fire department parade in New Orleans in the year of 1866, which would mean that he couldn't have paraded in Mobile until 1867, though that particular parade actually took place in 1867, bringing the party back to Mobile in 1868. So, just to be safe, let’s just celebrate the 150th anniversary of Joe Cain’s legacy for the next three years.

 

Photo taken by Mobile County Sherriff Deputy's Cell Phone. 

Photo taken by Mobile County Sherriff Deputy's Cell Phone. 

Tuesday February 2nd - LaShe’s Roll On

With their emblem based on a Broadway showgirl, the Order of LaShe’s prove time and again that the show must go on. In 2008 as float 10 was passing through the intersection of South Claiborne and Church Street, the giant koala caught fire. The “LaSheilas Downunder” themed float seemed to fall victim to an electrical fire, and firefighters responded within minutes. The revelers awaited so impatiently, that as soon as the last flame was extinguished, the women ran back onto the float and returned to throwing their goodies to the crowds. The firefighters had not even finished their inspection of the area. Moments later, the parade rolled on. Check these ladies out and join the party tonight in Downtown Mobile at 6:30.

 

Wednesday February 3rd - Wragg Swamp Stomp

 Wragg Swamp is the area that Chief Slacabamorinico, Grampa Gator, the satirical Comic Cowboys, and their burly Queen Eva call home. This legendary folk ground is all but a tale to tell nowadays. The swamp was filled during Mobile’s westward expansion in the 1950’s to build Springdale and Bel Air Malls. Filling in that area, that once caught and cleansed runoff from the surrounding areas, has proved to be devastating to the nearby ecosystems and waterways. But I’ll let the Wragg Swamp Band tell you the story themselves:

 

Wragg Swamp "Wragg Swamp Stomp"

1st verse: We grew up on the edge of the swamp

Steamin' heat and Spanish moss

Creeks and critters, skeeters and snakes

Screeched and hummed the night away

2nd verse: One cold day during Mardi Gras

A strange parade came from the swamp

Grandpa Gator led the line

Slacabamorinico close behind

Chorus: Doin' the Wragg Swamp Stomp

Wragg Swamp Stomp

A bunny-hop with a cool be-bop

That's the Wragg Swamp Stomp.

3rd verse: When the morning mist began to clear

Comic Cowboys did appear

Following the merry troupe

Telling tales, some tall, some true

4th verse: I saw them dance down Emogene

The chief was red, the gator green

When Eva stopped to straighten her hose,

She dropped her stogie down a crawdad hole

(CH)

Bridge: Now the plaza pavement simmers

They filled that swamp to build a shopping center

But Gator, Chief and the Cowboys, too

Live forever like legends do.

Copyright 2010, Windy Holler Music, ASCAP

Check it out here.

 

Thursday February 4th - Slapstick

The imagery of Folly chasing Death with a large stick and inflated pig bladders tied to it is not a modern carnival tradition. The wooden pole folly carries is actually the object that spurred the idea of "slapstick" comedy. Slapstick is of the Italian "batacchio," a wooden, slatted pole used to create a comical slapping noise in stage performance. The bladders tied to the end also made a hilarious noise, later detached and used as, the prank we all still childishly amusing, the whoopie cushion. "A style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of common sense," if your Mardi Gras celebration cannot be described as slapstick, you're doing it wrong. 

 

Illustration by Sean Herman

Illustration by Sean Herman

Friday February 5th - Boyington Oak

On Joe Cain Day, this Sunday, as the widows are circled around the famous grave of Old Slac and the Excelsior Band blasts it's beautiful funeral jazz, keep your eye out for the dark and gnarled oak tree lurking at the back of the graveyard. Amongst its crawling, knotty roots of are the bones of Charles R. S. Boyington. He was put to death for the murder of his friend, a murder he swore on his near ready grave, he did not commit. Boyington vowed that from his body, when dead and buried, an oak would sprout. He knew that oak would be a reminder to all that thrust those pitchforks and flames to his brow, that their hate and haste stole the life of an innocent. Look for the oak before the Mistress procession takes off, the moss covered obelisk, the pillar of truth: The Boyington Oak.

Read Sean Herman's  eerie blog on this tale here.

 

Saturday February 6th - Under the Malaga Inn

Reservations to stay in the Malaga Inn, located in the Downtown Historic District of Mobile, during Mardi Gras season, sell out faster than chicken on a stick. It's picturesque courtyard and its "genteel southern living atmosphere" will float you back in time, a time when the souls that haunt its halls were still free to leave. The Malaga Inn is actually two twin houses built in 1862. These two townhouses were constructed by the husbands of two sisters during the Civil War. As wealth became unstable, the houses were sold off, eventually being renovated to connect by a three story addition of rooms, and the doors opened to travelers, vacationers, and honeymooners of Southern Alabama nearly a century after the War. From the legends told by guests and staff, though, many of its wartime inhabitants never actually left. Room 007 seems to be a favorite of a woman in a white hoop dress. She has been seen entering and leaving its quarters, with chandeliers swaying and objects moving in her wake. Although this is the most famous haunting of the Inn, it's certainly not the most disturbing. Ask one of the staff members to give you a tour and if you're lucky, they may just take you underneath the original houses. Tunnels were built to provide cover and shelter to Confederate Soldiers, and with so many Americans killed in battles nearby, some may still be taking advantage of its protection. People have reported, on quite a regular basis, dark shadows and light orbs following them, rushing past them, or even "standing" still in the corners of their rooms. This beautiful Boutique inn is a staple for a Mardi Gras pre party, or a place to escape the chaos for a while, as long as you're aware that you may not actually be alone in the Malaga Inn.

 

Sunday February 7th - Haunted Fort Conde Village

When people picture a haunted fort in Southern Alabama, they picture men in Confederate uniforms marching the perimeters for eternity, or women in white flowing dresses searching for their love that never returned to them. But what if the fort was reduced to rubble? Where do the ghosts find comfort when the last home they knew is gone? Well, not entirely gone. Downtown Mobile is riddled with secret underground tunnels and passageways from the original Fort Conde to facilitate secretive cover and escape from attacks. What still lies under the streets of Mobile doesn't always stay hidden. The Fort Conde village is a block of historic homes from the 1800's turned bed and breakfast or offices, that have been restored and protected behind the smaller replica Fort Conde, built to house the 1720's original structure's history and artifacts. Many paranormal teams have investigated this historic ground that people have found shelter, comfort, and security in, reaching back before the original fort's construction, when the natives called this sacred port area home. The most thorough investigation has been done by Beyond Sight (beyondsightparanormal.com) who have spoken with at least 7 different souls still inhabiting the area. They encountered children aggressively shouting and warning one's father to run. A gentle soul thanked them for returning to the village, because the gentlemen promised her they would come back. Ghosts followed them on their journey exclaiming their presence, confused as to why they couldn't be seen, saying over and over, "I am right here!" A woman was asked about another inhabitant, to which she offensively replies, "We're not ghosts." So when you're wandering the scenes of Mobile today, don't forget about those hiding beneath the streets. Take a walk through Fort Conde Village and say hello to the unseen residents. Just don't tell them they're already dead.

Alabama Oddities Weekly Rundown Monday January 11th - Sunday January 17th

Amanda Herman

We here at Serpents of Bienville have a lot of different projects currently running.  One project that we are particularly excited about is the Alabama Oddities pieces that Amanda is writing for our social media sites.  She is doing daily updates, bringing you a new story every morning, of something strange and odd from our Southern home.  Not everyone has social media, so we will be doing weekly rundown's of her stories, which we will be publishing every Sunday.  We hope you guys enjoy, and remember to follow us on our social media sites to get daily Alabama Oddities stories.  Enjoy!

 

Mobile is for Family - Monday January 11th

What I've gathered as to why Mobile is considered the family carnival, and New Orleans is known for the raunchy party we all know and openly love, goes back to the booming port cities' cotton trade in the early 1800's. In the 1830's, the population of both cities nearly quadrupled. The ports were partnered, with most meetings being held in New Orleans, signing contracts and shaking hands in lavish ballrooms. As the pens were put away, the parties broke out, as the reputation for New Orleans upholds to this day. The businessmen that were traveling to the Big Easy, if they weren't contract holders from the north, were partners from Mobile. These men kissed their wives and kids goodbye in the Azalea City and headed to their overnight meetings. New Orleans, chocked full of travelers and business elite, only stopping in for a small amount of time, became comprised of ideals based in the short term. Live in the moment. That was the mentality of the city, and not only has it stuck, it's melded tightly to the deep roots of New Orleans. We thank our mystic sister city for being our guilty pleasure, with love from the Mother of Mystics.

 

Merry Widows - Tuesday January 12th

Joe Cain’s Merry Widows are one of the oddest Mobile carnival traditions you could possibly witness. These women, whose identities are hidden from the public, show up to the Church Street Cemetery at 11:15 a.m. on Joe Cain Day, dressed in traditional funeral attire and full veils. Truly southern names are chosen as their personas and pinned to their veils. As they circle the resting place of their late “husband,” they pay their respects by screaming, wailing, faking fainting spells, and publicly accusing each other of murdering their husband, Joe Cain. As the leave the cemetery, they throw black roses and beads to onlookers, as they are the only ones allowed to carry and throw the color of mourning. The board a bus and proceed to the house on Augusta Street in the Oakleigh Garden District where Joe Cain actually lived, and enjoy cocktails in his honor. In the People’s Parade, the Merry Widows put on a show atop their float, mourning, wailing, and fighting each other over accusations of poisoning and strangling the man they all love. Police have even taken part in the drama, handcuffing widows and carrying them away from the rolling float. They disperse thereafter, roaming the streets all day, passing out their black roses and sharing stories with the revelers of their one true love, the honorable Joe Cain.

 

Photo: MAMGA Coronation 1977

Photo: MAMGA Coronation 1977

King Elexis I - Wednesday January 13th

It’s a normal occurrence for Mardi Gras revelers to be related to or descending from royalty. Alex Herman received the high honor of being named the very first king of the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, formerly known as the Colored Carnival Association, founded in 1938. Alex, before being crowned the first King Elexis I in 1940, was a baseball player at Tuskegee Institute, graduated university and played baseball professionally, purchased the Mobile Braves while Satchel Paige was on the team, was president of Unity Insurance Company, served on the Board of Trustees for the NAACP, was an active supporter of the Colored YMCA, and was a founding member of MAMGA. King Elexis I, the name given to each MAMGA Monarch since Alex, is actually a mutation of Alex Herman’s name in respect. Alex’s daughter, Alexis Herman, was crowned MAMGA Queen in 1974, and went on to serve in the White House under the Carter Administration, and the Clinton administration as the Secretary of Labor. As each King and Queen go on about their lives after serving in the royal carnival courts, my only hope is that they still introduce themselves to strangers as honored royalty. 

 

King Cake, Baby! - Thursday January 14th

King Cakes have stemmed from the French tradition, a celebration of the early harvest season. Bakers would give loaves of bread to farmers that contained a chickpea, and finding it was a symbol of the light at the end of the tunnel, the fruits of all their labor. King Cakes are actually named for the kings in christianity, or Three Kings Day. This feast day for western christian denominations, Epiphany, is the twelfth day after Christmas, when it is said that Jesus was visited by the Magi. We hide a little plastic baby in our king cakes today because, as you bite into a hard little toy with tiny hands sharp as hat pins, it is “revealed” to you as the holy child was revealed to the gentiles. This cake has it’s own season, from January 6th until Fat Tuesday, used in Southern cities observing carnival as the most popular gift to bring to a party. Place the baby in the cake before arriving at the event. Whoever finds the baby in their slice of cinnamon sugary pastry will have good luck for the Mardi Gras season, but will also be held under superstitious obligation to bring the King Cake to the next gathering, or their luck will sour.

 

Painting of Tyrone Power

Painting of Tyrone Power

The President - Friday January 15th

In the years that Mardi Gras was taking form, Mobile was a theatrical destination, known for Noah Ludlow and his company’s intelligent and lavish performances. Noah Ludlow played a major role in the formation of Mobile parading theatrics and tableau performances by mystic societies. A famous Irish comedian and actor in 1835 named Tyrone Power had traveled to Mobile to perform at Ludlow’s theatre on Royal Street, and stayed for six years. In 1841, Tyrone Power boarded a steamship “President” to head to England, but the ship never arrived. It was not uncommon for the British ports to overlook reporting the arrival of American ships to their territory, but this was not the case for the President. The Baltimore Sun reported a sealed bottle floating into Buzzard’s Bay with a pencil scratched note reading, “Steamship President, Steward sole survivor, at sea in a small boat. Save me. May 20.” 

 

One of the many influences of the early costumes were like these Tibetan ones.

One of the many influences of the early costumes were like these Tibetan ones.

Evolving and Educating - Saturday January 16th

Costumes evolved very quickly in the early carnival years in Mobile, Alabama . “Grotesque” was the best description for the costumes of Mardi Gras in the 1830’s. The weirder, the better. Animal costumes made of shabby rags and large mache heads, men dressed as scantily clad ladies, ladies dressed as creepy men,  and cryptic cartoon sized heads all rendered the revelers unrecognizable. But ten years later, Mobilians and their societies created the fad of intricately accurate historical themed masquerading. These themes, being derived from Masonic symbols found printed in cryptic messages around the South, included worldly culture study, classical mythological representations, and historically accurate costuming. These themes are now seen as the traditions of today, but were actually embraced all those years ago to create a distinction between the wealthy, educated class from those attending the parades as onlookers, because the literacy rate was devastatingly low in the South at the time. The paraders and performers were reaffirmed in their status if they had to explain their theme or costume to their audience.

 

The Party was Cancelled - Sunday January 17th

New Orleans is known as the city where the party never stops… Unless you were a member of a parading society in 1979. In February of that year, the NOPD was on a police strike. For the safety of its citizens, the city of New Orleans instructed their mystic societies to proceed with their balls and tableaus as scheduled, but they were not allowed to take to the streets. But they didn’t say anything about Mobilians parading over in the Big Easy. In full reveling costume and grotesquely incognito, it is rumored that mystic society members of Mobile, Alabama, from larger founding organizations to Joe Cain foot marchers, made the trip below sea level to join their partners in parade, ensuring that the good times would indeed roll. Since headlines to the outside world read that Mardi Gras was cancelled in New Orleans, Mobile had a much larger influx of out-of-towners coming to witness the madness.

Alabama Oddities Weekly Rundown Tuesday January 5th - Sunday January 10th

Amanda Herman

We here at Serpents of Bienville have a lot of different projects currently running.  One project that we are particularly excited about is the Alabama Oddities pieces that Amanda is writing for our social media sites.  She is doing daily updates, bringing you a new story every morning, of something strange and odd from our Southern home.  Not everyone has social media, so we will be doing weekly rundown's of her stories, which we will be publishing every Sunday.  We hope you guys enjoy, and remember to follow us on our social media sites to get daily Alabama Oddities stories.  Enjoy!

 

The Order of the Myths - Tuesday January 5th

The Order of Myths was founded in 1867. They are traditionally the last to parade on Fat Tuesday, as a gesture to respecting the olde traditions. Every year since then, their tradition has folly chasing death around a broken column, said to be a symbol of the defeated South. A man dressed as a jester whips around golden inflated pig bladders tied to a broomstick, aimed at a man dressed in a skeletal death costume. By the end of the parade, folly has conquered death for the day. The float is followed by a flambeaux, a Spanish tradition from which Mardi Gras is said to partly originate. Instead of being led by a vehicle, this float is drug behind a pair of mules, as they were in the olde days before tractors replaced them.

The symbolism seemed quite strong in the interpretation I gathered, which is to fight the inevitable hardships of life with a sense of humor and a light heart. The idea is that death will reach us eventually, but for this one day, Fat Tuesday, the good times will ward off the bad. Researching differing historical interpretation, it is possible that the symbolism is much darker. The dark side of Mardi Gras is something I am educating myself on, and over the course of this season, I'll share with you what I learn. If you can lead me in any direction to further my research, I am open to your insight!

 

It’s Revelry Not Rowdy - Wednesday January 6th

The Cowbellion de Rakin Society had to make a name for themselves outside of the older generation, who were looking down on their organization as mischievous youth. The Cowbellion began placing ads in the Register in 1834 filled with numbers, letters, and symbolism. The Cowbellion Code was a funny and clever jab at the dark and serious nature of the Masonic Code. Usually just a flyer for the place and time of their next meeting, these ads were silly inside jokes to those in the know, yet mysterious and respected to clueless onlookers. They also brought in the new vocabulary of "revelry" in order to cement their image as classy, and not at all a band of drunk guys. Revelers were the upper crust of the party people, and those who were of a lower class were just plain rowdy.

 

Son’s Strike Back - Thursday January 7th

Cowbellion de Rakin Society created such an exclusivity for themselves that they refused all newcomers. Even their sons were denied membership. So the boys took it upon themselves to define their group of revelers apart from their fathers, and formed the Strikers Independent Society in 1842, known today as Strikers. Most of these boys worked for their fathers in the cotton warehouses they owned, counting bales by striking each with chalk to mark them.  They chose the goat as their mascot, poking fun at their fathers as "old goats." This group of men was known for their generosity. At the Ophan's Fair they gifted a table carved in Scotland donning their slogan, translated from French as, "He gives twice who gives quickly." What was supposed to be a table with feet of carved alligator heads holding up standing goats, but with the Scottish being unfamiliar with Gulf Coast gators and North American goats, the table looks more like rams standing on platypus heads.

 

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The Mother of the Mystics - Friday January 8th

The question of "Who started Mardi Gras" can easily be answered with a respectful nod to each of the reveling port cities, putting this healthy battle to rest, and letting the good times roll in peace. Mobile Alabama was the first city to see the organization of mystic societies in their ideas of exclusivity and secrecy. The secret societies in Mobile held their celebrations on New Year's Eve. New Orleans was actually the first to take this fraternal concept, after a group of the Strikers from Mobile ventured over to the Big Easy, and turn this party into a parade. This form of revelry still kept true to the secretive aspect of the societies, having the members stay costumed and masked while they floated down the streets. Instead of rolling on New Year's Eve, the Catholic laden Orleans rolled on Shrove Tuesday, in order to get out all their sinning before the season of Lent began. In shared respects, New Orleans' Krewe of Comus dubbed Mobile the "Mother of Mystics." With the honored melding of these rituals, we now have the lunacy so beloved to us all, the highly anticipated Mardi Gras season: one of the first, truly original, American celebrations.

 

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Joseph Stillwell Cain - Saturday January 9th

Joseph Stillwell Cain is the man credited for founding the Tea Drinker's Society, The Lost Cause Minstrels, a founding member of the Order of Myths, as well as convincing the founder of the Comic Cowboys that his antics were worth taking to the streets in parade. After the defeat of the Civil War, the South was visibly broken in spirit, and Joe Cain took the responsibility upon himself to lift the spirits of his city. Joe served in the Confederate Army with his friends, and had moved to New Orleans briefly during that time. Since revelry halted in Mobile during the war, Joe saw an opportunity to bring the party back to the streets, with the revision of the creole pre-Lenten timing. This was the time that Mobile's New Years Mardi Gras became a united Fat Tuesday party season. Joe Cain and his friends dressed in their confederate uniforms, with the addition of Chickasaw Indian costumes, to create a fictional Indian tribe from Wragg Swamp led by Joe Cain as their Chief Slacabamarinico, or "Old Slack." These men chose to portray the Chickasaw Indians because this mighty people had never been defeated in battle. It was a symbolic gesture to the people of the region, stating, "...the South may be defeated in war, but we're not crushed or conquered!"

 

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Your Invitation Ma’am - Sunday January 10th

Here in the South, we are known for our manners. Most of us, anyway. We send invitations for an invitation, save the dates and pre-stamped RSVP cards, announcements and thank you notes, thank you notes for invitations and thank you notes for thank you notes. But Mardi Gras Ball invitations are more than just a formality, historically. Balls were mostly held in hotel ballrooms, such as the Battle House and Cawthon Hotel. During Prohibition, obviously, alcohol couldn't be served at the main event. So when a reveler showed up with the invitation from a masked parader, it was traded for the member's room key so they could join friends beforehand for private libations. Today, the balls are mostly held in the Mobile Civic Center or Convention Center. Society members give invitees tickets with the meeting room number printed on them, with groups of members that share floats in the parades in charge of filling these rooms with numerous handles of liquor and locally catered refreshments.