Mardi Gras as it was 180 years ago

An excerpt from The Picayune's story about Mardi Gras celebrations in 1837.

One of today's most familiar Mardi Gras season parade traditions can be traced back 180 years, to Feb. 8, 1837, thanks to the arrival of an upstart newspaper. Francis Lumsden and George Kendall had been publishing The Picayune less than two weeks when they became embroiled on Ash Wednesday that year in perhaps their first imbroglio, after they printed a poem attacking New Orleans religious leaders for hypocrisy and a competing editor for supposedly shoddy work. A sample:

Nick saw an Editor pass,

Quoth he, 'there goes an Ass.'

The novice publishers didn't shy away from the controversy that followed; they taunted their targets in the paper for several days. Before the year was out, Lumsden had been beaten up by the editor of the Bee.

More germane to our interests in that edition is a brief description of a group celebrating Fat Tuesday a day earlier. According to a history of the paper published a century later, The Picayune was the only paper to have written about the parade.

"A lot of masqueraders were parading through our streets yesterday," the paper said, "and excited considerable speculation as to who they were, what were their motives and what upon earth could induce them to turn out in such grotesque and outlandish habiliments. Some said they were Seminoles; some that it was Brown's Circus - while others said nothing, and very likely knew nothing at all about it."

Lumsden and Kendall didn't know much about it either, presumably having missed most of the procession. But they did note that it sounded like a "cowbellian society," seemingly a reference to a group of Mobile, Ala., men who had been parading through the streets of that city for several years. But just what had made parade-watchers speculate that the people marching on Mardi Gras might be Indians is unclear.

The paper describes a group of people following the masked paraders as "boys, negroes, fruit women and what not." That sounds like a second line, although the term is not used.

The reason for that group's enthusiasm was this: The people parading were distributing desirable trinkets along the route, perhaps for the first time in New Orleans. Not beads, of course, but what The Picayune describes as "sugar plums, kisses, oranges, etc." The throws, if you will, were "lavishly bestowed ... by these good-hearted jokers, whoever they were."

Whoever they were is not known, and nor is their route. And while the cacophony caused alarm in some parts of New Orleans, the party was over well before midnight. "The city is now (11 o'clock at night) perfectly quiet," The Picayune's report concluded.

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