It's pretty well known that Comus was the start of the "modern" Mardi Gras krewes, and that it was a group of businessmen who visited Mobile, Ala., to learn how to form a krewe and a parade. Is there any knowledge as to who these founding fathers were? Also, what was the "Carnival Court"?
On Jan. 4, 1857, six men determined to save Mardi Gras sent out an invitation to 13 of their friends. The invitation read, "You are requested to meet a few of your friends at the Club Room over the Gem, Royal Street, on Saturday evening, the 10th instant, at 7 o-clock." The men who signed the invitation can be considered the "founding fathers" of Mardi Gras as we know it today: J. H. Pope, S. M. Todd, L.D. Addison, F. Shaw Jr., and Joseph and William Ellison. Not a single one was native to New Orleans or Louisiana. In fact, John Pope -- leading light in the formation of the Mystick Krewe of Comus -- was a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. Likewise, the men who joined them were not Creoles, but 12 Americans and one Frenchman.
These six men were pals who regularly gathered at John Pope's apothecary on Jackson Avenue and Prytania Street to discuss the issues of the day. A frequent topic of discussion was the sorry state of Carnival celebration in the city. The streets were full of ruffians, thugs, hooligans, and ladies of ill repute. Gangs feuded, muggings were common, and the riffraff threw not only flour on the street maskers, but lime and bricks as well. This behavior caused the newspapers to call for an end to all this fun. But the Americans decided that they would show the Creoles that there could be something better.
Parades had been going on for years in Mobile, and there were already several groups known as "mystic societies." One particularly notable organization was the Cowbellian deRakin Society formed in 1830, a rowdy crowd of paraders who walked the streets on New Year's Eve disturbing the peace with cowbells and rakes as noisemakers. Two of the original members of Comus were ex "Cows." And the costumes and floats for Comus' first parade on Feb. 24, 1857 were borrowed from the older group.
But the new organization needed a new name, and it was pharmacist John Pope who created it. Being an educated crowd, the young men were familiar with the poetry of Englishman John Milton. In one of his masterpieces, "A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle," written in 1634, is a necromancer -- Comus, son of Bacchus and Circe -- who offers his guests an "Orient liquor" that brings on a "foul disfigurement." This gave the men the idea for their insignia -- a golden goblet -- that Comus carried in his procession and at the ball.
Based on this poem that referred to "Comus and his crew" Pope suggested their secret society should be called -- with a few creative changes in spelling -- the Mystick Krewe of Comus.
Comus continued to parade and have elaborate masked balls until 1862, when they announced that due to the war, the parade was cancelled. In fact, the organization did not parade again until 1866. However, during these early days, there were no "courts" as we know them today with a king, queen, maids and dukes. This wonderful tradition did not begin until the birth of the Twelfth Night Revelers in 1870. They have the distinction of the first Carnival queen, Emma Butler, chosen in 1871. They used an old European custom involving a huge cake with beans hidden inside. The lucky lady to get the slice with the gold bean would be the queen.
When the King of Carnival, called Rex, first appeared in 1872, he had no queen. But the following year, Mrs. Fearn, Fanny Hewitt, became the first Queen of Carnival. By 1876, she had three maids in attendance, and shortly thereafter there were eight maids escorted by young men given the title of duke.
Now, almost all Carnival organizations have courts, but the two that draw the most attention are the courts of Comus and Rex that meet on Mardi Gras night, bringing about the end of the festivities.