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A Uniquely Mobile Mardi Gras Tradition: Joe Cain and His Merry Widows

Updated on January 10, 2012
Joe Cain
Joe Cain | Source

The Sunday before Fat Tuesday is special to Mobilians for it is the day of the People's Parade begun by Joseph Stillwell Cain, or Joe Cain right after the Civil War ended in Mobile. Over the years, it has morphed into including the Merry Widows of Joe Cain as well as even his Mistresses, who wear scarlett red lace. As it is the People's Parade, there is a whole host of other groups that join the fun such as the Mystic Order of Dead Rock Stars, to name one. Today, Joe Cain is played by Wayne Dean since 1985. The role was resurrected in 1967 by Julian Rayford and then passed on to Red Foster in 1970 until Dean took over. The parade is certainly one of the largest during the entire Mardi Gras celebration. The fun begins rolling at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday before Fat Tuesday.

Joe Cain Introduces the Yankees to Chief Slacaborominico

In 1866, the Mobilians had had a very bad time of it under Union occupation. After suffering through the deprivations of being the last Southern port to fall to the Yankees, the Civil War was over and many in the city were financially and emotionally devastated. Mardi Gras had been on a very long hiatus and Joe Cain, a clerk in Mobile, decided it was time to move on and bring the fun back into the citizen's lives.

He appeared in a mule-drawn cart dressed as an Native American chieftain. The surprised and perplexed Union soldiers asked him was he about? He solemnly replied that he was the Chickasaw Chief Slacabamorinico. The Chickasaw were well-known to the locals as a people who had never surrendered, just as they would never surrender to the Yankees. The Union soldiers missed the implication and allowed him to carry on. The rest is history. Later, Joe Cain was buried in Bayou La Batre, an area south of Mobile. Julian Rayford arranged for his remains to be removed to the Church Street cemetery.

Two of the 20 Merry Widows
Two of the 20 Merry Widows | Source

The Merry Widows

Their black roses and beads are highly prized! This is the only secret group that the members really and truly keep it mum! Dressed from head to toe in black lace, they have complete anonymity. There are 20 widows and they have been organized since 1974. On Sunday, there is a whole host of activities starring just them and you are invited to watch. I am usually too tired to go see this but my husband never misses it. I think he is flirting with all the widows.

Sunday 11:25 a.m. - The widows visit Joe Cain's grave in the Church Street cemetery which is behind the Ben May Library. They fight over Joe. They leave at 11:45 a.m.

11:50 a.m. - The widows arrive at old Joe's former residence, 935 Augusta Street in the Oakleigh Garden district. Head South on Broad, turn right on Augusta; there will be a street dance with music and revelry on the block between Broad and Marine Street. They leave at 12:20 p.m. to get ready for the parade at 2:30 p.m.

The Merry Widows Visit The Cemetery

Mobile is Sweet Lunacy's County Seat- Eugene Walter

Cain's descendants will tell you that Joe only had one wife and that is true. He was never married to any of the Merry Widows nor did he have any mistresses that we know of. That's the fun of Mardi Gras where one may prefer to pretend he's the chief of the Chickasaw who never surrendered rather than face the next day's reality of a shattered city . Young adults from illustrious families don royal robes that could put real royalty to shame, yet must shed them to go back into the real world where most could care less who they are. Every now and again, we need nonsense in our lives to make sense of the world for "Mobile is Sweet Lunacy's County Seat" as Eugene Walter said.

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