Skip to comments.Raising Cains (The Man Who Revived Mardi Gras in America)
Posted on 02/06/2005 5:10:26 PM PST by blam
Lost in the mist of time are his gold-crowned walking cane and the silver platter given to him by Adm. Raphael Semmes. But Joe Cain, the man who revived Mardi Gras in 1866, left something more tangible behind. In Bayou La Batre and elsewhere, generations of Cains live on.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
By ROY HOFFMAN
When Norwood Cain, 75, was a boy in Bayou La Batre, his grandfather, Oliver , and paraded through Mobile streets, reviving Carnival in 1866; the next year he rode in a decorated wagon with a group of ex-Confederates, The Lost Cause Minstrels. His group, the Tea Drinkers, paraded until 1883.
There was the famous cane -- lent out somewhere years ago and lost -- and tales of a silver platter, its whereabouts now unknown to the family, that had been given to Joe by Adm. Raphael Semmes.
All that Norwood has in his house of Joe's is an antique hall tree with mirror.
It wasn't until the 1960s, when Mobile author Julian Rayford began to visit the Cains in Bayou La Batre, that Norwood realized how important some Carnival-lovers felt that Joe had really been. In the Bayou La Batre newspaper, "The Courier," Rayford had argued in 1967 that Joe had been "probably the most prominent social figure on the entire sweep of the Gulf Coast. ... Why he was plunged into oblivion and deliberately forgotten by the people of Mobile is a historical mystery."
Rayford wanted to dig up Joe's remains from the Oddfellows Cemetery, a few miles from Shell Belt Road, and transport Joe to a resting place in the Church Street Graveyard in Mobile, close to Joe's birthplace, and make Joe the focus of a yearly celebration.
"My father didn't want that," says Norwood of Vance Cain.
But Rayford kept returning to Bayou La Batre, Norwood recalls, persisting in his ambition to disinter Joe, making his pleas to Vance. "Finally," Norwood says, "my father gave up and signed. Rayford just wore him out."
Norwood attended the ceremony in the Church St. Graveyard in Mobile when Joe and wife Elizabeth were re- buried -- exactly 38 years ago -- Sunday, Feb. 6, 1967.
The Excelsior Band played "The Saints Go Marching In," while Martin Johnson, master of ceremonies, proclaimed, "I commend his soul to the Maker, who must dearly love such bright spirits as Joe Cain, father of modern Mardi Gras in our old city."
In 1980 Rayford himself would be buried next to Joe.
"Joe Cain was Julian Rayford's hero," says Lana Cain McGuff, a daughter of Norwood's who teaches at Alba Middle School. "He wanted to be buried at his feet."
McGuff, who shows a visitor the original grave of Joe Cain -- a plot where another family member is buried now -- complains that Joe had been moved from the rest of his family, who lie nearby
"They took him for the people in Mobile," says McGuff. "They don't think anything of us here in Bayou La Batre."
McGuff points out that Joe Cain was long-married and died before Elizabeth. He didn't have one widow, much less a bevy of them.
This morning, as on every Joe Cain Day in Mobile, the Joe Cain's Merry Widows will weep and moan above his grave, sometimes arguing over which of them Joe loved best.
"What would Joe Cain think," McGuff wonders, "about Joe Cain Day?"
Although Joe Cain was born and raised in Mobile and worked as a town clerk, among other positions, he had taken a bride from Bayou La Batre, Elizabeth Rabby.
On land owned by the Rabby family, Joe and Elizabeth built a beautiful Victorian home under a rising oak tree and eventually moved there with their six children. That house still stands, though much renovated over the years.
Cain Street runs alongside it; Rabby Street is nearby.
Norwood Cain can see the house from across his yard. It's currently inhabited by his son, Norwood Dale Cain, a quiet, bearded man, nicknamed Bubba, and his wife Renee.
Bubba says he has never been to Joe Cain Day in Mobile, but he does get asked often if he's related to the Mardi Gras figure. Renee has taken more interest in Joe and keeps a scrapbook.
When asked what Joe Cain might have been like as a person, Renee answers: "He would be different than the other Cains. They like to keep to themselves." Joe, Renee speculates, would "want to have fun."
The two have rebuilt parts of the house, but the living room, they say, is where wakes have taken place for family members in earlier generations. Joe's wake was there.
"We had a knob off his coffin," says Bubba.
Like the cane, and the silver tray, the knob's gone too.
When Bubba and Renee moved into the house, taking it over from another Cain, there were stories of the house being haunted.
An uncle told them of seeing children, at night, running out the back door. "He'd go upstairs," says Renee, "but all the children would be asleep in bed."
One aunt, Renee adds, "saw a death angel in the window." The woman called it, "a hell house."
The couple dismiss the notion of ghosts and say they have never been bothered by suggestions of them.
An uncle told them, Bubba says, the ghosts stopped "because we sealed off the attic." He shrugs and smiles.
Joey Cain is a U.S. Post Office customer service supervisor in Mississippi. Formerly in Pascagoula, he's now an interim postmaster in Gautier. Talkative and amiable, Cain, 55, devotes his free time to either fishing or genealogical research.
A descendant of Jesse Cain, Joe Cain's older brother, Joey is obsessed with researching Cain family history. He has a 17-generation family tree he's toiling to fill in with names stretching back to the 1500s.
He says he's not been able to trace Joe Cain's parents back before Philadelphia, where they lived before coming south to Mobile. He believes that even the Philadelphia origins may be speculative.
Joe was born in Mobile in 1832.
By contrast, Joey says, "I've been able to trace my wife's family back to Moses."
Several years ago, while doing genealogical research in the Pascagoula Library, a friend came across an item about Joe Cain and, knowing Joey's interest, photocopied it for him.
That item set Joey on a quest for what he calls, in Joe Cain lore, "the holy grail."
In the July 13, 1894, issue of the Pascagoula Democrat Star, there was a column titled, "Escatawpa Items," penned by a journalist using the pseudonym, "Au Revoir."
Among such items as "The entertainment given by the 'Owl Club' was said to be a success,' and 'Mr. T.B. Raby of Moss Point is selling a 'Home Canning Factory,'" there was this announcement:
"Mr. Joe Cain, of Mobile, is around taking orders for his book."
Joey Cain has searched far and wide for that book, contacted local historians, prowled the Internet. To date, he says, he has found nothing.
Martin Lanaux, used and rare book dealer at Martin Lanaux Bookseller, Fairhope, says that in Joe Cain's day, books were often sold by subscription. On hearing of Joe Cain's announcement for the book, Lanaux says it is possible that Cain, like many authors of the day, might have promoted his book to see if he could generate demand.
Perhaps there were not enough orders, and the book was never published.
Joey Cain suspects differently. He is still questing.
Joey said he admires great-great-great uncle Joe for having re-introduced a celebration that was "frivolous" in the midst of martial law.
"He wanted to get the spirits of the citizenry back up," he says.
Joey pictures Joe as "a tall, lean guy. He was a town clerk and had a lot of other civic hats. To get elected, he had to rub a lot of flesh. He stayed with the same woman his whole life. They had a lot of kids.
"He was very comical. He loved life."
Does Joey have any notion of what's in the elusive, perhaps nonexistent book of Joe Cain's?
"I don't think people were going to buy a book about city hall," Joey figures. "I think it was about the Tea Drinkers and what they did."
In his Mardi Gras costume, Geoff Miller reaches across an ancient wall at Mobile's Church Street Cemetery containing the grave of Old Joe Cain to toss this strand of beads on Cain's grave. In doing so, Miller carries on a unique tradition that blends with the other revelry associated with Mardi Gras every year in this South Alabama city.
The Sunday before Fat Tuesday in the port city of Mobile, revelers dance on Joe Cain's grave in the Church Street Cemetery. In 1866, Joe Cain rode through the streets of Mobile on the back of a coal wagon dressed as Slacabamarinico, legendary Chickasaw chief. Joe Cain and his crew made a general ruckus. An old mule plodded along before them. "Take this," Joe said to the Union troops who occupied the city.
Later New Orleans took up the celebration, but those who dance on Joe Cain's grave are quick to tell you it all started here, in the streets of Mobile in eighteen and sixty-six. They christen the headstone with beer bottles, water the grass around his grave with straight bourbon and piss. Men dress in women's clothing. Women stand on shifting balconies of old French hotels, lift their shirts for passing floats, bare their breasts to the kindly spirit of Joe Cain, the decayed embodiment of Chief Slacabamarinico.
Joe Cain's bones dance a knock-kneed lay-down kind of dance at the sight of the bare-chested happy women. On Joe Cain's grave, teenaged boys get laid for the first time.
That is to say nothing of the infamous Cowbellions, with their rakes and hoes and cowbells, their bovine inclinations, their leader who died of yellow fever in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Mobilians don't know that the party has long since ended, clinging hard-headedly to the notion that the Confederates won the war.
I went to school with two of Joe Cains grandchildren in the fifties. Most of his relatives Stil live in the Bayou area.
You must have gone to Alba High. There's a Cain down the street from me on the Bay, I don't know if they're related.
So, now you know where the phrase, 'raising Cain', originates.
In 1946-47 Julian Rayford wrote a book named whistling woman and crowing hen. It was based on The Bayou, and I appear in the book ( Bobby siting on Uncle Bud Rabbie's knee).The teacher in the article Lanna Cain's nephew is married to my niece.
One learns the damnedest things by hanging around Free Republic...
Congratulations. Small world, huh?
Yes it is. I had just finishedd reading the article on the Mobile Press website and came to FR and you had posted it.:-}}
That whole town is weird and creepy. For the record, I don't believe in ghost, haints, spooks or voodoo. Give me the swamps and the backwaters over that place - anyday.
On a side note. "Raising Cane" has some great chicken fingers.