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NINETEENTH-CENTURY NEW ORLEANS AND A CARNIVAL OF WOMEN
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A B STR A C T ............... ............................................................................................ iii
1 T H E O P E N IN G ................................................................................. .............. ... 1
2 AN OVERVIEW OF THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW ORLEANS CARNIVAL........9
3 RACE AND THE CARNIVAL IN NEW ORLEANS ..............................................18
4 PRO STITU TES ON PARAD E ........................................................ ...... 31
5 AMERICANS VERSUS CREOLES: A BATTLE FOR PRIVATIZATION AND
P O W E R ...............................................................................3 8
6 THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE NEW ORLEANS CARNIVAL.....................43
7 REVISITING THE CREOLE PAST: WOMEN COLLECTIVELY RECLAIM
THE STREETS ...................... ......... .. ... ....... .. ............54
8 C O N C L U SIO N ......... ........................................................................ ........... ..... .. 60
REFERENCES ................... ......... .. ...... ... ..................62
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E TCH ..................................................................... ..................67
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
NINETEENTH-CENTURY NEW ORLEANS AND A CARNIVAL OF WOMEN
Chair: Matt Gallman
Major Department: History
The Carnival in New Orleans is historically the largest and longest annual public
ritual in the country. Celebrated often for months at a time throughout the city since the
eighteenth century, the Carnival serves as an essential part of New Orleans's cultural
heritage. Unlike other civic rituals celebrated around the United States, the traditions at
the heart of the Carnival historically provided an atmosphere to explore normally off-
limit behaviors, such as easy social and sexual mixing between races and classes, and a
"topsy-turvy" inversion of social roles, ultimately providing a leveling tool among the
people that had lasting effects well after the celebration ended. During the city's colonial
and antebellum periods, all women benefited from the loosened social restrictions and
role inversions experienced through masquerading by their active participation in social
events on an equal footing with men.
When analyzing the Carnival through the paradigmatic lens of the public versus
private distinction often associated with gender studies, it becomes clear that gender had
less to do with a person's social parameters than did class and race. While it is often
asserted by modern scholars that nineteenth-century women were passive spectators
during public events, this paper argues the opposite in the case of the New Orleans
Carnival. Not only did women participate in the many activities transpiring over the long
Carnival season, they were essential to their success. Until 1857, the year that officially
transformed the Carnival into what it is today, a woman was never forbidden to attend a
parade, fete, or casual gathering because of her sex; it was only because of her class or
race. The same was true for men. Legally sanctioned privatization of Carnival groups
and events did not occur until after the Civil War, and even then, the restrictions did not
affect the masses, but rather the elites of society whose men privately wanted to control
the social currents of the city by controlling the influential Carnival.
All the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation ... Men,
boys, women, and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert
themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolical, horrible, strange
masks and disguises. --Major James Creecy, 18351
Throughout the history of New Orleans, women always have openly participated in
the customs associated with the Carnival season. Due to the unique colonial history of the
city which was ruled under French and Spanish crowns for over one hundred years before
the Louisiana Purchase, the involvement of its citizens in cultural and socio-political
matters naturally differed greatly from the rest of the nation. The women of New Orleans
have always played direct and integral roles in maintaining the true essence of the
celebratory Carnival festivities. The popular and historic public ritual, still much alive in
New Orleans today, would not be possible without women's direct contributions.
The one hundred years of history that this paper is based on provides a compelling
argument that the public versus private distinction often utilized in academic gender
studies applies more to race and class, rather than gender, in the analysis of New Orleans
Carnival rituals. In other words, participatory options available to women during the
long Carnival season had much more to do with their race and socio-cultural status than
their gender. A man could find himself as easily included in or ostracized from any
1 James R. Creecy, Scenes In the South and Other Miscellaneous Pieces (Washington, D.C.: T. McGill,
particular event as a woman. Gender counted for much less than class and race when
accounting for an individual's, or often a group's, social calendar.
Historian Mary Ryan attempts to draw parallels between San Francisco, New York
City, and New Orleans during the nineteenth century in order to explore the roles
available to women in the creation of public culture. Contrary to her assertion that
women's public involvement in nineteenth century civic rituals was nominal and
peripheral, direct public involvement in New Orleans Carnival was inclusive of all social
groups, more or less, depending on the social and political atmosphere of the time period
in question.2 Given that New Orleans at the time of its founding in 1718 began with a tri-
racial population consisting of French, African, and Native American peoples, further
diversifying as 550,000 immigrants poured through the port between 1820 and 1860, it
becomes apparent that all local women cannot be examined as one inclusive body of
people.3 Similarly, the public versus private distinction often applied to gender studies
cannot be applied as ontological categories directly correlating with male and female
experiences. As race and class divisions continued to grow and diversify throughout the
1800s, women found themselves in a wider variety of public roles and contexts than may
be expected, and these roles depended far more on their social status than their gender.
2 Mary Ryan, Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (Baltimore: The Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1990). Ryan explains women's roles in antebellum public rituals "not as
participants, but as audience and symbol," (Ryan, 31). She claims that "Prior to the 1840s, celebrations
were either rowdy male encounters or the manufactured products of the city fathers," (Ryan, 23). Ryan
cites New Years Eve visits as the one exception to her rule of men dominating antebellum ceremonial life
in New Orleans. The longer and more broadly celebrated Carnival season is not mentioned. (Ryan, 29-30).
For more historiographic examples of modern historians viewing women as audience, rather than
participants in antebellum public rituals, see Susan G. Davis, Parades and Power: Street Theatre in
Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Joan Landes, Women
and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).
3 Records of the Cabildo, http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/cabildo/cab6.htm (last accessed June 6, 2006).
Mary Ryan states that women in nineteenth-century public rituals were
acknowledged to be mostly bystanders and audience, rarely participants, and were
occasionally publicly displayed in idealized forms representing upper-class men's
imagined role they played as such civic archetypes as justice, liberty, and peace. If Ryan
is correct that "public ceremonies provide the occasion to ferret out the cultural meaning
attributed to sexual difference in the course of widely attended and festive conventions of
the public," adding that, thishs is the site where public meaning is created and
displayed," then an analysis of nineteenth-century New Orleans's Carnival will send an
academic reeling with its mixed messages.4 In reality, Carnival in New Orleans
functioned as a safety valve, a pressure release for a person to escape daily routines and
societal expectations and become someone wholly different within the time boundaries of
the celebration. Women of all stations took advantage of this opportunity by reveling on
the streets, fully changing their identities through costumes, and engaging in
debaucherous behavior and impromptu parades. Elizabeth Varon takes issue with Ryan
for suggesting passivity among women, imagining them as "audience and symbol," rather
than "political actors." Varon thinks "that to characterize women's partisanship as
passive is to obscure the transformation in women's civic roles."5 The main theme in
Varon's article is to try to recover the extent and degree to which white women
participated in antebellum political history, but her observation aimed at Ryan is
applicable to all female participation in nineteenth-century civic rituals, regardless of the
woman's class or color. In other words, the activity of women on the streets in New
4 Ryan, Women in Public, 16.
5 Elizabeth Varon, "Tippecanoe and the Ladies, Too: White Women and Party Politics in Antebellum
Virginia," The Journal ofAmerican History, Vol. 82, No.2 (Sep., 1995).
Orleans should not be discounted as mere ambulation or promenading in pretty dresses
along the banquettes and levees. Women had places to go, people to see, opinions to
offer, and business to take care of, all in the public sphere, just like the men. They
participated in the manifold ways available to them, and all the more during the Carnival
There are two main problems with the traditional academic analysis of women in
nineteenth-century public rituals. First, when considering nineteenth-century America,
there is too often no clear designation between the "ladies" that are often referred to in
scholarly writings and the many other women that deserve their own paradigms of
analysis. In Alecia Long's recent book focusing on the mixing of sex and race in New
Orleans, she suggests that the term "southern lady" was not applicable to non-white
women.6 In the case of New Orleans, the women who would then not be considered
southern ladies comprised the numerical majority of females in the city. These other
women were responsible for introducing myriad social etiquettes and customs that greatly
contributed to the renowned heterogeneous nature of the area. The legitimate social
differences among all women were generally less well documented and often denigrated
by the elite's of the period, and therefore are less accessible in their true form to the
modern scholar. For example, "public women" is often used in connection with
prostitutes, yet the term does not differentiate between the real "streetwalkers" and the
many other women that lived the majority of their lives on the public streets. This is
exactly what Christine Stansell's work on the lower-class women of New York City
attempts to shed light on; many respectable women who were not prostitutes lived a
6 Alecia P. Long, The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 14.
public life, yet would never attain the elite "lady" status of the upper classes. Instead,
they represented social categories all their own.7 The majority of public market and street
vendors in New Orleans were women, yet historians too often overlook them as the
important contributors to the city's culture and economy that they were.8
Second, there exists a tendency amongst historians to focus their analyses of
nineteenth-century public ceremonies on parades. Especially in the case of urban centers,
it is unrealistic to think that civic rituals or ceremonies began and ended in
synchronization with the timing of parades. Since city-wide celebrations often meant a
break from work, the ceremony arguably began with the anticipation of the people and
did not end until the crowds dispersed and ceased to collectively process what the event
offered in terms of social messages and signals. Public gathering places, saloons, and
parties likely functioned as spaces where the people continued to communicate and
assimilate the meanings conveyed by the holiday, and the presence of women at these
places was assured.
Prior to 1857, because organized parades did not exist as part of New Orleans's
Carnival traditions, they cannot serve as a gauge for the social undercurrents being
processed by the community, a performative function often attributed to organized
processions. One must look into other modes of celebration in order to find how the
public was contextualizing and transferring the information offered by the event. A
typical antebellum Carnival procession in New Orleans often consisted of an impromptu
gathering of mixed company, including makers and revelers of all types, colors, classes,
7 Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1986).
8Records of the Cabildo, http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/cabildo/cab6.htm (last accessed June 5, 2006).
of both men and women of all ages, marching through the streets accompanied by a
musical racket. Imagining the main public thoroughfares as arteries clogged with
multitudes of people all dressed up in costumes, talking, yelling, throwing bon-bons and
flour, and heading in the same direction may provide a more accurate picture of
antebellum Carnival parades. In postbellum New Orleans, parades became more
organized and thematic, but they accounted for far less than ten percent of the Carnival
season's activities, thereby hardly serving as a true mirror for the variety of social signals
that the long, participatory festival conveyed, such as gender norms, political and national
affiliations, and social prejudices. In most other cities, class, race, and gender separation
between performers and audience characterized organized processions. In New Orleans,
however, isolation between participants and observers could not be guaranteed, especially
Consistent with the rest of the nation, women in postbellum New Orleans did not
typically march in the organized Carnival crews, or krewes, as they are referred to in the
local parlance, but it is equally true that the majority of women did not sit as complacent
bystanders blankly watching the parade pass beneath their balcony perches. Women in
New Orleans reveled on the ground with the rest of the heterogeneous crowd that
gathered to cheer on the rolling theatrical presentations, essentially crossing the line that
historians often imagine existed between active participants and passive audience.9
Professor and author Marie-Helene Huet points out that there always exists the possibility
of the audience members reenacting a performance, as opposed to simply observing it.
To her, the content of the message is not as important as the transmissibility of it.
9 Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
Transmission of words or symbols generates interpretations in the audience, causing them
to react and affect the meaning of the original message and how they remember and
utilize it later. She explains that a woman's subsequent portrayal of what she has seen
may transmute into feelings and actions that could be justified as her own theatrics.10
Customarily, in the case of Carnival festivities, mimicry, mockery, and theatrical
representations are pervading aspects of the experience.
It is difficult to draw parallels between Carnival in New Orleans and public
ceremonies in other American cities during the nineteenth-century due to the unique and
deeply performative nature of the Carnival and the long-lasting democratizing effects it
has on the social interactions between the people. The Carnival traditions of role
inversion and publicly sanctioned exploration of taboos and otherwise illegal behaviors
tend to serve as a lesson in the contingent nature of social positions. For instance, in the
case of New Orleans, slaves could be freed and buy slaves of their own, a woman could
shift from a life of dependence on her husbands to a life of financial and social
independence if she made successful business decisions or if her spouse died and left her
assets, and politically important men could be deposed anytime the colony changed
hands. Although this is true, more or less, in any society, the people of New Orleans
ritually acted out a society of contrariety every Carnival season, ensuring that everyone
remembered that life is fraught with precariousness.
In her work on nineteenth-century public life, which includes a detailed treatment
of New Orleans, Mary Ryan describes the public in terms of people openly interacting in
places of natural social gathering, such as the well used streets, taverns, theaters, markets,
10 Marie-Helene Huet, qtd. in Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French
Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 166.
and promenades. "The first marker of the public is within the domain of everyday
sociability, face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder encounters between city residents."11
The Carnival celebration, when considered in its broader unabridged form, provided an
atmosphere that fostered a sense of public belonging, discourse, and meaning, and at the
same time served as a venue to perpetuate social prejudices between groups, ultimately
offering the people far more opportunity for pursuing public relations and engaging in
demonstrations than any ordinary passing parade. Interactions between people during
Carnival at once revealed social boundaries and challenged them.
Since the focus of this study revolves around women's roles in nineteenth century
Carnival festivities, it is necessary to present a historical summary of the origins of New
Orleans's Carnival. An understanding of the history of New Orleans' early settlers and
their relationship to the celebration will undoubtedly shed light on the ancient and
ongoing Carnival customs annually celebrated since the time of the city's colonial birth.
At the core of these customs is a tradition of pushing social limits, inverting social roles,
and the paradox of exclusivity in a situation of inclusiveness. If there exists a tendency
among scholars to envision men as the public actors during nineteenth-century civic
rituals and women as the passive audience, then there exists a failure to consider New
Orleans Carnival time.
11 Ryan, Civic Wars, 14.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW ORLEANS CARNIVAL
The Presbytere is a historic building located in the French Quarter. It was
constructed in the late 1700s during the Spanish colonial period to house an order of
Capuchin monks. Today, The Presbytere functions as the city's official Mardi Gras
museum. In the opinion of today's curators of The Presbytere, the exact origins of the
Carnival celebrated in New Orleans are unknown. They surmise that the ancient Roman
Saturnalia, a yearly ritual marking the winter solstice, is the most direct connection to the
nearly 300 year-old custom of celebrating Carnival in New Orleans. Their permanent
exhibit on Carnival's origins explains that the Saturnalia served as a time to halt all
commerce, for people to masquerade and feast, for masters to wait on servants, and for
couples to be designated mock kings and queens. Historian and photographer
Alexander Orloff also traces the origins of modern Carnival to the pre-Christian
Saturnalia, a holiday honoring Saturnus, the beneficent King of Latinum, considered the
civilizer of man and law-giver to the people of Italy. The festival of the Saturnalia was a
ritual re-enactment of an idyllic time when nature was bountiful, work was unnecessary,
and equality existed among people. In order to evoke a true sense of parity during the
holiday, role inversion was necessary. The metaphoric coin was flipped and the world
was tuned upside down. Slaves were set free in their master's clothes for the time of the
festival and servants were waited on by their masters. Mock kings were elected from
1 Courtesy of The Presbytere, New Orleans, Louisiana.
among the commoners, issuing ridiculous rules to the host of reveling masqueraders,
pranksters, and dancing, drunken fools.2
In contrast, a number of New Orleans historians including James Gill, John
William Koolsbergen, and Henri Schindler, hypothesize that the origins of Carnival go
back to the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a fertility ritual celebrated during the month of
February.3 Orloff explains that it is historically understood that, in ancient times, naked
youths, both girls and boys, ran around wrapped in the skins of sacrificed animals, with
the women receiving lashes from the februa, or long strips of hide cut from skins of the
sacrificed creatures, indicating that women had always been involved in this ancient
celebration as ceremonial participants.4
As centuries passed, the Christian Church found pagan celebrations offensive, yet
could not eradicate them, so slowly began infusing them with Christian symbolism and
overtones. In approximately 600 C.E., Pope Gregory the Great transformed the
seemingly ineradicable pagan holiday into Mardi Gras, an official Catholic holiday, and a
movable feast, immediately preceding the Lenten period of fasting and abstinence before
Easter, in what would appear to be an act to mitigate the celebration's pagan
2 Alexander Orloff, Carnival: Myth and Cult (Worgl, Austria: Perlinger, 1980), 26-27.
3 For further information about the Roman Lupercalia, see T.C. DeLeon, Creole Carnivals, 1830-1890
(1881; repr., Mobile: Bienville Books, 2004); John Williams Koolsbergen, A Study in Popular Culture, The
New Orleans Mardi Gras: Formation of the Mystick Krewe of Comus and the Krewe ofRex. Doctoral
dissertation, City University of New York, 1989; Robert Tallant, Mardi Gras... As It Was, 4t ed. (Tallant:
New Orleans, 1947; Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1994); Henri Schindler, Mardi Gras and New
Orleans (Paris: Flammarion, 1997).
4 Orloff, Carnival: Myth and Cult, 25.
associations.5 Each year since the seventh century, the holiday period commences on the
twelfth night of Christmas, the sixth of January, and lasts until the eve of Ash
Wednesday, ending anywhere from February third through March eighth. However,
throughout at least the first half of the nineteenth century, the French settlers in New
Orleans mimicked the Venetian Carnival calendar that lasted six months a year, with
masked balls commencing in November and lasting until May.
Regardless of how hard the church tried, no matter that it made the dates of
Carnival conform to the Christian calendar, it could not rid the celebration of its pagan
core; however, it did manage to Christianize it to the point that few people know that it is
not a holiday initiated by the Catholic Church, as can be assumed from the words
Carnavale, or Carnelevamen, a Latin translation of a farewell or a consolation to the
flesh, respectively. Catholic doctrine asserts that eating meat during the forty-day Lenten
period is considered a sin, so this is something to indulge in before the period of
abstinence, hence the time of overindulgence associated with Carnival.
The celebrations with roots in Saturnalia and Lupercalia were not all fun and
games. Often the people displayed more than just debaucherous behavior, including the
settling of vendettas, holding public hangings, and committing general violence. Most
crimes were not punished, especially during the climax of the festivities, because it was
common knowledge that all rules, laws, and taboos were suspended for the holiday. In
1890, James Frazer wrote of the darker side of the Saturnalia in his master work, The
Golden Bough. He found proof in ancient texts that Roman citizens or soldiers would
choose a man among them, usually the least capable, to rule throughout the week's
5 University of Cincinnati Web Site Search,
http://libraries.uc.edu/libraries/arb/geramericana/traditions.html (last accessed June 6, 2006).
festivities, and when the last day ended, the temporary king was put to death as a sacrifice
for the betterment of the people. Frazer spoke of the Saturnalia as a period of license
where the moral degeneration of the people led to "wild orgies of lust and crime."6 As
the Church gained more control of the festival, criminals suffered consequences for their
transgressions. Death by hanging was often performed in the midst of the festival in the
public squares. Even with the Church, or later the police, monitoring and chaperoning
the festival, observing the laws ultimately rested with the people. A law is only as
effective as an authority's ability to enforce it, and during the Carnival season in New
Orleans, laws were often not enforced. Instead, unruly revelry, inversion of social roles,
and half-mock, half-real usurpation of authority ran wild, and still do, although to a much
lesser degree today. Violence, as well as elated celebration, has always found a venue
during the New Orleans Carnival.7
Henri Schindler explains that the Bourbon King of France embraced the Carnival
styles of Venice and Rome to such a point that "entire courts of allegorical aristocracy
were created, and under Louis XIV Mardi Gras itself became a symbolic prince."8 The
last day of the festival, known as Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, was often
characterized by parties and burial rituals enacted in the day's honor. Louisiana was
claimed as a colony of France under the legendarily decadent Sun King, Louis XIV.
6 Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890; Bucharest: Romanian Cultural Foundation, 1994), chap. 58,
7 For further information regarding violence associated with Carnival festivities, see Samuel Kinser,
Carnival, American Style: Mardi Gras at New Orleans and Mobile (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1990); Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans (New York: George Braziller, 1979); Reid
Mitchell, All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History oJ ... i Orleans Carnival (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1995).
8 Schindler, Mardi Gras and New Orleans, 14.
When French explorers Iberville and Bienville found the mouth of the Mississippi River
on Mardi Gras day in 1699, the coincidence did not escape them. The campsite was
immediately christened "Point du Mardi Gras," heralding the first celebration of the
festival in the newest French colony.
Subsequently, the first settlers in New Orleans were a mixture of Canadian
frontiersmen, company militiamen, slaves, and a variety of indigents, prostitutes, and
convicts forced to relocate from France to the New World. The 1721 census counted 470
people in the three-year-old city.9 Storyville historian Al Rose asserts that the first
shipment of people from France consisted of not only "women of bad repute, but thieves,
vagabonds, gypsies, and other social unwanteds."10 The interests of Rose, as well as
author Stephen Longstreet, lie mainly in the history of New Orleans prostitution, and the
latter believes that with the first shipment of people from France the "Sporting House
history of the town begins."11 Longstreet makes the point that a love of danger and
debauchery have characterized the citizens of New Orleans since the moment of its
founding and that women played full participatory roles in creating the culture of the city,
from carrying muskets and axes, to growing crops, to openly displaying their sexuality in
public, and it is from this first batch of degenerate people that the subsequent Creoles and
their colonial customs were born. 12
9 Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, http://britannica.com/eb/article-11811 (last accessed June 6, 2006).
10 Al Rose, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light
District (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974), 5.
1 Stephen Longstreet, Sportin' House: A History of the New Orleans Sinners and the Birth ofJazz, (Los
Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965).
12 The term Creole throughout this paper designates people of pure foreign blood born on Louisiana's
soil, referring in this case to the original French or Spanish settlers. Throughout the nineteenth century,
rarely were locally born Africans or Anglo-Americans considered Creole in New Orleans, although they
No extant records speak of New Orleans's Carnival celebrations under French rule.
Even so, there is a long-standing legend that says Mardi Gras was first celebrated by
Bienville's successor as governor, the Marquis De Vaudreuil, who threw elegant and elite
society balls in the spirit of the French Carnival tradition practiced by Louis XIV. Grace
King, a renowned late nineteenth-century New Orleans writer, called herself "a southern
woman of letters." She wrote several personal and historically based accounts of New
Orleans life resounding with early notes of feminism. She tells of the legend of the
Marquis De Vaudreuil and reminisces on hearing about his Carnival society balls from
the old women in the city. In a book published in 1895, she refers to the women of the
city as "enthusiastic converts to the higher standard of the newer and more fascinating
gay world," introduced by the Marquis, and makes a point of women's participation in
the city's earliest Carnival celebrations.13
When the Spanish assumed ownership of the colony in 1763, it took them six years
to assert any control over the French Creoles. In fact, the rowdy French exiled the first
Spanish governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa. It was not until the next governor, Alejandro
O'Reilly, executed six French men responsible for the coup to keep the Spanish out of
French New Orleans that Spain gained any say in New Orleans's local affairs. It is at that
point, after the Spanish wrested control of the colony from the French Creoles, that the
historical records begin to tell the tale of Carnival celebrations and the problems
associated with them.
technically would inherit the same designation. This is the most common use of the word in virtually all
Louisiana history books.
13 Grace King, New Orleans: The Place and the People (1895; New York: The Macmillan Company,
1926), 79. For further information on the legend of the Marquis, see George W. Cable, The Grandissimes:
A Story of Creole Life (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880), 31.
The first tangible piece of historic evidence related to New Orleans Carnival is a
decree issued in 1781 and recorded in the Acts and Deliberations of the Cabildo, the
meeting place of the City Council. Governor Francisco Luis Carondolet is quoted as
saying "Because of the great multitude of troops and crews from the ships, (due to the
state of war between Spain and England), and the great number of free Negroes and
slaves in the city, the Attorney General recommends that all kinds of masking and public
dancing by the Negroes be prohibited during the Carnival Season."14 The Spanish
prohibition on masking began in 1781 and lasted through the first two decades of the new
American government, officially ending in 1823. The laws apparently were never
enforced with any consistency, because in 1792 the La Salle Conde Theatre was built to
house the growing numbers of masquerade balls. It was the first public ballroom recorded
in the city and within fifty years there were over 80 locations devoted to dancing.
Carnival historian Perry Young referred to the ban on masking between the years
1806-1821 as "soft-pedaled." He notes finding advertisements for masquerade balls
between those years, yet the newspaper records available from that time do not support
Young's claim.15 Between the years 1807 and 1823 The Louisiana Gazette carried
advertisements for "Grand Balls" at the Orleans Ball Room, the Jefferson Ball Room, and
the Conde Ball Room during the final days of the Carnival seasons, and on only one
occasion is anything mentioned about a dress code. The Orleans Ball Room hosted a
public ball on Mardi Gras Day in 1820 and felt obliged to mention in the paper that no
boots, surtouts, or canes would be admitted into the dance. In over seventeen years of
14 Digest of the Acts and Deliberations of the Cabildo, (Jan., 1781), book 2, pg. 47.
15 Perry Young, Carnival andMardi Gras in New Orleans (New Orleans: Harmanson's, 1939), 15.
publications, during a time of official prohibition on masking, not once was a cautionary
word mentioned by The Louisiana Gazette about arriving in disguise. The same is true
for the advertisements in the Louisiana Courrier between 1813 and 1816.16 Did the
people know that masking was prohibited and act according to the law, or did they
disregard the law and mask anyway, not fearing penalty and connoting that the law was
indeed as soft-pedaled after the Louisiana Purchase as it was when the La Salle Conde
Ball Room was built in 1792?
When the Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach visited the city in 1822, the final year of
the official ban, he mentioned that the French Theatre hosted a great masked gala, and
that all of the ladies in attendance donned a costume, "and intrigued as well as they were
able."17 Historians John Koolsbergen and Karen Leathem both speculate that fear of
sexual promiscuity between the races lay at the bottom of the legal decrees against inter-
racial mixing at balls and prohibitions on masking that surfaced from time to time during
nineteenth-century Carnival seasons. 18 Regardless of what particular class or race a ball
was billed for, masquerading was always a pleasure and a concern. A popular New
Orleans newspaper, L 'Abeille, the French edition of The Bee, ran an advertisement during
the 1828 Carnival season for a costume store owned by Mlle. Lise Douvillier, enticing
customers to find a costume and dress in the privacy of her facilities without "curious
16 Advertisements, Louisiana Gazette, 1807-1823; Louisiana Courrier, 1813-1816.
17 Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, Travels ;hi,. hi North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826
(Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1828): qtd. in Albert E. Fossier, New-Orleans: The Glamour Period,
1800-1840: A History of the (.C tl,. i, ofNationalities, Languages, Religion, Morals, Cultures, Laws,
Politics, and Economics during the Formative Period of .... 0 Orleans (New Orleans: Pelican Publishing
House, 1957), 459.
18 Koolsbergen, A Study in Popular Culture, 42; Karen Leathem, A Carnival According to Their Own
Desires: Gender and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 1870-1941. (Doctoral dissertation, University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1994), 200.
eyes penetrating."19 Once people were covered from head to toe, they could pass for
virtually anyone, and all races, classes, and genders tended to dress in fully disguising
costumes, adding an element of equality, as well as mystery, to the already chaotic
19 Advertisement, L 'Abeille, February 1828.
RACE AND THE CARNIVAL IN NEW ORLEANS
From the founding of New Orleans until after the Civil War, in the minds of the
Creoles, the free people of color were potential social agitators and a threat to the slave-
holder mentality and power, yet the Creoles could not help but interact with them in
intimate ways. There had always been free blacks in New Orleans due to the favorable
French and Spanish laws concerning the rights of slaves. According to the African
American Resource Center, part of the New Orleans Public Library, during the Spanish
period, "slaves could buy their freedom, be loaned money to purchase their freedom,
have their freedom purchased by a relative or friend or be given their freedom,"
regardless of their master's disapproval, allowing the free black population to grow in
size and importance, often holding positions as skilled laborers, merchants, land owners,
and even slave owners themselves.1 Free people of color existed as a class of their own;
too free and often too socially significant to be grouped together with the slaves, but
unable to vote or find a niche in white society. Their strong presence, combined with
their monetary and business success, made their middling existence a threat to the
southern slave ideology that clung to the concept that all blacks should be subjugated to
whites. Miscegenation was a common occurrence in New Orleans, as evidenced by the
large number of mulattos born each year, adding to the already numerically significant
1 African American Resource Center, Emancipation Records, New Orleans Public Library Online,
http://nutrias.org/-nopl/info/aarcinfo/guide/emancipations.htm (last accessed June 6, 2006).
class of people more free than slaves, yet less free than whites, with internal social
stratifications all their own. The census records for Louisiana in the nineteenth century
do not distinguish between whites and free people of color in the category of births.
However, in 1850, free people of color in Orleans Parish made up ten percent of the
overall population. There were approximately twice as many free women of color than
men, and twice as many white men as women.2
Karen Leathem posits that, in the 1850s, "gender became the overarching rubric for
unofficial masking regulations."3 More likely, all previous masking regulations, whether
official or not, had existed for the same white, fear-based reasons. Ease of association
among all races of residents, combined with an unequal ratio of men to women, ironically
made room for and implicitly encouraged the generally frowned-upon practice of inter-
racial sexual intercourse. Late historian Kimberly Hanger wrote in her 1991 PhD
dissertation concerning free people of color in Spanish New Orleans that "with few
exceptions persons of all colors and classes worked and played together by choice
and necessity." She continued by stating, "New Orleans refused to function in accord
with any strict social stratifications based on race, class, or legal status."4 Alecia Long
relates several historical cases of "sex across the color line," using them as aids to explain
how the city went from having a dubious reputation for decadence and racial diversity
before the Civil War to exploiting that decadence by creating a tourist market around the
sex trade that encouraged indulgence in prostitution, including miscegenation, for
2 Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, University of Virginia Library, http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-
local/censusbin/census/cen.pl?year=860 (last accessed June 6, 2006).
3 Leathem, A CarnivalAccording to Their Own Desires, 38.
4 Kimberly Hanger, Personas de Varias Clasesy Colores: Free People of Color in Spanish New Orleans,
1769-1803 (Doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, 1991), 243.
government profit after the war. In 1898, the notorious Storyville district was born,
composed of several city blocks set aside by local officials for the sole purpose of
enticing tourists to luxuriate in a sanctioned erotic environment of sex and, later, local
The free people of color in New Orleans were not subjected to the same social
etiquette that the French and Spanish Creole elites enforced. The free colored people had
their own set of social standards and, for those women deemed quadroons and octoroons,
persons one-fourth and one-eighth black respectively, they had standards that both
seduced and appalled Creole men and incensed many Creole women. To illustrate, in
1810 a woman named Lucinda Sparkle published a letter addressed to the City Council in
the Louisiana Gazette. Her concern clearly shows just how important the Carnival
season was for women of her era, and just what a threat the Creole women considered the
female quadroons. She petitioned for the following:
[that a] suitable genteel, tree-shaded promenade be established to foster "the best
female society" who were losing out to the quadroons who promenaded the levees
and ensnared the eligible gentlemen of the city. During the Carnival, when our
young gentlemen from custom and the pleasures of dancing are frequently in the
company with our belles, feelings of the most pure and tender nature are often
excited; but, time passes, the Carnival ends, and the period of female seclusion
again returns, and there remains nothing to counteract the baneful voices
complained of by your petitioner. [She envisioned that a proper public promenade
would be a place where] the favorable and honorable impressions made during the
Carnival might be renewed and new conquests might be made.6
Historically, in New Orleans quadroon women were distinguished for their
exemplary educations and financial solvency, qualities often thought of as unusual for
5 Alecia P. Long, The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans 1865-1920
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004).
6 Lucinda Sparkle, letter to City Council, Louisiana Gazette, Sep. 18, 1810.
women of their time. Due to the promise of limited legal rights extended to free people
of color, the quadroon women benefited as legal landowners and merchants, and were
often socially independent. Grace King left behind her a wealth of information about
New Orleans and its distinctive local culture in the many books she wrote, including a
reproduction of an unpublished manuscript written in the mid-nineteenth century by
Charles Gayarre, the grandson of Etienne de Borre, New Orleans's first mayor, and a
lawyer and fellow-writer friend of King. Gayarre's manuscript resounds with respect for
the free colored women. He pleasantly reminisces about the comfortable living quadroon
women afforded white men by catering to their every need, their affability, and their
"proverbial" honesty, yet in the same breath he complains that the women "monopolized
the renting, at high prices, of furnished rooms to white gentlemen," sounding more like
he had a personal gripe than was stating an absolute fact. In contrast, King's opinions are
much more severe than Gayarre's. In regard to family peace and purity, she considers the
women "the most insidious and the deadliest of foes a community ever possessed."7
Given the contents of this quote, it is tempting to imagine the name Lucinda Sparkle
serving as a pen name for King if the latter had been alive in 1810. The respective
contrasting opinions of Gayarre and King echo the stereotypical responses held by white
men and white women, respectively, in response to the unusual social position quadroon
women occupied. After all, white men tended to benefit from the unusual social position
of the quadroon women, while white women did not. More importantly, however, the
opinions of King and Gayarre reflect the quandary in which the free women of color
found themselves and dealt with daily, living in a reality somewhere between freedom
SKing, New Orleans: The Place and the People, 347; Charles Gayarre, unpublished manuscript, qtd. in
King, New Orleans: The Place and the People, 347.
and servitude, and in a world between the white and black cultures, a world often fraught
One of the most noted reasons for the quadroon women's independence, financial
solvency, and resented position in society sprang from the peculiar, yet common placage
system, borrowed from the French West Indies. In the placage system, the mother of a
free young quadroon woman would offer her as the mistress of a socially desirable young
and unmarried white man. When a suitable match was made, the women became known
as a placeee" The legendary quadroon Carnival balls that occurred in New Orleans from
some time in the 1700s until the Civil War, documented in the countless travelogues left
by North American and European travelers, involved more than just dancing the French
quadrille until dawn.8 First and foremost, for the love of music and Carnival, free
colored people held balls where technically no whites were allowed to attend. However,
the quadroon balls represented a glaring double standard. Quadroon mothers, acting as
brokers and often places themselves, would accompany their daughter to the quadroon
balls in attempt to strike a bargain with an interested white man in attendance in order to
place their daughter in that man's care for life. These balls were well known and in
operation specifically for the purpose of inter-racial relations. They served as the
courting ground of young white men of means looking for exotic darker skinned
8 For further information on quadroon balls in travelogues, see Thomas Ashe, Golden Petticoats: Travels
in America (London: printed for R. Phillips, 1808), qtd. in The World from Jackson Square: A New Orleans
Reader, ed. Etolia S. Basso (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1948), 87-91; Isidore Lowenstern, (1837), Harriet
Martineau, (1830), The Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, (1825), James Stuart, (1829), Mrs. Trollope
(1827), qtd. in Albert E. Fossier, New-Orleans The Glamour Period, 1957; John H.B. Latrobe, Southern
Travels: Journal ofJohn H.B. Latrobe, 1834, ed. Samuel Wilson Jr. (New Orleans: The Historic New
Orleans Collection, 1986).
Thomas Ashe, in his 1808 travels to New Orleans from London, took a great
interest in the placage system and the quadroon women it involved. As one of the men
captivated by the beautiful mixed-race ladies, he considered the women of color socially
equal, if only in grace and elegance, to the white society women. He noted that, "The
mothers regulate the terms and make the bargain generally fifty dollars a month;
during which time the lover has the exclusive right to the house, where fruit, coffee, and
refreshments may at any time be had, or where he may entirely live with the utmost
safety and tranquility."9 In a similar vein, in 1859, Fredrick Law Olmstead, the noted
landscape architect and designer of New York's Central Park, mused that living under the
placage arrangement cost less money than renting hotel rooms that did not come with the
cooking and laundry services that the quadroon places provided. Olmstead guessed that
a man could live a better life for less money in New Orleans with a quadroon mistress
than a man with a salary could in New York City. 10 If a white man of means desired to
take part in the placage system to secure himself the services mentioned above, the place
to institute the relationship would have been the famous quadroon balls.
Similar to all Carnival galas, the quadroon balls varied in quality, depending on the
class of people in attendance, something likely determined by the elegance and entrance
fee of the particular ballroom. In 1834, John Latrobe visited New Orleans from
Baltimore. The son of the New Orleans architect and commentator Benjamin Latrobe is
notable in having spearheaded the African recolonization movement, an effort to send
manumitted slaves back to a newly established African colony, Liberia, named by the
9 Ashe, Golden Petticoats, qtd. in The World from Jackson Square, ed. Basso, 91.
10 Fredrick Law Olmstead, Men and Manners, qtd. in The World from Jackson Square, ed. Basso, 160.
American Colonization Society to imply liberation. On the night of his arrival, he was
escorted by his host to a quadroon ball. This first ball Latrobe attended was at the
Washington Ball Room and required guests to come masked. He paid a one dollar
entrance fee into the "gorgeous building," commenting that, "it far exceeds anything of
the sort that we have in the North." Not surprisingly, Latrobe left his wife Charlotte in
their temporary quarters while he enjoyed an event she socially could not attend.
Latrobe's writings reveal inconsistencies in his opinions regarding people of color. On
the one hand, he worked for the abolition of slavery, desiring to rid the nation of its racial
problems by shipping all blacks back to Africa, yet on the other hand, he notes several
times his fixation with the feet and ankles of unescorted colored women around Jackson
Square, inquiring about their identities in an effort to make their acquaintance. It is likely
that the same women he saw in the square during the day starred in the quadroon balls at
night. He commented with repugnance that the quadroon belles pass their lives in
prostitution, only made worse by the fact that New Orleans citizens, more or less,
condone their behavior. Disgusted from the heat and smell of sweat, Latrobe left the first
quadroon ball around midnight, yet he apparently could not fight the temptation to attend
another ball of lesser quality that he coincidently stumbled upon moments later. The
second quadroon ball he attended was advertised in the November nineteenth issue of
The Bee. There he found colored women and "white women of the lowest order, and
nearly all of the women in the same sort of costume." Once again offended by the odor
and the lack of lighting, he left the ball, but what is of importance are the descriptions of
1 Latrobe, Southern Travels, 2.
the evening Latrobe left behind, demonstrating that societal rules of the time concerning
the mixing of races were inconsistently adhered to, at best. 12
The elite white society women, often the victims of cheating husbands, often
enough used the quadroon Carnival balls to gain proof of their partners' affairs and to
aggravate the event's other attendees. For instance, in 1835, yet another debate ensued
over masquerading, because many white women were donning masks and entering the
quadroon balls. The public spotlight cast upon the elite white women from the Cabildo
most likely served to warn them that their social status could be undermined, especially if
they were accused of acting improperly at a ball by committing an act of adultery with
any man, or worse, miscegenation with black men who easily could have gained entry as
well under cover of a costume.
Historian Laurraine Goreau cites Alderman Allard in an 1835 debate defending
married white women caught accessing a realm customarily prohibited to them. The
Alderman supported their incognito passage into the balls suspecting that their intentions
were solely to surprise their adulterous husbands openly consorting with their quadroon
mistresses.13 Historian and author Albert Emile Fossier, in his early twentieth century
book, New Orleans, the Glamour Period, 1800-1840, quotes an unnamed "prominent"
English author from the nineteenth century who further attests to white women
infiltrating the quadroon balls of their own volition, but he suspects that their reasons
varied more than Alderman Allard assumed.
12 Latrobe, Southern Travels, 76-81; The Bee, November 19, 1834.
13 Alderman Allard, City Council Debate, November 20, 1835, qtd. by Laurraine Goreau, The Past as
Prelude: New Orleans, 1718-1968, ed. Hodding Carter (New Orleans: Tulane University Press, 1968), 346.
In the twenties and even in the early thirties, these balls were strictly limited to
quadroonn] women and their white admirers. No white women would risk the
opprobrium for attending them, even disguised with a mask. The fear of
apprehension was too great, but in the marvelous thirties when the population both
males and females, grew to tremendous proportions, white women, either because
of curiosity, for amusement, or to confirm their suspicions as to the whereabouts of
their husbands, would attend these balls, where they were not welcome, in
incredible numbers ... at first carefully disguised, then flaunting all conventions by
not attempting to hide their identity.14
The acting mayor, Culbertson, in a letter to the same City Council meeting in 1835,
showed great concern that white ladies were attending these balls, events that he
considered an ongoing custom promoting infidelity. Mixed feelings in the white male
population between wanting their freedom to live a dual sexual life with a socially
downcast, though desirable, race, and not wanting their wives to know, confront them, or,
especially, take revenge by committing the same act with willing black males, was
common. Culbertson complained of the white women attending the quadroon balls,
explaining that, "the spectacle of their abominations is constantly offered to the public
gaze." In a seemingly offended tone, Culbertson continued that these white women in
attendance, often married, felt comfortable enough to bring with them as escorts,
"unprincipled men who have been expelled from other sates, and who find here, in
consequence of the disguise they are allowed to assume, and the protection of these
females, every opportunity to follow their swindling career."15 Ten days later, The Bee
commented in an editorial that "however disposed we may be to esteem ladies and to
gratify their curiosity, etc., we did not like to see them disguised in liquor or dress. What
they may be permitted to do at a fancy ball respectably 'got up' can scarcely afford a
14 A "Prominent English Author" qtd. in Fossier, New Orleans: The Glamour Period, 362.
15 Mayor Culbertson, City Council November 20, 1835, qtd. in Fossier, New Orleans: The Glamour
precedent to unrestrained freedom at masked balls for colored people two or three times a
week."16 All of this implies nothing less than women, even ones considered high
society, fully participating in the rituals associated with the Carnival season, and they did
so with much less compunction than many historians suspect.
In 1834, Englishmen Charles Augustus Murray commented on the gaiety and ease
of the Creole women at their Carnival balls. He fondly remembered that he "was
privileged to address and to dance with any young lady in company without going
through the ceremonial ordeal of introduction." He continued by saying, "it is impossible
to conceive an assembly with more agreement and with less restraint, than this Creole
coterie."17 He likely found himself in the company of well behaved Creole citizens at an
extravagant fete, a privilege not extended to all whites, or even all Creoles in the city.
There is no doubt that there existed palpable qualitative differences among Carnival balls
and their attendees.
It is important to note that Creole society had its class stratifications, as well. Not
all Creoles had access to money, resources, or even homes. The Creole balls ran the
gamut from decadent and very socially restrictive "subscription" or "society balls," where
the Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach claims, "none but good society were admitted,"
likely prohibited to most by their entrance fee, to the inexpensive and easily accessible
"public balls," advertised in every newspaper, with women often admitted for free. 18
Women were not only conspicuously present at all of these parties both in costume and
16 The Bee, November 30, 1835.
17 Charles Augustus Murray, qtd. in Fossier, New Orleans: The Glamour Period, 455.
18 Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, qtd. in King, New Orleans: The Place and the People, 266.
spirit, they were absolutely necessary to their success, especially if the male attendants
desired dancing until dawn. Class and race determined admittance to the balls, especially
admittance to the elite private sphere of the invitation-only galas, gender did not, yet
there existed the promise of a good fete for everyone, usually six months out of the year
and several times a week. All classes and colors of society had their bacchanals and the
women were ever-present, participating in the celebrations.
In the atmosphere of New Orleans's antebellum Carnival, white southern
womanhood and its reputation for delicacy and sacred virtue deserves reconsideration. It
is apparent that New Orleans challenges the perspective of a monolithic Southern culture
as evidenced by the social complexities of the city, which at Carnival time were brought
to the surface in full public force. In theory, among the upper classes, there existed a
stigma associated with the public balls due to the balls' socially heterogeneous attendees,
which offered no guarantee of whose company in which people might find themselves.
Under the guise of masking, social trespass occurred regularly. John Williams
Koolsbergen comments that, "In a broader sense the inversion of status is at the core of
Mardi Gras because the central theme of New Orleans Carnival is the fantasy of
becoming anything one desires for a day."19 People often disguised themselves as other
races, classes, and genders in order to gain access, if only psychologically, into social
spheres with which they were less well acquainted.
In 1952, Mardi Gras historian, Arthur Burton LaCour, commented that the public
balls of the nineteenth century created an atmosphere of offensiveness and immorality.
Using women as the measuring stick for determining immoral behavior, he wrote, "Self-
19 Koolsbergen, A Study in Popular Culture, 26.
styled ladies wore masks but all other parts of their bodies were delineated. Hostility
towards masking was renewed and the laxity of the public balls were severely criticized
as Bacchanalian revelries."20 It seems LaCour assumed that the women would not have
dressed so promiscuously were they not masked, and the fact that they did display
themselves in a sexually provocative way led him to conclude that masking was the cause
of, or excuse for female transgression, as opposed to the overall lax nature of Carnival
In a similar vein to LaCour, local New Orleans author Robert Tallant felt that the
public balls of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries possessed "varying degrees of
respectability [and] which were open to everyone who could purchase a ticket, and some
of these were helping to give New Orleans a reputation as a city as evil and as dangerous
as Marseille, a city which was in time to earn the appellation of 'hell on earth."'21
Tallant blames the reputation of the city on the debauched persons who attended Carnival
balls, but, in reality, New Orleans gained its hellacious reputation for a variety of reasons,
many having nothing to do with the Carnival. Historically, the city was no stranger to
widespread bouts of epidemics, warring with local Amerindians, slave insurrections,
pirate attacks, annual flooding of the city streets, hurricanes, delinquents, dueling, gang
fights, and prostitution.
In truth, there existed no specific limits to open female sexuality and provocative
behavior and this seemed to bother men much more than the majority of women who
used Carnival as an excuse to display their bodies, act coquettishly, and behave in ways
20 Arthur Burton LaCour, New Orleans Masquerade: (C i ... i.. I,. of Carnival, in collaboration with Stuart
Omer Landry (New Orleans: Pelican Publishing Company, 1952), 10.
21 Tallant, New Orleans... As It Was, 97.
often not normally accessible to them, challenging men's perceptions of their
virtuousness. Since the social guidelines people publicly adhered to greatly depended on
their class, the anonymity of Carnival offered everyone an opportunity to explore other
social realms. Even the upper-class women who frowned on the quadroon balls, with all
the implicit and illicit sexuality associated with them, still attended disguised enough to
hide their personal identity, perhaps even their class, but not their gender.
PROSTITUTES ON PARADE
Among the common people, or gens du commun, it can be inferred that the
prostitutes so commonly referred to in New Orleans history were often the lower-class
white Creole women, although they were not alone in this profession. Many immigrant
women arriving in the city with no resources or family support also turned to the illicit
sex trade for money. In fact, Al Rose, an expert on Storyville, New Orleans's red light
district, uncovered much evidence of women traveling from different cities to New
Orleans to make quick earnings by engaging in prostitution, and all the more during the
Carnival season. Robert Tallant claimed, "Mardi Gras was a paradise for whores ...
They'd take over the streets, go into the best neighborhoods in carriages and on foot,
shouting obscenities and dressed in the most daring costumes; behaving in the most
During the antebellum period of Carnival, prostitutes, both black and white, owned
the streets as much as men. They dominated many areas of the public sphere, openly
inviting, in Alecia Long's words, "sex across the color line" in bars and concert saloons
across the city, from the most dangerous of neighborhoods to the most wealthy and
refined. Social stigmas associated with promiscuous costuming and bawdy behavior only
encouraged them to rebel more. Karen Leathem notes that since the mid-nineteenth
century prostitutes commonly cross-dressed as men for Mardi Gras. To Leathem, cross-
1 Tallant, New Orleans... As It Was, 108.
dressing represented a challenge to Victorian ideas of gender immutability.2 Her position
is in direct conflict with Mary Ryan's assertion that "Like the sexual reversals of
European Carnival... the cross-dressing of Mardi Gras did not challenge gender
hierarchies."3 Given these contradictory voices concerning the nature of cross-dressing,
why women chose to costume in that fashion must be considered.
It is likely that one reason prostitutes cross-dressed was to penetrate and undermine
men's socially superior position over women. Costumes often signified political ideals
and social mores of the day, letting people play with new information and find new ways
to assimilate and express it, while simultaneously reflecting and challenging the world as
the costumers knew it. For instance, women cross-dressing as men could thwart sexual
double standards that men used to their advantage, such as the placage system, and
costumes of inversion could be made into tools used by the oppressed to temporarily
assume the privileges of their oppressors.
Upper-class men regularly cross-dressed for Carnival, often playing the part of
females in the organized postbellum parades, parades that women, along with the rest of
the city's citizens, were excluded from. Role inversion was as much a part of the ancient
Carnival customs that survived in New Orleans as open sexuality and public debauchery.
It served as a vital component in keeping the essential spirit of the Carnival alive. On
Ash Wednesday, 1838, The New Orleans Daily Picayune relayed to their readers their
Mardi Gras day experience, illustrating a grand procession of Creole gentlemen of the
"first respectability." All of the men rode horses, and "Many of them were dressed in
2 Leathem, A Carnival According to Their Own Desires, 61-62.
3Ryan, Women in Public, 29.
female attire, and acted the lady with no small degree of grace."4 Both men and women
could and did masquerade as each other and explored the other's social advantages, if
If there existed some understanding among prostitutes that gender roles were
decided upon through public rituals and displays, as Karen Leathem and Mary Ryan both
postulate, then perhaps the more clever working women noticed the significance of cross-
dressing through awareness of fashion trends. Women such as Sarah Bernhardt stunned
people by wearing pants in public and playing the roles of men in the theater, essentially
eroticizing cross-dressing. Perhaps prostitutes realized the power of male-impersonation
when they saw men, year after year, cross-dressing as women and behaving in ways that
made it look fun for women to command the streets in drunken revelry. Tallant mentions
that in 1871, Mary E. Walker, a physician, visited the Crescent City for Mardi Gras and
costumed herself as a man, a role she likely identified with due to her occupation. She
noted feeling "out-heroed" by the many prostitutes also donning male raiment.5
Interestingly, author Reid Mitchell found evidence of Walker's arrest for her act of
donning men's attire, an uncommon response by the police, even if they assumed her a
prostitute. In fact, Mitchell later asserts that the local newspapers routinely considered
cross-dressing nothing more than Carnival gaiety.6 Most likely, prostitutes realized from
the reactions they elicited, especially during Carnival, that they were already influential
actors consciously creating the images they wanted the rest of the public to assimilate.
4 The New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 28, 1838.
5 Tallant, Mardi Gras... As It Was, 127.
6 Mitchell, All on a Mardi Gras Day, 136-137, 140.
In other words, prostitutes cross-dressing as men served to both symbolize and lampoon
their male patrons, who likely thought themselves at the top of the gender hierarchy and
in control of economics and government. In reality, the prostitutes controlled a lucrative
profession that exercised influence over police, city officials, and merchants alike, and it
was in the prostitutes' best interest to make their claim as an important social force and
major contributors to the city's economy, and demand attention and respect for who they
were--a group of successful women in a city that had never been without their presence
and their specialized offerings.
Among prostitutes, as with any large group of people, there existed social
stratifications as well, depending on which neighborhood they resided in or whether they
worked alone or in a brothel under the protection of a madam. Pure, white-skinned
Creole and European immigrant women of the sex industry often lived in areas that
suffered such high crime rates that a man of means looking for a good time would have
been wise to look elsewhere. Robert Tallant recalled countless tales of rivalries between
uptown and downtown gangs of prostitutes, likely American versus Creole, due to the
way the city's neighborhoods grew. Americans developed the real estate above or uptown
from Canal Street and immigrants usually resided within or below the French Quarter.
The antagonistic women would march into each other's sections and instigate all-out
brawls, "that began with verbal blasting and ended with fists, sticks, and stones." He
continued by writing that, "Mardi Gras was a favorite time for this, when the heart was in
high spirits and the inhibitions were released by alcohol and the gaiety of the season."7
Tallant, Mardi Gras ... As It Was, 109.
Tallant claims that the police would not venture into the Gallatin Street district,
even in broad daylight, and that murders in the area increased exponentially during the
Carnival season. He relays that the crime was even worse uptown in the "Swamp," the
uptown area around Girod Street. According to Tallant, women in the Swamp and
Gallatin Street areas prostituted themselves for pennies, often possessed no home, and
literally lived on the streets. Tallant described the women as terrible fighters, "brawny
and battle-scarred female savages, ready and willing to gouge out a man's eyes or slit his
belly or his testicles with a razor or a knife." Since this type of behavior was supposedly
an everyday occurrence for the women in the area, "There was really little that the
Swamp could do to provide additional excitement [on Fat Tuesday], so on this day they
would often wander in large numbers to Gallatin Street to exhibit their superior prowess,
to tear the Gallatin Street dives to pieces, and to maim the inhabitants."8 In essence,
these debased women represented one end of the spectrum of prostitution, and the women
of the high-class brothels who hosted the men of means in the city represented the other.
The 1840s heralded a new epoch in the Carnival history of New Orleans. Between
1800 and 1840, the city-wide festival gave everyone the opportunity to intermingle
without too much fear of social disapproval. Openly socializing across all demographics
was customary behavior of the New Orleans natives, as new arrivals quickly learned.
There indeed existed places and events where certain groups normally gathered and
others were generally unwelcome, but those restrictions were often disregarded, and all
but disappeared during Carnival. Until those final years before the Civil War,
notoriously known as decades of disquiet and heightened animosity between the races
8 Tallant, Mardi Gras... As It Was, 109-110.
and classes in New Orleans, lives were lived in the public sphere and the fabric of society
seemed firm and in place. But as national germs of social unrest began to filter into the
city, the fabric began to loosen and come apart. Social restrictions were imposed from
the top down where none had been before and the people found themselves more and
more separated and privatized from each other.9 In fact, the 1842 travelogue of Louis
Tasistro noted that the public began comparing costumed women with prostitutes as the
latter filled the streets during Carnival when other women would not, in fear of the street
violence continually erupting as a precursor of the Civil War.10 The flour that
mischievous young boys traditionally threw at innocent revelers was replaced with bricks
and quicklime, causing the quality of the celebration to deteriorate, as reflected in the
media of the time.
Gradually the sensible citizens of the city began to disappear from the streets
during Carnival as the local newspapers made pessimistic comments concerning the
rising violence occurring during the traditionally celebratory season. In 1848 The Bee
commented that "Mardi Gras altogether was a poor affair. Some few boys paraded on the
streets on foot, in carriages, and on horseback and began throwing flour in each other's
faces, when other boys standing by pelted them with mud and brickbats ... So ended the
ceremony which is now more honored in the breach than in observance, and which
should be altogether done away with."11 Six years later, their assessment of the holiday
9 For further information about class and racial animosity affecting the New Orleans Carnival season in
the 1850s, see James Gill, Lords ofMisrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of race in New Orleans (Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1997),; The Presbytere; Ryan, Women in Public, 1990; Ryan, Civic Wars,
1998; Tallant, Mardi Gras ... As It Was, 1990; Young, Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 1939.
10 Louis Tasistro, Random Shots and Other Southern Breezes (New York: Harper Bros., 1842).
1 The Bee, March 8, 1848.
had not improved. The Bee curtly stated, "Boys with bags of flour paraded the streets and
painted jezebels exhibited themselves in public carriages, and that is about all."12 The
media's concerns were not unfounded, and in fear for the people, who they themselves
were, they pushed for the privatization of the season's festivities by urging revelers to
gather in places less public than the streets.
Until 1857, Carnival events that took place in the private sphere, such as quadroon
and invitation-only high society balls, still seemed semi-public, and the public sphere had
few boundaries. It took transformational forces of enormous influence to change the
egalitarian Creole Carnival style of celebrating, and those forces were the socially
conservative Americans steering the ship of cultural change during times of inner-city
discontent at the dawn of the Civil War.
12 The Bee, March 1, 1854.
AMERICANS VERSUS CREOLES: A BATTLE FOR PRIVATIZATION AND
Women in general had enjoyed a more democratic freedom of expression in New
Orleans when the people still clung tightly to their French and Spanish colonial roots. As
the city slowly began to assimilate American influences, women's freedoms, especially
for those in the upper classes, deteriorated, falling to their lowest point between the
periods of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, then reviving once again at the
turn of the twentieth century. The early colonial cultural practices of easy inter-racial
mingling and condoned miscegenation had endured to well into the nineteenth century
until, in the 1850s, the politically self-empowered elite American population attempted to
halt what they perceived as solecistic behavior among the Creoles. In order to gain
control of the city's social realm, the Americans struck at the heart of Creole sociability,
The rancor that persisted between Creoles and Americans began soon after the
United States bought the Louisianan Territory from France in 1803. In thel808
travelogue of Thomas Ashe, he noted that there existed a difference in attitude and
behavior between the Creole natives and the newly arriving Americans flocking into the
region. His observations described a social wound that began with the appearance of the
Americans and reopened anew every Carnival season. It is likely that the behavior of the
Creole women aroused distress among the northern newcomers because the American
men enjoyed less social freedom to play and express themselves than the Creole women
did, and the unpredictable and chaotic behavior associated with the Carnival only
magnified the cultural chasm that existed between the vastly different groups, further
aggravating American social sensibilities. Ashe wrote, "The Americans, since their
arrival here, have been so occupied by politics and legislation that their minds have never
been sufficiently unbent to form a course of pleasure for themselves. ... It is not so with
the French gentlemen: their pleasures are forever varied, and of a nature to be
participated in by the most delicate of the female sex." 1
Karl Postl, an ordained priest, disappeared from his parish in Prague in 1823,
reappearing in New Orleans later that same year calling himself Charles Sealsfield.
During his travels across America he kept journals and published novels that reflected his
interpretation of American and European culture. During his stay in Louisiana, he
remarked on the nativist sentiments the newcomer Americans felt towards the French
Creoles, providing a sense of the intractability between the two groups. He commented
that the Americans knew nothing more about the French than the proverb "French Dog,"
that they would not deign to learn the French language, which the whole Creole
community and government communicated in, and, worse yet, they behaved toward the
French "as if their lands as well as the inhabitants could be seized without ceremony."2
Between the years 1836 and 1852, the rift between the French and the English
escalated to such a point that the citizens of New Orleans forced the local government to
separate the city into three distinct municipalities, the first being the original French
Quarter neighborhood, the second, the American settlement west of the French Quarter,
1 Ashe, Golden Petticoats, qtd. in The World from Jackson Square, ed. Basso, 87.
2 Karl Postl, (Charles Sealsfield, pseud.), qtd. in Fossier, New Orleans: The Glamour Period, 280.
and the third, the area east of it. Animosity remained between the groups until a common
bond was created during the Civil War due to the new cause to rally behind, fighting for
the preservation of the Confederacy, and, perhaps more realistically, for the continuance
of slavery that would ideally keep labor cheap and white women safe from what was
feared might be vengeful attacks by black men. During the years following the
dissolution of the separate municipalities, the American elite in New Orleans deliberately
planted seeds of change that blossomed during the post-Civil War Carnival season,
changing the face of the festival in ways that are still seen today.
With their hard-won political positions in place throughout the city, the Americans
seized control of the Carnival from the inside out and made it a governmentally
sanctioned holiday. They injected their own cultural criteria into the already tangled
Creole-Catholic past of the city through law instead of custom, and through personal
politics instead of natural cultural progression. The politically and economically
empowered American men manifestly imposed themselves at the top of the social ladder
with the Creoles, to their chagrin, beneath them, and they relegated free people of color to
virtually the same social status as slaves. In a sense, the Anglo-American newcomers
became a mock royalty and created a new private realm for themselves within Carnival
time, imposing stronger prejudices on other classes and races than ever before seen in
New Orleans, expecting the women of their class to support them. An unprecedented and
conspicuous "us and them" mentality arose that trumped other previous social prejudices
harbored by the Creole population before the Americans arrived en force, and the original
settlers of New Orleans faced the possibility that their democratic folk festival would
collapse into a foreign controlled event deprived of its communal nature and strong
The Americans introduced the tradition of exclusivity of participation into the
public sphere in a clever way that sought to deceive the people into playing the part of
observers when previously they would involve themselves in whatever activities
interested them. Private Carnival "krewes," as they call themselves, appeared on the
streets displaying spectacular, themed parades for the masses to ogle at, but not
participate in. The Americans institutionalized their message-laden mobile theatrical
presentations with the help of fellow city officials who belonged to the krewes. New
bans on masking forced the public into less performative roles, making traditions of
revelry, misrule, and masquerading unofficial styles of celebration when participated in
by the masses, yet official if rendered by the private krewes who utilized the art of
masquerade to create anonymity for themselves. The freedoms that historically the elite
Creole women and upper-class free women of color enjoyed were truncated as they were
pushed into a more private social sphere of elite, official, invitation-only Carnival parties,
and to the sidelines of public parades. Privatization of Carnival events gained support
among both the American and Creole elites as their fears multiplied as forced federal
Reconstruction legislation transformed the city.
American apprehension that they would lose their newly won social and political
control found a performative stage for vocalization through the use of themes in parades
and balls staged by the elite American men. The arrogant American attempt to organize
the ancient folk festival is strikingly similar to the attempts made by the Catholic Church
to eradicate the pagan core of the Carnival eleven hundred years before. In both cases,
the public disorder, decadence, hierarchical role inversions, and sexual promiscuity
associated with Carnival offended the sensibilities of the conservative minorities, and,
either ironically or conveniently, their desires to harness and control the wild celebration
forced them to participate in it in order to effect change. To be sure, in both cases the
celebration was changed, but in neither case could the cultural interceptors fully control
it. Prophet-like in his comments, Sir Charles Lyell in 1846 wrote in his travelogue,
There was a grand procession parading the streets, almost everyone dressed in the
most grotesque attire ... in a variety of costumes The strangeness of the scene
was not a little heightened by the blending of Negroes, quadroons, and mulattoes in
the crowd; and we were amused by observing the ludicrous surprise, mixed with
contempt, of several unmasked, stiff, grave Anglo-American from the North, who
were witnessing for the first time what seemed to them so much mummery and
tomfoolery .... This rude intrusion struck me as a kind of foreshadowing of
coming events, emblematic of the violent shock which the invasion of the Anglo-
Americans is about to give the old regime of Louisiana.3
In 1856, The Bee was still reporting on the deterioration of the Mardi Gras holiday,
relaying to the public that "in old times, this was the greatest holiday in the whole year
round in the Crescent City, but of late years its observance has been gradually falling into
desuetude before the march of new people, customs, and religion."4 The Bee was
speaking of the Anglo-Americans and their well-known disenchantment with the Creole
style of celebrating Carnival. For years, the Americans had expressed their discontent
with the social customs of the city. Finally they took measures to reorganize the
celebration they had always associated with licentiousness and chaos.
3 Sir Charles Lyell, qtd. in The Worldfrom Jackson Square, ed. Basso, 139-140.
4 The Bee, February 6, 1856.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE NEW ORLEANS CARNIVAL
The year 1857 was definitive. It was in that year that the Anglos changed the way
the people of New Orleans celebrated the Carnival. Sir Lyell was correct in his 1846
premonitions of events to come. The old Creole regime was shocked as Carnival
traditions transformed before their very eyes and assumed an air of bureaucratic control
backed by Anglo-American city officials. Parades became consciously crafted,
selectively participated in, and wrapped up in overriding themes meant to enlighten the
masses to English customs and insult those considered too boorish to understand the
social commentary contained in the props and costumes embellishing the procession. As
a result, Carnival festivities became split between public and private affairs, between an
unofficial folk festival celebrated spontaneously on the streets and in saloons, and a
privatized, invitation-only set of events no longer open to the public.
An upper-class cohort of influential American Protestant men formed a secret
society for the purpose of taking over, improving, and reviving the Carnival in innovative
ways more suited to their tastes. What were their tastes? They would invite only their
own class and race to join, excluding most Creoles, and all women, blacks, Italians, and
Jews, insisting that membership be kept absolutely secret, not known to even their own
families and friends. They would present to the public an organized parade with a theme
lauding Puritan Protestantism intending to insult the Creoles and their lax and loose
Mardi Gras reveling, and they would create a tableau, privately staged at their ball held at
the Gaiety Theatre, again intended to dishonor and slight the French by displaying a sign
in flames that read, "Vive la Danse." There is one particular name associated with the
transformation that occurred on Fat Tuesday, February 24, 1857, and that name is
The elite krewe of Anglo men chose for their group the name Comus, necromancer
son of Bacchus and Circe, and title character of Puritan John Milton's masque, Comus, a
celebration, ironically, of chastity. Masques, a stylized form of drama, were
characterized by lavish spectacle. From the beginning, Comus exuded a Janus-like
presence. Publicly they introduced their krewe as a benevolent organization with the
intention of saving the people of New Orleans from hell on earth. According to Comus's
official history, published by the members of the Krewe themselves, the organization
began as a charitable gift to the city intending to bring dignity and orderliness to the
"crude and vulgar" manner in which the people tended to celebrate.2 But privately,
Comus played the cunning part of the Lord of Misrule, doling out a mythical "Orient
Liquor" that caused "foul disfigurement to those who ingested it." The krewe of Comus
hoped that their new Mardi Gras performance and the message that it expressed would
serve as an "Orient Liquor" for the Creoles to drink in an attempt to discredit their old
Carnival regime, thereby allowing the Americans to rise to the top of the social latter.
Times Picayune columnist James Gill commented in his book about the politics of
race during Carnival that Comus's real intention of starting a new Mardi Gras tradition
had more to do with the nativist sentiments of the krewe's founding members, rather than
their displeasure over the Creole's social domination of the festivities. He suggests that
1 For further information on the history of the Krewe of Comus, see Perry Young, The Mistick Krewe:
( i .. i,, of Comus and His Kin (New Orleans: Carnival Press, 1931).
2 One Hundred Years of Comus (New Orleans Public Library, 1947), 5-6.
Comus's concern over the rushes of German and Irish immigrants pouring into the city
persuaded them into "co-opting the masked ball, which once entertained all classes of
Creoles, and [Comus] made it an emblem for an emerging elite determined to keep the
rest of the population at one remove." Gill also explains that Comus was able to function
outside the boundaries of the law. He relays that the City Council conveniently adopted
an ordinance in 1857 making it illegal "to abuse, provoke, or disturb any person; to make
charivari [excessive noise], or to appear masked or disguised in the streets or in any
public place."3 The ordinance was imposed on the public as a means of assisting Mardi
Gras out of the state of decline it had fallen into over the past ten years, but in actuality, it
was a way for Comus to demonstrate its control over the entire populace by attempting to
regulate the ways the public could celebrate. Mayor Charles Waterman, a founding
Comus member, made sure that the krewe was exempt from these ordinances. He
ordered the police to clear the streets for the parading makers as they marched
(thumbing their noses at the law), as well as the public who they hoped would be forced
into idly watching the procession with no legal means of actively participating in it. At
this defining moment, Comus and its entourage, without saying a word, exhibited its new
ritual as the only "official" Carnival event, positioning this krewe as the sovereigns of the
citywide celebration. This particular event set a strong precedence for a dichotomy to
thrive between the public audience and the private participants, the unmasked masses and
the incognito Comus members. Privacy, in this case, became the luxury of the elite
Anglos, and relegated to the public realm were all those without the social standing,
racial criteria, or gender necessary to join the krewe. It represented an official attempt to
3 Gill, Lords ofMisrule, 46.
separate the city's elite men from the common classes. Contrary to the new official laws
banning many traditional means of celebrating, primarily masking, the February 16,
1858, edition of The Bee advertised a series of grand costume balls for the Carnival
season. On Ash Wednesday, 1859, a section of the same paper was devoted to
illustrations of the street makers whose costumes, "lacked in quality, not quantity,"
making it apparent that the public still entertained themselves on the streets and at other
balls, a further testament to the laxity of city officials to enforce laws concerning
Many women in the city found themselves at the mercy of the restrictions imposed
on their class or race. The high-society women fortunate enough to be affiliated with the
members of Comus and receive a non-transferable invitation to the ball found new roles
as audience, patiently waiting in the theater seats to be "called out" in order to dance with
the micromanaging members who allowed no one else the honor of enjoying a spin
around the dance floor other than those women they chose to partner with. Men other
than krewe members attended the fashionable balls, but none were granted the privilege
of partaking in dance. Instead, they had to sit and watch as their ladies were chosen by
unidentifiable men to be whirled around in waltzes. In fact, the exclusivity of the ball
was so obsessive that a $2000 reward was publicly offered for the return of two stolen
ball tickets.5 The effects of Comus's new tradition had only begun to take shape in the
years before the Civil War. Over the next ten years, Carnival would go through a
4 The Bee, February 16, 1858; The Bee, March 9, 1859.
5 The New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 28, 1877.
metamorphosis that would change the ways in which people viewed the celebration and
partook in it.
When the Civil War came, the new official Mardi Gras celebration was temporarily
suspended because the men who created it had now enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.
When the soldiers returned, the half-century of distressing relations between the Anglos
and Creoles began to fade due to cooperation against a shared enemy, the Union. Elite
Creoles gained entrance into the ranks of Comus, and together the elite whites of society
joined in a dual effort to reorganize Carnival and to suppress the carpetbagging
Reconstruction-fueled government and the black majority population of the city
adjusting to their new-found freedom. The white population in general, and the
krewemen in particular, were aggravated by the fact that blacks were immediately
enfranchised after emancipation, while Confederate troops returning to New Orleans
remained disenfranchised until they held their noses and swallowed an oath of allegiance
to the Union. Grace King's descriptions of emancipated slaves boldly loitering on the
banquettes, exhilarated by their freedom, and the outrage of white people being ordered
around by Negro Union soldiers leaves the impression of a city ready to erupt in passion
over the sudden change in command.6
White women were arrested on the streets for laughing at federal troops, singing
Confederate songs, refusing to walk down streets flying Union flags, and for spitting on
Union soldiers.7 In response, Union General Benjamin Butler issued the "Woman
Order" in 1862. It stated, "As the officers and soldiers have been subject to repeated
6 King, New Orleans: The Place and the People, 300.
SKing, New Orleans: The Place and the People, 308.
insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans, in return for the most
scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that here-after when
any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer
or soldier of the U.S., she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of
the town plying her avocation." He continued by complaining that, "We cannot walk the
streets without being outraged and spit upon by green girls," possibly an allusion to the
Irish women in the city.8
The Woman Order was issued only fifteen days after Butler arrived with his troops
to take military control of New Orleans. The interactions between the Union soldiers and
the women during those two weeks must have been intense and draining for such
measures to be taken. Butler and his men were not dealing with the common variety of
delicate southern women, but exceptionally strong and independent ones due to centuries
of wars, disease, and Carnival-time experiences that allowed women to taste true freedom
every year as they stepped outside of their social boundaries to explore other roles.
Women of all races and classes in New Orleans were forced to deal with the absence of
their husbands off fighting the war, as well as the enemy at their doorsteps, but the white
women felt doubly spurned. Along with separation anxiety, they also had to contend
with the manumitted slaves on the streets flaunting their new freedom. Butler walked
into a city in turmoil and might be considered lucky that he was only spat on, and not
shot by the Confederate women. Most likely, in response to Butler's order, no
respectable woman wished to be accused of appearing to ply a trade as a prostitute, but it
8 By Command of General Butler, General Order No. 28, Headquarters Department of the Gulf, New
Orleans, May 15, 1862.
is more likely that the order succeeded to the extent that it did because no New Orleans
woman wanted to be thrown in the enemy's jail.
By 1866, Comus was back on the streets for Mardi Gras with a scaled-down parade
and tableau ball. Bad years tend to inspire good Carnivals. Even a city occupied by
enemy forces could not suppress the people's need for a celebration of self-expression,
and over the period of the Reconstruction, the people made the most of the power of
satire to psychologically assault their enemies. White people dressed as freedmen dupes,
Republicans, and minstrels, black people dressed as hostile Indians, and everyone dressed
Edgar Degas visited the city in the winter of 1872-1873 and became well
acquainted with the internal affairs of Comus through his relative, Rene De Gas, member
of both Comus and the newly formed Crescent City White League, a parallel to the KKK.
The two organizations mixed methods, members, and locales. Edgar Degas found the
dual membership emblematic of the two-faced nature of the elites. Christopher Benfey,
author of the book, Degas in New Orleans, tells how Degas noticed with disgust that
"one secret society plotted festivity while the other plotted terrorism." Benfey continues
insightfully by saying, "Mardi Gras was as much a rest from politics as a continuation of
it by other means."10 Four new "official" krewes organized themed parades and private
9 For further information on Reconstruction Carnival costumes, see Gill, Lords of Misrule, 1997; Young
Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 1939; The Presbytere, New Orleans.
10 Christopher Benfey, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and
George Washington Cable (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Also, James Gill devotes two chapters to
events concerning the overlapping membership of men in Comus and the Crescent City White League,
titled, "The Krewes and the Klan," and "Honoring the White League Martyrs." For more information, see
Stuart Landry, The Battle ofLiberty Place (Gretna, LA: Pelican Press, 1955); Judith Schafer, "The Battle of
Liberty Place: A Matter of Historical Perception," transcript of a lecture given to the Louisiana Historical
Society, New Orleans, October 13, 1992.
balls between 1870 and 1882.11 For the purpose of understanding how Carnival in New
Orleans went from a pagan ritual with Catholic overtones celebrated democratically
throughout the city, to a watered-down version of the past with a new emphasis on
hierarchy, privatization, and monarchy all enacted by the new "official" Anglicized
krewes, the Krewe of Rex, formed in 1872, was perhaps the most important
representation of officialdom.
Similar to Comus, the Krewe of Rex manifested a dubious dual intention. With the
krewe's motto, Pro Bono Publico, King Rex proclaimed that he was for the good of the
people, and was literally given the keys to the city and the authority to shut down all city
offices and businesses on Mardi Gras day. This edict, originally issued by mock royalty,
became official New Orleans law. To this day, no government offices or schools are
open on Fat Tuesday. On the other hand, the Krewe of Rex insisted on the same
membership restrictions as the rest of the new Carnival organizations. Gill's comments
about the earliest formations of krewes include, "The clubmen and krewemen of New
Orleans had come to regard membership in a white-supremacist organization as a mark of
manhood and resistance to a northern government that sustained Negro and carpetbag
authority."12 It became a custom that every year the King of Rex would leave the
company of his ball, make a grand entrance into Comus's exclusive affair, and shake
hands with the other mock king in a show of solidarity and camaraderie.
According to The Presbytere, during Reconstruction, "general street masking came
to be seen as solely the diversion of poor people and African-Americans." The street
1 The Presbytere, the Crescent City's official Mardi Gras museum, considers Comus, Twelfth Night
Revelers, Rex, Momus, and Proteus, among a few others, the "official" nineteenth-century krewes.
12 Gill, Lords ofMisrule, 107.
makers were the representatives of the "unofficial" Carnival in the eyes of the museum;
they were what made the festivity a folk Carnival, the living links back to the origins of
the holiday. Karen Leathem, in her dissertation highlighting the roles of elite women
during nineteenth-century Carnival, explains that the unmasking of women began in the
1870s because the krewemen desired to be the only ones with the power of a secret
identity. She writes that the shift in women's Carnival ball attire from Carnivalesque
masquerading to societal raiment signaled an anxiety on the part of men. 13 Included in
the social disorientation that accompanied losing the war and the manumission of slaves
was a strengthened desire among white men to protect their women from the perceived
dangers of interacting with blacks, especially black men. Allowing women to masquerade
during a period of such social unrest conceivably could undermine the racial and class
separation that white men had fought for and continued to fight to preserve. Anonymity
not only meant that a person could become someone else for the purpose of archetypal
exploration, but also that a person could commit crimes or licentious acts anonymously.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the old pictures of the Krewe of Comus's costumes look
remarkably similar to the white sheets worn by the KKK. After the Civil War, the
official krewes enforced strict dress codes for their ball guests. Mandatory formal attire
meant that not just the women had to retain their own identities, as Leathem supposes,
but rather everyone in attendance except the krewe members. This double standard
meant that all the mischievousness and freedom of expression that is implicit in a hidden
identity became the private playground of the elitest of the elite.
13 Leathem, A Carnival According to Their Own Desires, 40-42.
There had always existed a tradition among the Creoles of holding "society" or
private balls, but the manner in which they did this differed greatly from the post-war
krewes. For instance, the ancient Carnival ritual of discovering and crowning Le Roi et
la Reine de la Feve, or the King and Queen of the Bean, meant that a large donut of a
cake with a bean hidden somewhere within it would be presented to the attendees of a
ball. Pieces of the confection would be cut and randomly distributed. Whomever found
the bean in their piece of cake gained the title of king or queen of that year's or week's
celebration, and they were responsible for choosing a mock royal mate to their liking, to
rule the party in a fool's fashion, and to host the next party that would set the ritual in
motion once again, assuring parties throughout the season or for the next year.14 The
Anglo krewes showed no such sense of randomness or playfulness when choosing who
among them would be King. The lucky Lord was appointed by the Captain of the Krewe,
the latter a position that did not annually change, and this tradition has existed in the old-
line Krewes ever since.15 Queens were not part of the ritual equation of the official
krewes until the turn of the twentieth century, and even then the woman selected to reign
was chosen from among the high-society debutantes. Official krewe queens wielded no
real power except to indirectly glorify the King they were attached to and serve as a
proud representative of the family they belonged to.
At around the turn of the twentieth century, Storyville prostitutes started to
lampoon the elite institution of appointing royalty to reign over balls by choosing queens
14 Young, Carnival andMardi Gras in New Orleans, 9; The Presbytere, New Orleans.
15 Encyclopaedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, Social Sciences, New
Orleans Mardi Gras Krewes, http://glbtq.com/social-sciences/new_orleans_mgk.html (last accessed June 6,
for their soirees from among the most popular of the leading girls of the district. In his
well documented book about Storyville, Al Rose includes an article from the Mardi Gras
edition of the 1906 Sunday Sun that reported on "The French Ball and the probable
candidates for the Queen Title."16 "French Ball" was another name for a gala hosted by
prostitutes, an event essentially representing everything that the elite krewemen wanted to
shield their women from. The French Balls made a mockery of the conservative and
structured official balls by choosing loose women to reign over the event as Queens of
the Demi-Monde, in contrast to the carefully selected unsullied debutante queens of the
upper classes, and by allowing everyone to wildly dance and cavort in full costume and
mask. Once again, the prostitutes aided in the preservation of the act of inverting social
roles, an essential element of Carnival magic.
16 Rose, Storyville, New Orleans, 62.
REVISITING THE CREOLE PAST: WOMEN COLLECTIVELY RECLAIM THE
Reconstruction ended in 1877 and, after fourteen years under a "foreign"
government, New Orleanians regained control of their local politics in a changed city.
Quadroon balls and the protective placage system they offered was fading fast, and inter-
racial relationships historically condoned in the city had become frowned upon in the
postbellum years. Evidence of the declining social position of blacks in New Orleans is
reported in the work of Alecia Long in her carefully documented case of a mulatto former
slave named Adeline Stringer and her long love affair with white merchant Joe Mathis.
In 1885, after living with Adeline for several years in many different locations around the
city, Mathis found himself in a personal quandary. At once he felt like he could not live
without Adeline, yet he also felt the societal pressure for whites to cease their centuries-
old custom of living as life-partners with blacks. He wrote to Adeline, "if we live
together it must be outside of New Orleans." Long comments that, "Joe's conundrum
suggests that the informal demands and decisions made by individuals struggling to shape
the city's postbellum sexual culture laid the foundation for the legal sanctions against
such relationships that would follow."1
Free people of color likely suffered the most by the loss of the war by the South
because that meant the loss of their unique social status somewhere between white and
slave. As Jim Crow laws made their way into the city, in the eyes of the whites, the
1 Long, The Great Southern Babylon, 40, 42.
elegant quadroons and wealthy colored land-owners and former slave-owners became no
different than any other black person. Come the twentieth century, Carnival would
become a performance stage for blacks protesting the legalized discrimination whites
forced on them. Numerous black marching krewes and Carnival clubs developed, starting
at the beginning of the century, to function as a social release for racist standards and
laws in the city. Black women dressed as baby dolls and Mardi Gras Indian queens to
march through the streets, new black music began attracting even the most conservative
of white ears, and strong black walking and parading krewes emerged onto the Carnival
scene, the most notable and influential being the Krewe of Zulu, who eventually staged
yearly community elections to decide their kings and queens of the Zulu parade.
Evidence of mounting anxiety among white men about white women's liberated
behavior is found in parade themes of the early 1880s. The Krewe of Momus, the
younger relatives of the Krewe of Comus, constructed a whole parade, floats and all,
around ruling women of the past. Each famous woman they chose to spotlight had
somehow created her own downfall. Given that the purpose of Carnival parades began as
vehicles for social commentary, the underlying message depicting women as inadequate
leaders is telling at a time when women are collectively reaching for more respect,
independence, and rights. Another official Krewe, the Phunny Phorty Phellows, also
accosted women's growing independence with the parade theme, "Ye Women Fair, a
Farce." Women witnessed these insulting theatrical presentations and finally took actions
to subvert the hierarchical system of the private, "official" Carnival krewes that promoted
elite white male superiority. They turned the tables on the men in both the public and
private spheres of Carnival in the true spirit of the celebration. It did not take eighty-plus
years after the Civil War for women to "appear alongside and equal to men in a few
Mardi Gras clubs," as Ryan asserts, instead it started happening before the end of the
Mary Ryan suggests that the few female figures behind the scenes of elite civic
ceremonies in the late nineteenth century did not "lead a female assault on the public
sphere," instead she sees their roles as likely "diverting women from demanding full
citizenship in their own right .. carrying intimations of privacy and passivity that tended
to disguise the interests specific to their gender position."3 Here Ryan neglects giving
credit to the influential steps women did take towards transforming their social status
from under-representation in government matters to consciously seeking to expand their
roles in the public eye. She also disregards many contrary examples of elite women's
explicit roles in the public ritual called Carnival. The Presbytere offers examples of
several women employed in the late nineteenth century by the official krewes to design
and build costumes and floats for the bewitchingly themed parades, all of whom must
have possessed a relatively clear vision of the theatrical metamorphosis that the men
wished to create as evidenced by the parades' yearly successes. If it is true that the
majority of upper-class women of the time embodied the Victorian gender stereotypes
Ryan imagines women acquiesced to, then certainly Carnival would represent an
opportunity for them to cast their everyday roles aside, allowing them to assume alternate
personas in order to invoke the true spirit of the celebration. Role inversion,
transformation, transgression, and time transcendence are all readily available
2 Ryan, Civic Wars, 251.
3 Ryan, Civic Wars, 251.
possibilities conjured through participation in the Carnival, and women often understood
and seized the opportunity to remodel themselves and project their desires and concerns
onto the community through fantastic decorating and masquerading.
In 1896, the first known all women's Carnival organization, Les Mysterieuses, was
born. These upper-class women had traditionally participated as attendants at the elite
Carnival balls, and after many years of watching and waiting to dance in stuffy evening
wear while the krewemen mischievously reveled in full costumes, they decided to invade
the men's exclusive and secretive sphere and invert it upon them. The concept of
mystery implied in their name signified to their guests that they alone would claim the
right to fully conceal their identities, while all others in attendance would remain
revealed. Les Mysterieuses did not parade; however, they staged a lavish ball on two
consecutive leap years that reversed the gender roles that had been imposed on female
guests at men's balls since the time of the Civil War. In further imitation of the men's
krewes, an incognito queen was internally selected to rule the ball and pick a king of her
choosing while the other krewe women kept their identities well hidden in order to cavort
and misbehave without consequence. These were conscious choices that conspicuously
expressed exclusionary forms of representation traditionally reserved for members of the
men's krewes who were suddenly forced to dress in formal evening wear with no
costume to hide behind, or else they were refused entry.4
The revival of women's merrymaking through masquerading in the late nineteenth-
century represented a revitalization of the pagan spirit at the heart of the Carnival
celebration that elite Anglo men had been unrealistically trying to possess and control
4 Arthur LaCour, New Orleans Masquerade, 199; The Presbytere, New Orleans.
since before the Civil War. Les Mysterieuses challenged men's zealously guarded
hierarchy, exposed its weaknesses of unequal participation, and metaphorically sent it
tumbling to the ground. The men did not abandon their elite yearly tableaux balls, but
now the tradition was opened for women to simulate and fully participate in as well. In
general, the last decade of the nineteenth-century signaled a new era for women to
participate in the Carnival celebration in ways similar to old Creole times, but also in
ways more evolved. Les Mysterieuses only lasted until 1900, but their impression
endured, evinced by the many other all women's krewes that followed in their wake
including The Mittens and Les Inconnues in 1901, the Mystic Maids in 1906, the Krewe
of Yami in 1911, and the Krewes of Iris and Les Marionettes in 1922, and in 1942, the
Krewe of Venus was the first all women's parade to roll across the city equipped with
floats, a full twenty years before Ryan claims women appeared on the streets during
Carnival in a position equal to men. Several groups of black women also formed their
own krewes in the 1920s including the Red Circle, Young Ladies 23, and the Mystic
Especially for whites during Carnival season, the end of the nineteenth century
heralded a time that emphasized mirth rather than mourning the loss of the war. White
women of all classes joined the revelry on the streets and began reclaiming their right to
freely express themselves in true Carnival spirit, reviving a method of release that had not
openly existed for them inclusively since the antebellum era. The Merrie Bellions, "a
right and jolly set of Belles and Beaux they were," paraded the streets in full pagan
regalia pulling behind them a single float titled, "Ye Fantastic Lunatics of the New Isms. .
5 For a comprehensive listing of 100 years of Mardi Gras Krewes, see LaCour, New Orleans
. Suffragism, Aestheticism, Shakerism, Bloomerism," a piece of social commentary
intended to inform, or perhaps warn, the public of the extreme "isms" many organized
groups felt compelled to proselytize.6 After decades of physical and psychological
detachment from the people on the streets, elite Creole and Anglo women no longer
subscribed to the belief that concealing their identity through masquerade transmuted
them into prostitutes and gens du commun. Women found courage and strength en masse
from joining the public work force, augmenting urban and industrial growth, and
partaking of slowly expanding educational opportunities. Prostitutes continued to march
on the streets in no small numbers during Carnival demanding public attention,
consideration as an economic force, and changes in the laws concerning taxation of their
occupation. The Presbytere claims that, as of 1910, women of many stripes were all over
the streets at Carnival in full costume, traveling in groups, and often carrying whips to
keep aggressive male revelers at a distance. By the turn of the twentieth-century, women
of all classes and races had reclaimed the streets in full force, restoring in part the Creole
Carnival past by liberating elite women from the private sphere of the celebration. This,
in turn, liberated all women from the social reproach of the elite men aimed at the
boisterous "unofficial" Carnival customs traditionally participated in by the whole
6 New Orleans Daily States, February 6, 1884.
From its beginnings, the Carnival in New Orleans existed simultaneously as a
public and a private affair celebrated by the different classes and races in a variety of
ways that changed and evolved over time. The celebratory roles available to women
throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries depended much more on their class
and race than on their gender. In the historiography of New Orleans's Mardi Gras,
Mikhail Bakhtin's name is often found in academic bibliographies for his interpretations
concerning the social meanings behind the Carnival celebration. To Bakhtin, "The
Carnivalesque crowd in the marketplace or in the streets is not merely a crowd. It is the
people as a whole, but organized in their own way, the way of the people. It is outside of
and contrary to all existing forms of the coercive socioeconomic and political
organization which is suspended for the time of the festivity."1 As Bakhtin did not figure
in the reality of laws, political trends, and socio-cultural influences affecting people's
styles and parameters of celebration, Ryan, utilizing the same quote, failed to see how
closely Bakhtin's definition fit New Orleans's unique population, more often than not
allowing women to fully participate "in the way of the people."2
Virtually all Carnival traditions developed and transpired in the public sphere
throughout the colonial and antebellum eras. It was not until the end of the Civil War
1 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, (Bloomington: University of Indiana
Press, 1984), 255.
2 Ryan, Women in Public, 20.
that elite women got their first taste of the private side of Carnival under the coercive
direction of the newly established official Anglo Carnival krewes. The original New
Orleanians had openly supported Carnival reveling in all its glory since the earliest days
of the colony, and it was not until after the Louisiana Purchase that a significant Anglo-
American population moved to the city and felt obliged to change the celebration to
reflect their Puritan sensibilities. Elite white men, in fear of losing their newly-won
powerful status in the city's society and government, took actions to change and control
the lax Creole- style Carnival celebration that promoted intermixing of all races, classes,
and sexes. Following the tumultuous period in the city between the late 1840s and the
1850s, the conservative northern newcomers seized the opportunity in 1857 to transform
the face of Mardi Gras by utilizing a performative and message-laden civic parading style
commonly seen during other holidays in nineteenth-century New Orleans and in other
parts of the nation. Since the majority of women in New Orleans, regardless of race or
class, lived a public lifestyle that included promenading on the streets and the levees, and
frequenting the taverns and coffeehouses on a daily basis, the mid to late nineteenth-
century social opprobrium associated with identity concealment and public revelry during
Carnival did not create the same effect of privatization on them as it did on the elite
upper-class minority of women. From the time that the ancient pagan Carnival
celebrations commenced, full community participation was integral. Women could not be
omitted or the essential purpose of the ritual would be lost. Since festivals of inversion
are ubiquitous throughout time and space among humanity, they serve as events that
equalize. Women are necessary as Carnival participants and cannot escape integrating
and transforming the meanings of the events around them.
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I began my undergraduate degree at the University of Florida in 1992. Originally
my goal was to attain a degree in psychology to aid in the process of healing my
community, myself included. Through my coursework in the field of psychology it
became obvious to me that many ideas and social constructs I had learned earlier in life
and believed wholeheartedly were often false, misleading, or incomplete, and with that
understanding came a desire to expand my consciousness and seek out the
interconnectedness between seemingly unrelated disciplines. I wanted to figure out how
to make my life more real, honest, and complete, and bring that knowledge into my work
with the community. Studying the psyche was not answering my spiritual questions.
In the winter of 1993, I attended my first Carnival in New Orleans. In those few
days I learned more about myself than I had in all the years leading up to that experience.
I suddenly knew that the intuitions I felt about the multifaceted nature of the individual
and society were cornerstones in understanding life. I suddenly knew that nothing is
permanent and that we are not bound by the clothes we wear, the roles we play, or the
thoughts we have. I have not missed a Carnival since then, and every year I am affirmed
that I can become anyone that I want to be and that no one is truly bound by their pasts or
I went on to earn not only a degree in psychology from the University of Florida,
but also a minor in religion with an emphasis on esoteric knowledge. Over fourteen years
I moved back and forth from Gainesville to New Orleans four times due to my
fascination with the Southern Louisiana city, its people, and the unique cultural heritage
of the region. In 2002, I moved back to Gainesville once again to work on a master's
degree, but this time in American history. I wanted to study New Orleans, but more
specifically I wanted to study what makes New Orleans so unique and otherworldly.
Among the many reasons I continue to find for the magic that lives in New Orleans, the
Carnival is at the top of the list. The Carnival is now a continuous part of my life and my
thesis is simply a natural reflection of my love for and fascination with the ancient ritual
that lives on in the Crescent City.