Col. Curtis Alexander, friend of the famous Wild West showman nicknamed Buffalo Bill, marched in full "Indian scout" regalia down the streets of Biloxi. He was followed by all manner of interesting folks, including George Washington reliving his famous crossing of the Delaware River, and the Egyptian god Thoth.
A young Native American maiden held a broken pot, Bacchus bestowed his good spirits, a giant moose walked through the woods and every kid with a bicycle had decorated it and joined this odd procession of chariots, buggies and wagon beds magically transformed into the unimaginable. Even an old log cabin rolled down the street.
In this land of temporary nonsense and just one league from Ship Island, German submarine 999-UL bombed the Royal Yacht Fannie, but King Argius V was unscathed.
"It is generally believed in this city however, that the attack on the vessel occupied by King Argius V, who has heretofore been regarded as sublimely neutral, is likely to start another war."
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But that didn't happen, not unless a war of revelry counts, and the next day this newspaper megaphoned in a headline: "Biloxi's Fifth Annual Mardi Gras Passes Out In a Blaze of Glory."
Today we take another time machine trip to 1916, a century ago, when the Mississippi Coast witnessed three organized Mardi Gras parades, with two in Biloxi and one in Pass Christian. The other towns of the Mississippi Coast had street maskings and balls but these two towns decided they wanted their citizens celebrating at home rather than boarding trains for Mobile and New Orleans parades.
The earliest Coast parades
The Coast in 1916 was in its Carnival infancy. Of course, Mardi Gras Day had been observed since 1699, when the men of King Louis XIV were here, exploring and claiming the land. But the celebration we know today as Mardi Gras had yet to be honed into perfection, or as some might say, into excess.
New Orleans and Mobile get credit for fashioning ancient European traditions into something uniquely and excessively American, but from Day One the Mississippi Coast is a part of that story.
The history, mindset and common cultural threads of the developing coastal sections of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama were and still are woven into one fabric. Mardi Gras is integral to that fabric.
It was only a matter of time before Bay St. Louis, the Pass, Gulfport, Ocean Springs and other Coast communities started celebrating Carnival in the riotous manner of their flanking big sister cities of New Orleans and Mobile. Today more than 22 Coast organizations and communities stage processions.
Early Coast parades
The first-known Coast parades were in Biloxi in the 1890s, always surprising and sporadic processions of maskers, a few "floats" and music. In 1911-1912, Biloxians decided to get serious about parading and formed umbrella organizations, the end result being Gulf Coast Carnival Association. The first "official" Biloxi parade was in 1912.
Unless more history is uncovered -- and that's always possible -- the second city to join the parade bandwagon was Pass Christian in 1914. The Pass would stage parades for a handful more years, but then concentrate on the royal balls until the 1950s when parading became a Pass mainstay under the St. Paul Carnival Association.
On March 7, 1916
So now we ride the time machine to 1916, when the train and trolley companies bring thousands of men women and children from across the Coast to witness the parades in these two cities. In 1916 the flip-flopping Mardi Gras Day date is March 7.
The social columns of this newspaper, then called The Daily Herald, were filled with names of locals heading to New Orleans and Mobile to celebrate, but not nearly as many names as in previous years. Now, the Coast had its own parading royalty and reasons to stay.
In the Pass, the royalty was King Arthur II (Julius Hayden) and the queen was Miss Forrest Lee Springs. The Pass Christian Mardi Gras Association, as it was called, didn't have a queen for its first parade in 1914 but that was remedied for this parade.
Costumes were described as "rich and gorgeous," and a large royal court befit the city's social register. The Pass parade rolled at noon, followed by a masquerade ball at night.
"The floats represented the New England States, the Middle States, Dixie and the Western States," reported the Herald, "to which was added the king's beautiful float and an exquisite one representing 'Pass Christian'; At the head rode Grand Marshal Jack Robinson, the designer and builder of the floats, followed by the flag bearer waving an immense American flag."
Such displays of patriotism are to be expected with World War I raging and each day becoming more clear that the U.S. would officially enter the fight. That's no doubt why the Herald ran the spoof article on a German submarine taking pot-shots at the Biloxi yacht that carried that city's royalty. Earlier, the newspaper had published his majesty's edict:
"That all citizens are requested to display royal colors of purple, green and gold and also the patriotic colors of red, white and blue from all public buildings, stores and residences..."
Biloxi always the MG leader
In Biloxi, the 1916 royalty was King Argius V (popular educator Prof. R.P. Linfield) and Queen Ixolib V (Mamie E. Lewis, daughter of a city leader). Biloxi's king did not yet carry the historic name of Iberville, the French explorer whose ships on Mardi Gras Day in 1699 were anchored off Ship Island.
Biloxi staged two parades on Mardi Gras Day, with the evening parade being, if possible, more spectacular than the morning one. Schools closed even back then. Merchants (some grudgingly, some willingly) bellied up with the money to pay for it, and donors names were listed in the paper, a ploy to get more to donate.
This was a famous year for floats, for noted artist Salvadore Navarro designed the floats. Music included the Gulfport Band and the Herald Band, and cadets at Gulf Coast military Academy donned their finest to march. At least 11 fraternal organizations, including Woodmen, Elks and Redmen, had floats, and Police Chief Louis Staehling and officers were at the front of the line.
Folks who know their local history will recognize the movers and shakers who worked to make the 1916 parades a success: Hunt, Lewis, Hagan, Weiss, Kimbrough, Hahn, Kennedy, Barq, Glennan, Halat, Goldman, Grant, Kennedy, Desporte, Keller, Gorenflo, Rushing, Bellande, to name a few.
In addition to local dollars to stage this extravagance, snowbirds (Northerners who wintered here, chief among them the Nebraskan Wild West showman Alexander) and assorted "tourists" contributed to the parade kitty. Mardi Gras fever was as infectious a century ago as it is now, as explained by Linfield, the thoughtful professor turned king for a day.
The Herald summed up Linfield's thoughts: "He believed it right and proper that people of Biloxi should celebrate a day such as Mardi Gras. Children love their toys and their marbles and their games, he said, and after all, men are but children of a large growth and delight in those things which are considered childish, but which are essential for the growth of mature beings."
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-45667.