During the occupation of the city by the Spanish, Carnival and Mardi Gras were outlawed in the city, forcing the Creoles to take their celebrations back into their homes for private observances. Open masking returned to the streets in 1821, but by then the old traditions had been so long gone from the consciousness of the city that the festivities began to decline. Several generations had passed without Carnival in the streets, and the old rules were long forgotten. For a few decades, masquers went around on foot, in carriages, or on horseback with relatively little incident. The first documented parade was held in 1837, but others did not follow. By the 1840's, the baser elements of Carnival began to show as the last of those who remembered the celebrations of the French Occupation died away. Mardi Gras in the 1840's through most of the 1850's would conjure horrible images of crimes committed day and night, of beatings in the streets, pickpocketing, and things too awful to mention. Indeed there was an area of the city called The Swamp into which no lawman would enter on Mardi Gras, but would enter with the entire force on Ash Wednesday. Their yearly mission; to collect the bodies in the streets and get out.
By 1856, spurred on by the increasingly bad image and growing roster of unsolvable crimes, the newspapers began to call for the Mayor and even the Governor to put an end to Carnival in New Orleans. Mardi Gras was very nearly banned once and for all, and might have been had it not been for a sextet of New Orleans gentlemen who stepped in with a new way to keep Carnival as a holiday for everyone.
These six businessmen, transplants from Mobile, Alabama, had been in an organization there called the Cowbellion de Rakin. This group had been parading with floats on New Year's Eve since 1831 with great success. Their plan was to introduce the Cowbellion style of wholesome celebration to New Orleans with lavishly decorated floats and lushly costumed riders. After a meeting at Pope's Pharmacy uptown in December, a secret meeting was called in the Gem Cafe on Royal Street on 4 January 1857 to plan the first parade. From this miraculous happening came the very first New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe, The Mystick Krewe of Comus. Comus hit the streets on Mardi Gras day, February 24th, 1857. This is considered the birth of modern New Orleans Mardi Gras! The theme of the first parade was The Demon Actors in Milton's Paradise Lost, in costumes borrowed from a touring theatrical production. From the moment the first float rolled, several important Mardi Gras traditions were born:
Carnival organizations began to be referred to as krewes, and were to be secret societies; marchers and floats were brought together under a unifying theme; and grand bal masques were held afterwards. These traditions continue up to this day.
Next up, new krewes appear, and Mardi Gras attracts legitimate royalty!