Something had to be done. The city's psyche was dismal after four years of death and destruction, of seeing her young men marched off to their deaths in faraway battlefields, after invaders churned up the waters of the bay and set about occupying her streets and homes.

One man knew just the remedy, if he could only get away with it. Joseph Stillwell Cain, a 33-year-old native Mobilian, was certainly endangering his job as a clerk were he to be caught by the patrolling soldiers. The Alabama port town was militarily occupied in the last years of the Civil War and the attendant malaise of war-wrought depression kept the citizenry in doldrums. Cain recalled the public frivolity of his youth, the parades that lightened the hearts of Mobilians every winter.

It was two years before Cain's birth when Mobile businessman Michael Krafft and some friends launched the Cowbellion de Rakin Society with an impromptu procession through the nighttime streets. The celebration originally centered New Years and Twelfth Night observances and before long the Cowbellions gave birth to a brood of like organizations. So impressive were the string of balls and events, New Orleanians sought tutelage on the application of the festivities to their own Carnival activities. But Mobiles frivolities had fallen by the wayside since the United States troops arrived in 1864.  Cain meant to change all of that. Following an evening dinner in downtown, Cain recruited a few friends to join his rebellion of mirth. The clerk fashioned a makeshift Chickasaw Indian costume together and dubbed himself Chief Slacabarominico, the leader of a fictional band of natives from the depths of Wragg Swamp. On Mardi Gras, the rebels donned their disguises and rolled a coal wagon through the streets to the astonished smiles of locals and the perplexed gaze of the soldiers. While there were orders in place to quell any direct opposition to the occupation by locals, the troops knew not what to make of this latest spectacle.

The Union militia didn't realize the backhanded insult in the presence of the Chickasaw costume as the tribe reputedly had never been defeated or surrendered in war. The natives, though, caught the inference. The next year Cain once again paraded as Chief Slac and his ex-Confederate accomplices dubbed themselves the Lost Cause Minstrels, ghosts of the past blaring horns and drums to those who watched the preocession. Other homages to the Antebellum South remain littered across Mardi Gras through contemporary times, symbols like the broken column that appears in various societies; seals and floats. Cains revival of Carnival mirth grabbed hold of the public imagination and blossomed. Joe and his first band of paraders, eventually called The Tea Drinkers, remained in place until 1883. Joe went on to become the legendary father of a number of Mardi Gras Orders, including the Order of Myths, one of Mardi Gras most prominent groups and Mobiles modern Father of Frivolity paraded every year until his death.

Joe married Elizabeth Rabby and moved onto land in Bayou La Batre owned by her family. There they built a Victorian home beneath the oaks and raised six children on the estate. Mardi Gras, too, grew from his efforts, surpassing the spectacles staged in the decades before the war.

When Cain passed away in 1904, he was buried in a humble grave in Bayou La Batres Odd Fellows Cemetery. Elizabeth joined him three years later. In the mid-1960s, Mobile writer Julian Lee Rayford decided Cain deserved more acclaim and credit for the festivities that had grown to become the center of Mobile life since the clerks Reconstruction-era coal wagon ride. Rayford began to haunt the Bayou, talking with Cain descendants and other locals. In 1967, Rayford stated his case from the pages of The Courier, Bayou La Batres newspaper. Julian pegged Cain as probably the most prominent social figure on the entire sweep of the Gulf Coast, and felt the grand pater of Mobile mysticism to be plunged into oblivion and deliberately forgotten.

Like Cain, Rayford had plans to bring new festivities to the Azalea City. He wanted to dig up Joe and Elizabeth, transfer them to Church Street Graveyard in Mobile and make Cain the center of an annual celebration. The Cain descendants weren't initially enthusiastic, but Rayford was relentless. After much prodding, the family agreed. On Sunday, Feb. 6, 1967, the remains were disinterred and made the trek north. The Excelsior Band dutifully accompanied the procession along with a revivalist;s interpretation of Chief Slac. Fittingly, Rayford was laid to rest beside Cain in 1980. The other activities for the day pledged to Cain's memory included what was dubbed a peoples procession, a parade dedicated to the common citizenry of the Port City. Anyone who desired was welcome the join the parade since it was designed as the antithesis of the exclusive and secretive societies who had become the norm in Mardi Gras. Anyone was welcome to decorate any manner of transportation and roll along the route.

The celebration quickly gained popularity, but grew unmanageably large after a few years. City leaders felt it wise to limit the number of entrants to 36 and there the number remains today despite the original intentions of the organizers. Unavoidably, societies have formed among the parading attendants but they still strive to keep a looser, less stiff atmosphere to matters. However, the procession is still lead by Chief Slac and a bevy of black-bedecked women known as Joe Cains Merry Widows. The grieving widows, whose identities are one of the more closely guarded secrets of the Mobile Carnival phenomenon, follow the days opening procession to Church Street Graveyard to pay their respects. An amount of sniping is often overheard between the widows as they playfully argue over whom Cain loved best. Following the short graveside ritual, the widows retire to Cains legendary home at 906 Augusta St., to revel before the early afternoon parade.

The jubilation is apparently infectious. In the early 1990s, a pair of visitors were so impressed by the proceedings they began their own version back home in Nevada City, Cal.. The picturesque gold rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills boasts Victorian architecture that melds well with the pre-Lenten traditions and the Golden State folks have added their own twist to the proceedings. Cains Merry Widows are present, but their form is a bit different. Rather than the traditionally Southern names their Mobile counterparts select-Sue Ellen, Georgia and the like-the California women are found of whimsical monikers like Lyda and Nova.

In another variation, the West Coast widows channel much of their energies into philanthropy with proceeds from the events heading to charities. The good that falls from those efforts is a noble and far-reaching effect for a meager city clerk who simply wanted lighten a few hearts.