‘No reason to mourn’: Merry Widows of Joe Cain takes on Mobile Mardi Gras tradition

Michelle Williams didn’t know what to expect when she traveled more than an hour from her home in Washington County to Church Street Cemetery in downtown Mobile on Sunday.

Despite persistent rain and cold weather, Williams walked away from the cemetery with a big smile after a group of women – all dressed in black dresses and black veils to hide their identities – argued over who their “ beloved Joe” loved the most.

“On my scale of one to 10, that’s a 15,” Williams, 63, said. “I think it’s the most divine thing. It’s wonderful. I’ll be back.”

Joe Cain’s Merry Widows were officially back as part of the traditional Joe Cain Day festivities which were postponed last year due to COVID-19.

Widows – with names such as “Isabelle”, “Georgia” and “Savannah” – traditionally gather at Church Street Cemetery and Cain’s Grave on Joe Cain’s Day which is celebrated on the Sunday in Mobile before Shrove Tuesday. .

The Widows and their visit to the historic cemetery have been an integral part of Mobile’s Mardi Gras tradition since 1974.

“It’s weird but it’s a lot of fun,” said Bill Day, 72, of Orange Park, Florida, who has seen the widows at the cemetery on several occasions. “That’s one of the reasons we come, just to see the widows and of course Joe Cain Day.”

The widows arrived in a chartered bus at Church Street Cemetery shortly after 11 a.m., but postponed their solemn march to the headstones of Cain and Julian Rayford for about half an hour as heavy rain poured down on Mobile .

The rain has created a dark occasion that has long been part of the widows’ schtick. But after last year’s postponement, Chastity Mauter, 45, and her family were ready to have fun.

“I think everyone is excited to get Mardi Gras back and get out there,” Bay Minette’s Mauter said. “No reason to mourn. Joe Cain would like them to celebrate.

Of course, before the widows started their celebratory dance in the cemetery and threw black beads and flowers to the spectators, it was necessary to pay their respects.

Each year, by tradition, the Widows gather at the tombstones of the two men forever linked to the celebration of Joe Cain Day:

  • Cain, whose story has been debated in Mobile and beyond for years, is credited with revitalizing the city’s Mardi Gras festivities after the Civil War in 1868. What is known is that Cain dressed in a checkered skirt and headdress and paraded through the streets of the city. Mardi Gras celebrating Mardi Gras Day in front of the citizens and remaining Union Army occupation troops. Cain died in 1904.
  • Rayford, a local folklorist, played an important role in reviving Cain’s story in the 1960s, after fighting for 11 years to have Cain’s body exhumed from a cemetery in Bayou La Batre and moved to Church Street Cemetery. In 1966, Rayford managed to bring Cain’s skull back to town in his coat pocket. Rayford’s antics led to the first “procession” which continues to be the highlight of Joe Cain Day afternoons.

Related: Why Joe Cain Day, For 50 Years, Is Mobile Only

“I’m Joe’s favourite,” said Josie, one of the widows whose face and identity are completely covered in a black veil.

Abby Bryant, 28, of Mobile, first saw the widows at the cemetery two years ago, in 2020. She said the whole event “was a little scary” because she didn’t know how to what to expect when the widows arrived all in black.

“I got a little scared,” Bryant said.

During the 2020 event, revelers were allowed inside the cemetery to watch the widows up close. But the police who were present on Sunday kept the spectators behind the entrance gate of the cemetery. An officer told local media that the 2020 gathering had too many people inside the cemetery at once, and some of the widows complained that attendees were groping them.

There were no problems at this year’s event as people seemed happy to partake in the old traditions, even though the weather was not cooperating.

For Williams, seeing Widows for the first time represents a new Mardi Gras tradition that she will participate in at future Joe Cain Days.

“All moaning at once really makes you think they are,” she said. “I love them. I want to be one someday.

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