How Prohibition Affected Mardi Gras 1921
It had taken three years of agonizing patience, but the good fight was finally over: Mardi Gras was set to make its return. Since World War I had begun, Carnival had been suspended by the Mystick Krewe of Comus due to U.S. involvement with the conflict. With the war’s closing, the festivities were back on. But as the night of Carnival drew closer and closer, a storm began to brew in the background.
The first blow to the Mardi Gras of 1920 came in the form of fire. On the night of December 4, 1919, as flames raged through the building, the symbol of high society in the French Quarter, the French Opera House, crumbled to the ground. And with only ashes remaining, it seemed especially mocking that, on the day of Mardi Gras’ return, it rained on all those in attendance. It was as if the final spirits of Mardi Gras had been doused. But while the citizens may have gotten wet that day, on the inside they were dry. For there was no alcohol to liven the mood and drown their sorrows away.
Weeks prior to Carnival, the Eighteenth Amendment had gone into effect, beginning the nearly fifteen year period of Prohibition. But to understand how such an act became signed into constitutional law, one must look back in time. During the late stages of the nineteenth century, the Temperance Movement had begun making traction across the nation. The campaign placed the fault of people’s negative morality on alcohol of all ages and drafts, stating that “God would no longer bless the United States.” With support from more than 200,000 members and key influencers like the Progressive Movement, the group became politically active. The group eventually found its ultimate victory in the passing of this Constitutional Amendment.
Known commonly as ‘Dry’ Law, it swept through the country like a biting whirlwind. Waves of arrests soon followed. In New Orleans itself, the new Saloon Law was hitting just as hard. Only days before Mardi Gras had there already been several jailings, with some of these locations being forced to close their doors. Officials working for “Gulf Division” of the prohibition enforcers even stated that they would be ramping up their efforts and “vigorously [enforcing]” the law. With the specter of such enforcement, it was no wonder that alcohol made no appearance at the parade grounds for Mardi Gras’ return, much to its detriment. Even the arrival of General Pershing to be crowned “Duke of Victory” by King Rex was not enough to revive the people’s morale.
More optimistic people believed that Carnival could make a recovery. It had only been a bad year, they could always try again. In the eyes of some, it was even “a success.” But to most others, the festivities were dead. The passing of Prohibition tolled the funeral bell of Mardi Gras and the brewery wagons’ departure was its procession.
And if that wasn’t enough, if any hope remained for Carnival, what followed over the course of that year threatened to kill that which remained. The law made good on its promise, with raids conducted often to ensure the ‘safety’ of the public. But this did not mean that the public didn’t get its own victories in. One of the more notable of these instances was that of Jack Sheehan. Working as a club owner, he managed to dodge the law with the help of “Judge Foster, who had famously lifted the Wartime Prohibition Act for one week”. Despite the nearly $50,000 worth of liquor found by the authorities, Sheehan was a free man and he even “threw a party to celebrate.”
But stories of glory like Sheehan’s would not be enough to satisfy the citizens of New Orleans. They may be able to drink all they want “behind closed doors, latched shutters and even elaborately-rigged trapdoors,” but the publicity of Mardi Gras would not allow for such unruly behavior. The enforcers had shown with prior incidents that they would be willing to delay arrests in order to keep their “agents…” from being “…known”. So, with the upcoming 1921 Carnival, the potential attendees waited with bated breath, wondering whether the previous year had marked Mardi Gras for the grave.
The difference was almost shocking. Just the previous year, the Times-Picayune had run several articles telling the tale of Carnival’s demise, with one of note reminiscing on the loss of booze, whiskey, and wine, “the real stars of Mardi Gras.” Now, though, the paper was singing of the “revival of the Carnival spirit” and putting shame on anyone who doubted, so. Although ironic, what they said was indeed true. Mardi Gras had made its boisterous return. While King Rex may have had to shoulder the burden of once again being the lone parade, it was still a fact that they had managed to “[satisfy] the public taste for the spectacular.” But it could not be said that there was no public drinking that night, or, at least, it can be assumed there was some. At the end of his parade, Rex and his court were served “a beverage of crimson color”, which they drank with blank faces. Whether this was an open challenge to the Volstead Act or not, none could be sure. What could be said, however, was that it was quite ironic that the second ‘dry’ Mardi Gras was accompanied by yet more rainfall. And even still, Carnival survived.
In the end, it seemed that alcohol was not the soul behind Mardi Gras. While it was a key contributor in years past, its absence did not spell the end of Carnival like so many had thought. And while arrests of prohibitionist nature would continue over the next decade, with one proprietor even throwing themselves “out of a second-story window to avoid capture”, the festivities would as well. It appeared that the heart of Mardi Gras laid in its ability for participants to indulge in revelry. Alcohol’s presence would be dearly missed until the passing of the Twenty-First Amendment in December of 1933, but the city of New Orleans never forgot its roots.
Written By: Gracie Elizabeth
Originally Published: December 11th, 2020 || Last Updated: February 22nd, 2020
A part of Doc Studio’s History of the New Orleans Landscape Collection
- Asher, Sally. “A Dry Spell in a Wet Town.” 64 Parishes (blog), n.d.
- “French Opera House Destroyed in Flames,” n.d.
- Ohio History Central. “Temperance Movement,” n.d.
- “Revenue Experts Ready to Spring; ‘Dry’ Law Violators May Be Given Unwelcome Surprise Soon.” Times-Picayune, January 8, 1920.
- “Sidelights of New Orleans Pageant Under Rex Volstead.” The Times-Picayune, February 9, 1921.
- “Spirit of Carnival Much in Evidence.” Times-Picayune, February 6, 1921.
- Vargas, Paul. “Mardi Gras New Orleans 1920,” n.d.