By the mid-1850s, Mardi Gras in New Orleans was a rough and rowdy affair that threatened the very existence of the festival. From the imagination of several men sprang the scheme for a lavish parade. The result, in 1857, was the Mistick Krewe of Comus – the prototype of organized Carnival parades and balls, known to this day.


The New Orleans that Comus first saw is little changed in some ways. The street network in the French Quarter and business district is much as it was in 1857, and Canal Street remains the “neutral ground.” When Comus first rolled, he didn’t go outside of the American sector where St. Charles, Camp and Magazine were – and are – principal streets. Even some of the buildings would be recognizable to the first Comus.

While Mardi Gras is rooted in the French colonial period – and in 1857 it was still considered Creole to the core – Comus was Anglo-American. The invitation to the first meeting held Jan. 10, 1857 said, “You are requested to meet your friends at the Club Room over the Gem …” This was located at 17 Royal St. – now 127 – half a block from Canal Street in the French Quarter, and the building – which dates to the late 18th century – still stands. It became the Gem Café and Oyster Bar in 1847, reputedly named for its proprietor George E. Miller, who signed his receipts GEM.

New Orleans at the Time of COMUSAn 1860 photo of the 500 block of St. Charles Ave., taken fromLafayette Square, just a few feet from former Mayor Charles M.Waterman’s home.

The Gem was only steps from Canal Street. At the time, the wide street was the South’s premier shopping district with dry goods stores such as D.H. Holmes and the elegant, block-long Touro Buildings between Bourbon and Royal streets. The street was also lined with lacey, cast iron galleries similar to those in the French Quarter. These made prime parade-viewing locations, as Canal Street later became the main route of Carnival parades, including Comus. In 1857, the Mistick Krewe did not go to Canal Street.

On Feb. 8, 1857, the 90 krewe members not only agreed on their name, but to parade on Mardi Gras night, which was less than three weeks away on the 24th. They arranged for a warehouse – their “den” – on Tchoupitoulas Street between Lafayette and Girod streets. Costumes were brought from Mobile, Ala., two floats were planned and work proceeded diligently and secretly to meet the parade date.

New Orleans at the Time of COMUSThe 400 block of St. Charles Ave., showing the Academy of Music and St. Charles Theatre.

Tchoupitoulas Street was in a densely populated area, and in the 1850s, about 25,000 people lived between Canal Street, Julia Street, Rampart Street and the Mississippi River – outranked only by the French Quarter where over 35,000 lived. Combined, the two neighborhoods straddling Canal Street held over one-third of the city’s 160,000 residents within close to one square mile. 

Since the business district had been gobbling up surrounding streets for years, there was also commerce in the Tchoupitoulas area. Early 19th century Creole cottages still remained, but many had been replaced by large townhouses; many of which had been converted into rooming houses and businesses. The narrow streets stretching down to the river were lined with warehouses, wholesalers, manufacturers, stables, cafés and saloons, along with some rough residential neighborhoods. 

Along these dense streets many Mardi Gras revelers gathered to carouse into the night, and undoubtedly more were there than usual on Feb. 24, 1857 – word of Comus was out. On Feb. 19th the Daily Picayune announced, “We have received cards of invitation to attend the festival of this mysterious association to be given at the Gaiety Theatre …” On the 22nd the newspaper said, “… we anticipate a most amusing affair of it.”

At 8 p.m. the krewe stole out of their Tchoupitoulas Street lair and maneuvered along dimly lit streets. Illuminated only by widely spaced gas streetlights, the masked krewe members must have cast long shadows, providing a spooky presence.

New Orleans at the Time of COMUSPhotos taken from the St. Patrick‘s Church spire circa 1868.
Tchoupitoulas Street between Girod and Lafayette streets. Above, left:


About 9 p.m. the Mistick Krewe of Comus came to life at Magazine and Julia streets. As if by magic, bands struck up martial music and torches ignited the dark night to the astonishment, amazement and admiration of the public. Comus was seated high above the crowd on one of two floats, while on another, Satan represented the theme: “The Demon Actors of Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Maskers wore all form of impish, demonic and satanic gear, traveling afoot by torchlight through huge crowds. The New Orleans Daily Crescent said the maskers resembled as much, “a deputation from the lower regions as the mind could possibly conceive,” adding that the fearsome masks were softened by the “richness and beauty of the costumes.” A spectacular show unlike any ever seen by New Orleans had emerged. It was a splendid, new world for Carnival – the night was ablaze with light and color and the floats quivered along bumpy, uneven, stone pavements and shimmered eerily in torchlight.

The route of the parade is a mystery. The Daily Crescent said that it went through the “principal streets,” but also mentioned its “brief theatrical appearance.” Most of the procession was afoot, so there could be flexibility to produce a circuitous route along “principal streets.” This seems unlikely – the total time of procession was only about one hour – Comus reached the Gaiety Theatre sometime after 10 p.m. 
New Orleans at the Time of COMUSPhotos taken from the St. Patrick‘s Church spire circa 1868.
“Thirteen Sisters” on Julia Street between Camp Street and St. Charles Avenue.

Principal streets would have included Magazine and Camp, which between Poydras and Canal made up the city’s banking district. Above Poydras Street, Magazine Street was as commercial as Tchoupitoulas Street. A block away however, Camp Street had numerous handsome townhouses. Comus most likely paraded by Julia Row, which still stands on Julia Street between Camp Street and St. Charles Avenue. Built in 1833, these 13 brick townhouses called the “Thirteen Sisters” still ranked among the city’s finest addresses in 1857.

St. Charles between Lafayette Square and Tivoli Place – now Lee Circle – had some of the finest mansions in town. Comus marched in this part of St. Charles Avenue, because krewe members visited the home of Mayor Charles M. Waterman at the corner of South Street – now South Maestri – and St. Charles Avenue. According to the Daily Crescent this was, “for the purpose, we suppose, of obtaining a license to ‘raise the supernatural’ in the Gaiety Theatre.” 

Brought from New York as a child, Waterman and his brother became wealthy in a hardware business that stood on Magazine at Common streets. He was elected mayor in June 1856, as the Know-Nothing Party candidate. A year after the popular Waterman welcomed Comus, he was disgraced by riots and bloodshed that ensued when a vigilance committee took control of the city government forcing the mayor to hole up at Jackson Square. In 1858 he committed suicide when his hardware business began to fail.

New Orleans at the Time of COMUS “Thirteen Sisters” on Julia Street between Camp Street and St. Charles Avenue.

The mayor’s home was opposite Lafayette Square and located where the Lafayette Hotel has stood since 1908. Two doors from his house on South Street was the First Presbyterian Church. The impressive Gothic structure with its towering steeple was nearing the end of construction – but is now gone, replaced by the F. Edward Hebert Federal Building. Waterman was close to work, since his house was only half a block from City Hall – now Gallier Hall. The fine Greek Revival building had been dedicated just two years earlier. Next to City Hall toward Poydras Street was the grand Slocomb family mansion on the site of today’s Federal Reserve Bank.   

As the krewe left Waterman’s home it most likely proceeded along St. Charles Avenue and crossed Poydras Street – an important center of wholesale activity that was narrower than it is today, since it was widened in the 1960s. From here, the krewe entered the heart of the business district passing the St. Charles Theater and Academy of Music where the Pan American Building and InterContinental Hotel now stand. The new Masonic Hall was at the corner of Perdido Street. Today, this part of St. Charles Avenue passes through several towering skyscrapers, such as One Shell Square.  

A building that Comus would recognize still stands on St. Charles Avenue between Gravier and Union streets. Built in 1851, the building now houses the Regions Bank, although the section near Union Street was altered in the early 20th century. Comus, in his march to the Gaiety Theatre, would have gone by the huge St. Charles Hotel with its rows of massive Greek revival columns. The hotel was fairly new then, having replaced an earlier structure that had burned down in 1851. The new hotel would be consumed by fire in 1893, to be replaced by the third St. Charles Hotel, which was demolished in 1973. Towering Place St. Charles is now on the site. 

The ball was held at the Gaiety Theatre on Gravier Street between Carondelet and Baronne streets. Krewe members entered the stage door from Common Street via Theatre Alley, which connected Common and Gravier streets, and burst onto the stage floor. The Daily Crescent described the elegant hall “decorated with a profusion of hangings, wreaths and festoons of flowers,” and since New Orleans theaters of the time could be converted to ballrooms, “the parquette had been floored even with the stage for the tableaux … and the ball that was to follow.” 

The Gaiety was known as Placide’s Variete in 1849, but after being damaged by fire was restored and renamed Crisp’s Gaiety. Soon after the Comus ball it was renamed Varieties. It burned down in 1870 and was moved to Canal Street on the site of today’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Later renamed Grand Opera House, it was the periodic home of the Comus Ball until 1892, when the ball was moved to the French Opera House. The Commerce Building has been on the site of the Gaiety theatre since the 1950s.  

Following the ball, the krewe left the theater at midnight and in the dark of night – without torchlight – resorted to a lavish banquet on the third floor of 57 – now 309-311 – St. Charles. This building still stands and is part of the aforementioned Regions Bank.

Comus returned to the streets in 1858 – this time with 30 floats – and still exists as a ball, but no longer as a parade. Most of the city that the first Comus saw has been swept away through changes wrought by 150 years. Still, in this city of tradition much remains, and with a little imagination, 21st century New Orleanians and visitors can conjure how the center of the Crescent City might have looked when Comus and his Miltonian imps and demons wended their way through torch-lit streets.

Photographs Courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection