National Geographic : 1968 Mar
with a figure dressed as Death. All Mobile gathers to watch, for the tournament decides who will rule Mardi Gras at last, Death or his merry opponent. For my first and only Mardi Gras, Folly performed true to tradition: He triumphed at the end of the parade, banishing Death for another year. Later, at the OOM costume ball marking the order's 100th anniversary,I asked Folly how long he had been filling the role of champion. Seven years was the answer, and Folly added that he was considering turning the job over to a younger man. "It's a two-hour battle," he said wearily from behind the gold mask, "and Death and I always try to put on a good show. Of course, I'm supposed to win, but Death sometimes forgets, and he's a good five years younger than I am." I asked if Death had ever won by mistake, and Folly shook his head. "But one year he came close. Right in the middle of the parade, the elastic in my tights broke. They started slipping, so I bent over to pull them up-and that rascal nearly kicked me into Mobile Bay!" Cotton Fosters an Age of Elegance French is only one of the varied strains in Mobile's pedigree; the city is something of a human bouillabaisse. During two and a half centuries it has paid allegiance to five differ ent flags, one of them-that of the United States of America-twice. A high point in Mobile's glory came early in its existence, when the small outpost served as the colonial capital of French Louisiana. Mobile's domain was immense, stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Appalachians westward to the Rockies. In 1720, to the sorrow of Mobilians, the capi tal was moved to Biloxi, in what is now Mis sissippi, and two years later to New Orleans. With the ebb and flow of New World em pire, Mobile changed hands several times. In 1763 the British marched in; in 1780, the Spaniards. Finally, in 1813, U. S. troops seized Mobile from the Spanish garrison and an nexed the city, plus parts of western Florida, to deny the region to the British. Commercial ties were more stable than political ones; Mobile built a thriving cotton trade with Great Britain during the first half of the 19th century. As the money rolled in, the mansions went up. Several beautiful homes of the era still survive as elegant re minders-Fort Conde-Charlotte House, Pal metto Hall, and Oakleigh (pages 384-5). 378 KODACHROME BYROBERTW. MADDEN ) N.G.S. "The British trade was so brisk," Caldwell Delaney, a widely respected Mobile historian, told me, "that among cotton brokers, St. Michael Street down by the waterfront was known as the 'English Channel.' "In those days," he added, "Mobile Bay was often more white than brown, thanks to a floating blanket of cotton lint." Affluence had its occasional price. One Brit ish visitor in 1828 warned his countrymen that among Mobilians "no individual thought to visit a tavern or retire to rest without being certain that his pistols and dirk were ready for use at a moment's notice." Three decades later, dirk and pistol gave way to saber and rifle as Mobile joined Ala bama in secession from the Union. Defeat after four years brought ruin to the South, ended Mobile's age of elegance, and toppled the cotton empire. Ironically, Mobile's most famous monu ment to the Civil War is a tomb for her former enemies. The monument is U.S.S. Tecumseh, a Union ironclad, once part of Rear Adm. David Glasgow Farragut's fleet, and the first casualty in the Battle of Mobile Bay.