In the spirit of the season, we’ve mused on the place of cemeteries in Mardi Gras traditions – from the last resting places of Dead Rexes to the incorporation of death and cemeteries in costuming and floats.
Seldom do Mardi Gras celebrations themselves take place in New Orleans cemeteries. But once or twice in a blue moon, amidst Storyville revelry or between the pages of a Gayarré novel, such things have happened. Today, on this Sunday before Mardi Gras, we explore the few instances of Mardi Gras dancing on the graves.
In one of the St. Louis Cemeteries, the dead were entertained by an especially satirical parade in 1911, when maskers dressed as deceased voters processed through the cemetery gates to follow the tail of the parade of Rex.
The details of this event are discussed in two New Orleans histories, although primary accounts of the parade are scant. In what James Gill refers to as one of the “drollest examples” of political satire in Mardi Gras parades, marchers dressed as skeletons emerged from the cemetery holding signs marked, “Count me in for several votes,” “I’ll be with you on election day,” and “Dead, but still a voter.” According to Buddy Stall’s New Orleans, the marchers labeled themselves “The Graveyard Pleasure Club,” “Girod Cemetery Voters League,” and “the Tombstone Brigade.”
The Marchers emerged from St. Louis Cemetery (presumably No. 1, or possibly No. 2) after having “entertained the sexton” with their antics. They caught up to Rex and followed along its route, as one parade-goer remarked, “Their silent message is more meaningful than any spoken word I can imagine.” They continued behind the parade until police forces peacefully disbanded them, just before they reached City Hall.
The Elks Burlesque Circus
In the days leading up to the St. Louis Cemetery Marchers 1911 procession, a bigger, louder ruckus was taking place just blocks away. At Elks Place and Canal Street, a great circus would take place, complete with lion tamers, elephants, and acrobats. On the Friday before Mardi Gras, this circus paraded through the city, marching uptown as far as Felicity Street, and back through the Central Business District.
The big top Mardi Gras-season fundraiser was as ambitious as the organization’s tomb plans. The Elks Lodge memorial is a tumulus: a burial chamber which has been covered in earth, making it resemble a hill or burial mound. While New Orleans is no stranger to tumuli – at one point in time, they were quite common in cemetery landscapes – the Elks Lodge tumulus is one of the most iconic of these structures in American cemeteries.
The tumulus was constructed by Albert Weiblen at the cost of $10,000 – essentially $250,000 in 2016 dollars. Its subterranean walls were topped with a giant boulder of Alabama granite, on top of which a nine-foot-tall bronze elk was erected. Two years and some minor (but noticeable) foundational issues later, the cemetery landmark was completed.
Today, organizations with communal tombs and society burial places often find great difficulty in raising the capital needed to restore their deteriorating cemetery property. Perhaps it’s time once again to bring the circus to town for the benefit of our historic cemeteries.
Tintin Calandro: The Mad Musician of the St. Louis Cemetery
Our final Mardi Gras cemetery story is exactly that: a story. On this blog, we like to keep things factual, but in the spirit of the prankishness and surreality of Carnival, we recall the tale of Tintin Calandro.
Celebrated New Orleans author Charles Gayarré (1805 – 1895) is memorialized in the city as its premiere 19th century historian. A beautiful terra-cotta memorial to him sits at the divergence of Esplanade Avenue and Bayou Road. He is best remembered for his History of Louisiana (1866), but he did write two novels as well, Fernando de Lemos, Truth and Fiction (1872) and Aubert Dubayet (1882). Featured in both of these novels is Augustine Calandrano, more frequently referred to by the narrator as Tintin Calandro, French revolutionary exile, talented violin player, and eccentric sexton of St. Louis Cemetery.
In Fernando de Lemos, Tintin Calandro is a “genius of madness,” each night serenading his ghostly charges:
… I have been thinking how glorious my cemetery looks by moonlight. There is nothing then to equal it. What a scene worthy of the angels! When it is thus one sea of serene radiance, I love to perform on my violin for the dead. Beginning, I see at first a haze or vapor settling on each tomb, then shadowy forms glide upward through brick, marble, or granite.
An immense assembly gathers or my concert. Some stand up, some sit down, others recline on their own tombs, as on sofas. The little children, how daintily they look, God bless them! Sometimes they dance before me, moving their tiny feet in harmony with my music… They sing in chorus, “Good-night, Tintin Calandro; good-night, dear Tintin Calandro,” and they vanish. Ah! if you could only see such a sight, you would like to dwell forever in my cemetery.
Toward the end of Calandro’s life, it appears his fits of insanity worsened. Nearing his own death, the old sexton fought frailty and his better senses in order to go to the cemetery for a final concert, on Shrove Tuesday:
He said that the ghosts were going to have a Mardi Gras ball and he wanted to open the event by playing an overture, after which an orchestra of spirits would supply the music… [the narrator] accompanied the musician to the cemetery. There Tintin greeted the ghosts, bade them be silent and seated, and then seating himself and his companion on a tombstone, he began to play.
… In the spell which overcame him he saw the ghosts whisking past in the dance, and the mad excitement grew upon him until the sound of the violin was hushed. Then Tintin apologized to his visionary audience, and allowed his friend to escort him home.
On the way home, Calandro related to his companion that one of the ghosts was “the former head of the orchestra at the St. Philip Theatre, and he had gone mad through family troubles, finally dying from the shock.”
“Thank God, I am not mad – not from grief,” said Tintin, and this he kept on repeating all the way home.
The romance of Tintin Calandro’s character was so captivating that it seems that in more than one instance New Orleaneans confused him for having been real person. One wonders if Calandro may have been inspired by an actual sexton, although no source speculates on who that might be.
Having witnessed the French Revolution in the 1790s, Calandro would have been one of the first sextons of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which was founded in 1789. Records from this early period are scant; the names of early sextons difficult to locate. That Calandro’s character is Italian is also strange, as few Italian stonecutters or sextons resided in New Orleans prior to the 1850s.
Etienne Courcelle was sexton of the St. Louis Cemeteries in the 1850s, as was Etienne Demourelle. Little documentation of their lives exists – certainly none to suggest that they played violin within the cemetery walls. Both Courcelle and Demourelle are buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, as is Charles Gayarré himself. The Mardi Gras ball at the cemetery has certainly had some distinguished attendees over the years.
It’s ever tempting to wonder who inspired Gayarré to create the remarkable character of Tintin Calandro. For a researcher of New Orleans cemeteries, the desire to believe one of New Orleans sepulchral caretakers had the soul of a genius that may have touched the life of one of the city’s great authors is compelling. Whether Tintin Calandro ever did exist under a different name may never be known.
But over the next few days, while indulging in the balls, parades, costumes, and debauchery of Mardi Gras, it’s nice to imagine the mad romantic soul of Tintin Calandro, philosopher, musician, sexton, and madman, reclining on his tomb on Mardi Gras night with his violin.
 Buddy Stall, Buddy Stall’s New Orleans (Gretna: Pelican Publishing, 1990), 167-169.
 “Elks Announce Route of Parade Preceding Burlesque Circus,” Daily Picayune, February 20, 1911, p. 2.
 “Elks’ Circus to be a Feature During Carnival Week Here: Parade and Performances to be Filled with Features Farcy, Freakish and Funny,” Daily Picayune, January 15, 1911, 30; “Circus Catches: Pokorny’s Little Elks Arrive for Big Show,” Daily Picayune, February 17, 1911, 7.
 “Elks’ Tomb to be Erected on Fine Greenwood Cemetery Site,” Daily Picayune, August 7, 1911, 7.
 Excerpt from Fernando de Lemos, Truth and Fiction, featured in The Southern Bivouac, Vol. II, No. 1 (June, 1886), 112-114; James A. Kaser, The New Orleans of Fiction: A Research Guide (Scarecrow Press: 2014), 92.
 “Tintin Calandro: Judge Gayarré Tells the Story of the Mad Musician of St. Louis Cemetery,” Oachita Telegraph, January 20, 1887, 1.