Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana are almost always tinged with political and social satire. President Bush, Governor Jindal, and even Britney Spears — these are just a few of the names that have inspired colorful floats and costumes in recent years. In 1873, New Orleans’ famous Mystick Krewe of Comus took their inspiration from none other than the British naturalist Charles Darwin, who had recently published On the Origin of Species, a highly controversial book in which Darwin presented his theory of natural selection.
Dressed as everything from mice to monkeys, the members of the krewe paraded through the streets of the city. A poem, in imitation of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, was painted on transparencies and carried along by the revelers. The real butt of the joke, however, was the Republican Party, not Darwin. The city police force, which supported the GOP and its plan for reconstruction of the post-Civil War South, wasn’t amused. As the parade tried to cross Canal Street, the police put an end to it.
Nevertheless, that didn’t prevent the publication of a small book to commemorate the event. Now part of the Irby C. Nichols Papers at the LSU Libraries and entitled The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species, the book contains over a dozen cartoons of strange creatures, half man, half beast. Some of the characters are identifiable. Ulysses S. Grant, for example, has been crossed with a caterpillar and lounges on a leaf smoking a cigar. General Benjamin Butler, the despised commander of the Union army in New Orleans during the Civil War, is shown in another cartoon dining with a party of bears and hyenas. Members of the notoriously corrupt metropolitan police are depicted throughout the book as sundry slithering animals. Such men, the poem suggests, were fit subjects for Darwin’s investigations as well as proof that he was right — men are descended from apes! Just look at the people who are running our city!
This post is the first in a new category on the Special Collections blog, the Cabinet of Curiosities. Need a subject for research? Take a peek into the Cabinet! Descriptions of especially ususual or interesting items that could form the basis of a research paper will be posted here.
– Michael Taylor, Assistant Curator of Books