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Boston’s colorful turn-of-the-century Carnevale

On February 4, 1895, the headline of the Boston Globe read as follows:

Eleven Masquerading Italians. They Disturb the Sabbath Stillness of the North End by Celebrating a Carnival which Closes Feb 27.” The article went on to describe the event and its consequences. Out for “as good a time as could be had,” over 1,000 men, women, and children swung in line behind 11 costumed men “lead by a tall Neapolitan, who thrashed out national music. On they marched, returning the salutes of pretty Italian maidens who waved high-colored bandanas from the many windows of the big tenement houses.

Boston-Globe-2At this point, Boston police rushed the crowd and corralled the masquerading men near a patrol box. They were then loaded into the police wagon and brought to the Division I police station where a Captain Cain ordered them to remove their masques. Six were dressed as men, five as women. One of the ‘women,’ dressed as the “daughter of a brigand on a mountain,” had to be assisted in removing ‘her’ “laced-trimmed chemise and starched white skirt,” which had been tightly sewn up by the “women folks at home.” Marched naked or near naked to their cells, they were then given Sunday clothing brought by their relatives, which they put on after they were released. The charges against them: “disturbing the peace on the Lord’s Day and masquerading.”

The Globe article is a reminder of a now gone and once robust pre-Lenten Carnival in the North End. The Carnival itself is a venerable Catholic and Italian custom. “Carnival” in English comes from the Italian Carnevale. The origins of this word are believed to derive either from the late Latin carne vale, meaning “farewell to meat” or the folk Italian carne levare, meaning “leaving the meat.” This association with the abstinence from meat is due to the fact that the Carnival had its prime or final day on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which was the first day of the Lenten fast. Known in Italian as Martedi Grosso and popularized as the French “Mardi Gras,” this “Fat Tuesday” was a day of feasting and celebration before the coming fast — though celebrations could begin as early as the Epiphany a few weeks earlier.

SALEM STREETThe first recorded traditions of the parades and masquerade balls that became the central features of the Carnival were in Medieval Italy. I am not sure to what extent they were celebrated in the small villages of southern Italy and Sicily, where many of the migrants to the North End came from, but they were certainly prominent in the Northern cities. From ther,e they spread to France, Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, and the United States. The New Orleans Mardi Gras was going on as early as the 1740s in the French Catholic colony of Louisiana. While the New Orleans Mardi Gras is perhaps the most famous of the Carnivals in the United States, larger Carnivals occur in Trinidad, Brasil, Columbia, and other places where the Catholic diaspora population is large. And Italy still has large Carnival celebrations, with that in Venice being one oldest and still among the most renowned in the world.

What about the North End Carnival mentioned in the February 4 article? The Boston Globe had a follow-up article on February 27, Ash Wednesday, that showed that the Boston authorities were in no way hostile to the North End Carnival. The headline, for example, was very different:

Eve of Lent

Festival and Frolic Was Much in Order

Carnival Day Celebrated in the North End

It Was, Indeed, a Merry ‘Farewell to Meat’

Masquerade Procession a Striking Feature

General Martin Joined in the Fun Right Heartily

According to the article, the North End Carnival was in its fifth year and had been “growing steadily in importance and general interest.” The Globe named its chief promoter as a “V. Damiano a very refined and scholarly leader in the Italian colony, whose heart beats warmly for the romantic traditions of his race, although he is none the less a patriotic American citizen for all that.” Damiano lead a committee of 15 prominent North End Italians that included George Scigliano, whose efforts for the Italians of the North End were made known by Steve Puleo in his book “The Boston Italians”. As for the details of the Carnival, the Globe notes that while in Italy the festivities “assume a widely diversified character,” in the North End they were confined “to visiting from house to house, by little parties in masquerade costume, the illumination of houses, plenty of music and dancing, and a masquerade procession through some of the Italian streets, carried out in a quiet way so as not to attract too much attention from unsympathetic neighbors” The article then goes on to mention the incident of February 5, noting that it was one of a number of processions in the previous three weeks, that it was done “innocently enough according to the system in Italy, on Sunday,” and that after the men were arrested they “were instructed as to the requirements of the Massachusetts laws regarding the observation of Sunday [and] allowed to go and sin no more.”

The Globe then went on to describe the procession; it is worth quoting at length:

“The celebration, which was to expire with the advent of the Lenten season began at 7PM, when a torchlight and masquerade procession consisting of about 500 persons, about one-third of them arranged in every sort of fancy or grotesque costume, formed at the corner of Cross and North sts, with Mr. Damiano as chief marshal, and the following special guests occupying places of honor at the head of the line: Police Commissioner Martin, Commissioner Lee … [and] Capt Cain of division I … Martial music of the most delightful kind was furnished by one of the most curious bands ever seen in Boston Streets. The musicians were all arranged in troubadour costumes of velvet and spangles, and their instruments were mainly mandolins, guitars, accordions, and three new instruments just brought from Italy, and used here for the first time. One of them consists of a what appears to be two shortened broom handles, one held exactly like a violin … resting against the shoulder, while the second stick, having a sort of ratchet along its whole length and a lot of minute sleigh bells along the back, is drawn across the other … the result being novel and pleasing, but unlike anything else imaginable. Another queer instrument was like three speakers gavels attached together … the three being violent struck together with rhythmical succession of blows … .A third instrument, and one which was immediate effective and caused un-bounded hilarity, was founded on the famous devils fiddles of unpleasant memory. It consisted of a wooden pail with a stick head like a drum, to which was attached a small round stick three feet long. The player carried a wet sponge in a receptacle at his side, and wetting the palm of his hand frequently he rubbed the stick more or less forcibly according to the intensity of the sound desire. The result was like the combined efforts of a dozen bass viols, and coming in at just the right places it was enough to inspire a snow man to ‘get a move on’ and join the procession. The principle feature of the procession was a fancy car … .driven by Uncle Sam, in full regalia, and occupied by a female figure representing Italy, and 12 men in costumes symbolical of the principle cities of Italy.”

The procession ended at The Prussian Eagle, a hall on North Street, where the guests watched Italian and Spanish dancers performed by the masqueraders and also listened to songs “and to the charming music of the unique orchestra.” General Martin and the other guests “enjoyed themselves as much as the average boy at the circus.” This went on for about two hours, after which the procession reformed, now lead by “two clowns sitting astride of a hand organ on wheels, which furnished the music for the march” to the hotel Italia, where “all sorts of appetizing Italian dishes were served … . By the time the tables had been cleared the faithful found that the our had arrived which began their 40 days fasting and other religious devotions.”

While this 1895 North End ‘Mardi Gras’ is tame by the standards of New Orleans – not to mention Rio or Trinidad – it shows a passion and style that were atypical of public events in Yankee and even Irish Boston of the time. It is thus no wonder that the North End was often described as both “colorful” and “picturesque” in many other accounts of the time. It would be nice to have more details of this particular Carnival. For example, did the appetizing Italian dishes include cannoli – the Sicilian pastry that was traditional served at Carnival? And it would be nice to know what happened to the North End Carnival? When did it stop? Why? I wish I could answer these questions.

Mario Di Leo, who many will know as a director of Boxford Camp or as a counselor at the Shaw House of the North Bennet Street School, told me that he remembers his father and mother dressing for the Carnival in the late 1920s. So, it continued at least until this time. I have not found other written references or heard other of other personal memories (though I’m still looking and listening). I suspect that New England winter may have had somewhat of a dampening effect on outdoor processions in January and February. The date of the Carnival cannot be changed to the warmer summer months as was possible for some of the feasts. I also suspect that the Carnival, without roots in the paese, did not have the religious and emotional depth as the festivals had. Whatever the reason, the Globe articles remain a testament to this once colorful North End event — and to its unusual band that could make a snowman “get a move on.”

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@corrieretandem.com. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.