Historically Speaking: The Mardi Gras Tragedy of 1923

By Jessica Gorman

This week marks 100 years since the tragic events of Minden’s Mardi Gras in 1923. 

On February 12th, the Shreveport Journal revealed that Mardi Gras was “getting to be quite an important and spectacular yearly event in Minden. Elaborate plans for both the afternoon and evening celebrations have been made, and under the very capable management of the Civic club ladies.” The Mardi Gras queen for that year was Miss Miriam Luck. 

Mardi Gras was celebrated on February 13. The evening celebration included a performance at the school. This performance would become one of the most tragic events in Minden’s history. The Shreveport Journal gives this account of what occurred:

“The king and queen of the festivities had been crowned and were seated on their throne at the back of the stage. Before their majesties and an assembled audience of 500 people, a program was being given. Part of this program was an interpretive dance. In it each season of the year was represented by girls attired in appropriate costumes in a dance epitomizing the period, spring, summer, and autumn had appeared, done their dance, received the plaudit of the audience and retired. Then came winter and tragedy. Six girls headed by Mabel Hickman, attired in long black robes with cotton, representing snow at the throat and at the lower hems of the garments. It was this cotton which blazing up caused the tragedy. In the hand of each of the girls was a brilliant sparkler, intended by its bearer to reflect from their garment as sun does reflect from the snow. When the time came for the act to go on, Alma Sullivan lighted her sparkler and her companions crowded close about her to ignite their own. What happened next is difficult to ascertain. There was a burst of frightened girls, a stampede in the audience, and by the time cooler heads had surmounted the situation havoc had been wrought.”

The dress of Alma Sullivan was the first to catch fire. As the other girls attempted to come to her aid, their own dresses caught fire. The dress of little Eva Eleanor Lowe who wasn’t part of the winter dance, but was backstage, was ignited as the other girls ran past. 

Some of the girls rolled on the ground to smother the flames. Dorothy Cheshire passed out on the stage. The other girls ran from the building. Some of the men ran after them to extinguish the flames and were also injured. They were U.O. Ashley, A.B. Turner, Jack Hardaman, and F.H. Draper, Jr. Mabel Hickman ran two blocks before she was found and taken home by Talmadge Clement and Ralph Goodwill who provided first aid. 

Minden did not yet have a hospital. A passenger car was attached to a freight train bound for Sibley in order to bring nurses from Shreveport. They were then transported to Minden by car.

Mabel Hickman died in the early morning hours. Three girls, Eva Eleanor Lowe, Dorothy Cheshire, and Eugenia Burt, died the following afternoon. Ruth Reagan, Valerie Watson, Eloise Hough, Vashti Bullock, and Alma Sullivan, were severely burned but survived. School and business came to a halt as the town mourned.

As reported by the Shreveport Journal, “In Minden no effort was made today to resume the business which has been paralyzed since the tragedy. By common consent, all business houses, stores and offices, failed to open their doors this morning. No one felt like transacting business in the face of the disaster which, although Minden is one of the state’s oldest towns, is the most appalling in its history.

Floral shops and greenhouses in Minden have been stripped of their contents and every train arriving n the city bears great bouquets, crosses and wreaths, the tribute of local citizens and of friends from elsewhere. 

From all over the United States citizens and organizations have been sending their condolences to the grief-stricken community.”

On February 15, three of the girls were laid to rest in the Minden Cemetery. The Shreveport Times estimated about 2500 people attended the funerals. “The Baptist church was too small to contain the mourners who assembled” for the funeral of Mabel Hickman. After her burial, the funeral of Dorothy Cheshire was conducted at the Methodist church followed by Eva Eleanor Lowe’s funeral at the Baptist church. Eugenia Burt’s funeral was held the following morning. 

Dorothy Cheshire would have graduated from Minden High School in May of that year. The day after graduation, the entire senior class accompanied her mother to the cemetery where they placed flowers on her grave. 

Minden has resumed its Mardi Gras festivities, but for many years following the events of February 13, 1923, Mardi Gras celebrations ceased. 

(Jessica Gorman is the Assistant Director and Archivist for the Dorcheat Historical Association Museum in Minden and is an avid genealogist.)

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