North Side Skull and Bone Gang: A Mardi Gras Tradition

Maria Clark February 28, 2014

The Mardi Gras Northside Skull and Bone Gang is one of the oldest and lesser known New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions dating to the early 19th century.

It was too early Mardi Gras morning 2012 when a call broke my sleep. I looked out my window and onto the street through the misty grey dawn. The call grew louder, “Wake UP Treme! Time to Wake up!!”

I slid the window open and let in a gust of cool grey breeze.  I looked down street just as a gang of five skeletons walking on stilts broke through the mist. They slow marched in a messy procession, telling everyone in the neighborhood to wake up! The costumes hang in black scraps from the men’s gangly bodies. The white painted skull faces gleaming in the early morning light.

Courtesy of Martin Deutsch.

North Side Skull and Bone Gang. Courtesy of Martin Deutsch.

I watched them from my bedroom window and ran outside to catch them turn the corner as they marched away waking up the rest of the neighborhood. I tried going back to sleep and couldn’t.

Neither could the rest of the Treme. By 7 am, doors were open, speakers were blasting music, and Mardi Gras day had officially begun.

What I didn’t know then, was that the Mardi Gras North Side Skull and Bone Gang is one of the oldest and lesser known New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions dating to the early 19th century.  It’s likely not as well-known because most people are up very late on Lundi Gras (the Monday night) and the skull and bones start roaming very early on Fat Tuesday.

One of the oldest crews, the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, meets at 5 a.m. outside of the Treme neighborhood’s Backstreet Cultural Museum located at 116 Henriette Delille St.  The museum features costumes and objects related to one of the city’s oldest bones gangs the North Side Skull and Bone gang. The gangs gather to bless Carnival by “stirring up spirits, thus warding off sickness and injury and ensuring a safe celebration,” according to the museum website. The gangs roam the streets wearing handmade skulls, skeleton suits and carrying animal bones. By knocking doors, beating drums, shouting and sings chants like “If you don’t live right, the bone man is commin for ya,” they get the neighborhood ready for Mardi Gras.

The video below provides some great background information on this fascinating tradition and also shows the gangs in action as they roam the streets: