As the sun prepares to rise on Mardi Gras Day, strange rumblings start to reverberate throughout the Sixth Ward.
Scary figures dressed in black begin to emerge from the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Some are small, others are large, and all are adorned with the symbols of death and decay.
Ghostly handmade skull masks made out of paper mache bob somewhat unsteadily above black costumes with white skeleton bones painted on them.
After a prayer song, the morbid Carnival avatars of creeping time and imminent mortality begin their solemn duty—scaring the hell out of people.
The North Side Skull and Bones Gang is ready to wake up the neighborhood.
The gang’s chief, musician Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, looms larger than most, as well he should, having been a pro football player before reinventing himself as a New Orleans renaissance man.
Barnes was invited into the gang in the year 2000 by then-chief Albert Morris, who has since passed away.
A typical Mardi Gras Day gathering will include anywhere from eight to 15 members ranging in age from five or six “to the grave,” as Barnes puts it.
The Skull and Bones tradition dates back to the early days of the Treme in the early 1800s. Their stated intention is to remind everyone that death is always lurking, and sooner or later, it will come knocking at your front door.
“We wake up the spirits in the cemetery, bring them back, and set them loose in the streets on Carnival morning,” Barnes said.
Unlike Mardi Gras Indians, who spend thousands of dollars on their handcrafted suits each year, Barnes said his gang sticks to the traditional ways of crafting their suits.
“We do it the same way it was done 100 years ago,” he says. “We use bailing wire and newspaper for the head. We do everything by hand. We are the most economical suits that you’ll see in the street, I guarantee you.”
Although he remains hidden behind the skull mask while with the gang, Barnes’ presence looms large throughout the gang as it fans out to start knocking on doors.
Like any area that took a beating from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this section of the historic Treme neighborhood has seen a lot of changes in the past decade.
Some people have been in the neighborhood long enough to know what’s going on, but others have no idea what they’re in for. “We totally shock the piss out of them,” Barnes says. “It’s a very honest, straight up knock at the door. You don’t know who’s going to answer the door, and they don’t necessarily know it’s you.”
Reactions range from shock and surprise to happiness and even anger. There’s no way to know how anyone will react when they answer the door to see the Skull and Bones Gang.
“They might react in all kinds of different ways, and they do,” he explains. “They might be happy, they might be pissed off; they might be asleep, wide awake, or half drunk. It’s Mardi Gras morning. It takes all comers.”
And that’s just how Barnes likes it.
“It all depends on how they feel inside,” he says. “It’s just like them looking in a mirror. They react in a variety of ways. The children can be scared, the adults can be scared, or they can be welcoming. Every door you knock on is different. It depends on how those people feel about their own mortality and if they are scared or not.”
Barnes said he always moves “with the spirit of the day” instead of sticking to a prescribed route or focal point, and they typically don’t single people out. But then again, sometimes there are people in the neighborhood that need to be scared.
“It’s like a pit bull,” he says. “Some people go running to pit bulls, some people don’t, and there’s a reason for both.”
There’s no hiding from the Skull and Bones Gang, and the gang itself is fearless, even in the era of “stand your ground” laws and itchy trigger fingers on all sides of the law.
“You open that door, I’m coming in,” Barnes says. “But when that door opens, it might not be a person. It might be a giant pit bull. Or they might open the door with a gun in their hand. But they might have some food in their hand for you, or a beer, or some coffee. All of those things take place.”
So if you live in the Sixth Ward, or if you find yourself in the streets of the neighborhood on Mardi Gras morning, keep your eyes peeled for the North Side Skull and Bones Gang.
You never know when they will come knocking, and if they do, you never really know how you will react.
“There is nothing else like it going on, I can guarantee you that,” Barnes says.