There’s a lot that I love about St. Louis, the city I was born in: baseball, the free zoo and art museum, a rich cultural history that stretches from T.S. Eliot to Miles Davis, and, of course, all of my friends and family. But the city’s inability to deal with its history of racial inequality, always closely tied to class issues, has run parallel to the city’s cultural and economic decline, leaving it in something resembling a stupor. A case study in this long decline can be found in the emblematic history of the annual Fair Saint Louis.
Held annually every Fourth of July, usually in downtown St. Louis, Fair St. Louis is a festival that includes food, music, hot-air balloons, and fireworks. Touted as “America’s Biggest Birthday Party”, it’s basically just a fun excuse to enjoy the usually hot and humid St. Louis Fourth of Julys with friends and family. This summer, due to construction along the Mississippi riverfront, the fair was held in Forest Park, a jewel of a turn-of-the-century public park built for the 1904 World’s Fair.
Attaching Fair St. Louis to these monuments of St. Louis’ former grandeur, the Gateway Arch and Forest Park, is fun and completely in the spirit of civic celebration, but also overshadows the dark and sordid history of the fair itself. Until the early ’90s I knew Fair Saint Louis by its older name, the VP Fair. VP stands for “Veiled Prophet”, and the name of the fair wasn’t officially changed to Fair Saint Louis until 1992. “Veiled Prophet” is an admittedly odd name, and the history behind it is just as strange.
In 1878, grain executive and former Confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback called a meeting of local business and civic leaders. His intention was to form a secret society that would blend the pomp and ritual of a New Orleans Mardi Gras with the symbolism used by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. From Moore’s poetry, Slayback and the St. Louis elite created the myth of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a mystic traveller who inexplicably decided to make St. Louis his base of operations.
The entire process was suffused with elaborate ritual: A person would be chosen by a secret board of local elites to anonymously play the role of the Veiled Prophet. The Veiled Prophet would chose a Queen of Love and Beauty from among the elite ball attendees (of course, invitation list to be kept strictly confidential as well) with whom he would dance a “Royal Quadrille” before presenting her with an expensive keepsake such as a tiara or pearls. Often these gifts were so expensive that they became family heirlooms. The ball would be accompanied by a just-as-spectacular parade and fair. In October of 1878, civic elites organized the first parade. It attracted more than 50,000 spectators.
There were at least two reasons Slayback and his peers created the Veiled Prophet Organization and staged the lavish events. One was 300 miles north. By the late 1880s, Chicago was beginning to overshadow St. Louis as transportation and manufacturing hub. St. Louis needed, in every way, including symbolically, to remind its citizens of its stature. The VP Parade recalled the antebellum St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, a sort of trade show and harvest festival combined.
Perhaps more fundamentally though, the VP activities were a response to growing labor unrest in the city, much of it involving cooperation between white and black workers. A year before the founding of the Order of the Veiled Prophet was the Grand Railroad Strike of 1877, in which railroad workers across the country brought cars to halt in protest of abominable pay and working conditions. In St. Louis, nearly 1,500 striking workers, both black and white, brought all rail freight to a standstill for an entire week. The involvement of the St. Louis Workingman’s Party eventually expanded the demands of the protest to include things like a ban on child labor and an eight-hour workday. Of course, this was untenable to the municipal and national powers. The strike ended when 5,000 recently deputized “special police” aided federal troops in forcing the strikers to disperse. Eighteen strikers were killed. The strike ended nationally within 45 days.
According to historian Thomas Spencer in The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power On Parade 1877-1995, the primary goal of the VP events was to take back the public stage from populist demands for social and economic justice. More than just a series of gaudy floats traversing the city streets, the parade and all its pomp was meant to reinforce the values of the elite on the working class of the city. The symbol of a mystical, benevolent figure whose identity is a mystery—only two Veiled Prophets have ever had their identity revealed—was meant to serve as a sort of empty shell that contained the accumulated privilege and power of the status quo.
In fact, to underline the message of class and race hegemony, the image of the first Veiled Prophet is armed with a shotgun and pistol and is strikingly similar in appearance to a Klansman. On October 6, 1878, the Missouri Republican reported, “It will be readily observed from the accoutrements of the Prophet that the procession is not likely to be stopped by street cars or anything else.” Spencer takes “streetcar” to be a reference to the labor strikes. The message was clear: We, the bankers and businessmen, have a monopoly on violence and wealth. We are grand and mysterious, and also to be feared. The first Veiled Prophet, the only one ever willingly revealed by the organization, turned out to be St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, an active participant in quelling the railroad strikes the year before.