The Mystery of St. Louis's Veiled Prophet

Of course, few things struck as much fear into the hearts of city fathers as white/black labor cooperation. Cooperation between black and white workers during the 1877 strike led anti-labor newspapers to label a parade thrown in support of the strikes a “riot.” Inevitably, after a few minor looting incidents lead to the theft of bread and soap from a few local stores, the St. Louis Dispatch “characterized the strikers as ‘tramps and loafers’ who were ‘anxious to pillage and plunder’,” Thomas Spencer writes. The specter of the interracial flexing of labor muscle inspired to an armed citizens militia that marched in a counter-protest to the working-class demonstration. It sounds tragically reminiscent of recent events in St. Louis.

The first Veiled Prophet took the theme of progress and wisdom, and, according to Spencer, “equated wisdom with wealth.” While many 19th century parades were fairly democratic and celebrated a sort of play or reversal of social order, a major element of the Mardi Gras parades that inspired it, the Veiled Prophet proceedings emphasized the existing power structure. The 1878 parade displayed a tableau of inevitable “progress” over 17 floats, beginning with the icy desolation of early Earth and culminating in the grand excess of Gilded Age industrialism with all of its attendant pomp. This notion of progress was portrayed as the inevitable result of unfettered capitalism, instituted by its white, male leaders. Slayback, the organizer of the proceedings, also threw in a grab bag of odd mythological references to properly mystify the throngs of people gathered to witness the procession.

According to a St. Louis city website, “The traditional VP celebration has represented for St. Louisans a perceived link between different components of the community in a holiday celebration, while also reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite.” Many of the average citizens of St. Louis knew exactly what the VP Ball and Fair represented, and their dissent became nearly as much of a convention as the fair itself. Spencer reports that in the earliest years of the parade there was public backlash against upsetting racial stereotypes depicted on the floats. (It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that African and Jewish Americans weren’t allowed in the VP Organization for many years). Peashooters were sold at local stores around the time of the parade so that bystanders could pelt the ostentatious floats. Unions held mocking counter-parades that skewered the lavishness of the VP Organization.

The tradition of protest in St. Louis is a heartening counter-narrative to the divisions that makes it necessary. That’s been apparent from the railroad strikes of 1877 to the #handsupdontshoot response to the killing of Michael Brown. The 1972 Veiled Prophet was unmasked in what was one of the most dramatic guerrilla protests ever organized by local civil-rights leader Percy Green. The Ball that year was held in cavernous Kiel Auditorium. Activist Gena Scott, dramatically sliding down a power cable a la Mission Impossible, unmasked the enthroned Prophet. It turned out to be the then-executive vice president of Monsanto, Tom K. Smith. Scott’s car was bombed and her house vandalized.

The unmasking in Kiel Auditorium helped highlight the embarrassing inequities that the VP Fair and Ball represented. The organization loosened up a bit, even opening its ranks to African-American members in 1979, but by the late ’70s, even the members seemed a bit embarrassed of the spectacle. Spencer quotes William Martiz, a VP member, as saying, “A lot of members in the late 70’s ‘felt uneasy with the social connotations’ and people were saying ‘get that goddamn ball off the television, don’t force that on the community.’” By 1992 the name of the event was changed to Fair Saint Louis, nominally erasing the connection to its past.

The VP Fair and Ball had to change in response to social pressure, but the monopoly of power held by the people who constituted its elite ranks stayed the same. In 2000, Spencer told Riverfront Times, “one of the roles that organization plays is to keep these people on top with business contacts to put little Johnny into a corporate job, and by the 1950’s and 1960’s, all the corporate CEO’s in St. Louis had the same names as the major business leaders did in the 1880’s. If you know much about St. Louis history, when is it the corporations really started going into the Dumpster?  It was under the leadership of these folks.”

Feeling the heat from industrial competitors to the North and labor unrest inside the city, the business elite of St. Louis decided in 1878 to double down on the static racial and economic power structure of the city. The Veiled Prophet Ball and Fair was a powerful symbol of that reassertion of control. But the underlying social issues continued to fester. St. Louis declined, suffering countless self-inflicted wounds, visible and invisible. Michael Brown is part of that story now. If the 1972 unmasking of the Monsanto executive unveiled the secret power structure running St. Louis, Brown’s shooting was equally revealing of the victims of the inequality institutionalized by the Veiled Prophets.

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Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer. His work has appeared in The BafflerThe Daily Beast, and Bookforum.

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