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.
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.