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The Mystery of St. Louis’s Veiled Prophet

Racial and class tensions are nothing new in the city, as the story of a parade founded by white elites in 1877 to protect their position shows.

The original prophet image and a program from the 1883 VP Fair
The original prophet image and a program from the 1883 VP Fair (Wikimedia / The Atlantic)

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.

A float from the 1955 VP Fair. (Missouri State

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 Great 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.

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.