Fantastic History #69: The Veiled Prophet by Dawn Vogel

Many Midwestern cities play host to festivals and other events that highlight their civic pride. In St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet emerged at the forefront of this phenomenon, and his “reign” over St. Louis for more than a century stands out among similar celebrations of cities.

The initial spark for the Veiled Prophet organization had its origins in the labor unrest of the late 1870s. In 1877, a worker’s strike had brought St. Louis business to a halt for nearly a week in late July. “Although St. Louis’s business class ultimately won the strike, the disruption had a profound effect on those who had been required to use force against their own workers.” As a part of the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, which had waned after the Civil War, the Veiled Prophet parade served “as a symbolic attempt to assert business-class control over the streets of St. Louis” and “an attempt to reclaim from the rapidly growing city of Chicago, pre-eminence for St. Louis as a manufacturing center and agricultural shipping point.” Though men in other cities organized into fraternal organizations, the Veiled Prophet organization differed from these groups in that “while it showed some degree of cultural and religious pluralism, it did not create bonds between white males of the upper, middle, and skilled working classes. The Veiled Prophet organization was an elitist organization that was important to its members because it demonstrated they were at the very top of St. Louis’s white male aristocracy.”
With the exception of the first Veiled Prophet ball in 1878, and until an activist protest in 1972 that forcibly unmasked the Veiled Prophet, his identity remained a closely guarded secret in most years. The Veiled Prophet himself, in whose honor the organization was formed and the parade was held, was more formally known as the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, who the Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote about in his 1817 Lalla Rookh. When brothers Charles and Alonzo Slayback, both members of St. Louis’s business elite, founded the secret society, they used this fictional character as the ruler of their planned parade. However, whether this was their original intent or merely happenstance is a matter of some debate. During the planning stages of the first Veiled Prophet parade in 1878, “the Slayback brothers acquired Mardi Gras float decorations from an 1868 Mistick Krewe of Comus parade themed on Lalla Rookh for $8,000.” One might assume that they then built the limited mythology around the mysterious Veiled Prophet on their knowledge of Moore’s poem. “The basic premise of Slayback’s retelling of the Veiled Prophet story was that a powerful ‘Grand Oracle’ of the ‘Veiled Prophets,’ the fictional ruler of St. Louis, would leave Persia to visit the city and witness its transformation into a place of affluence and beauty.”

However, Moore did not intend for his Veiled Prophet of Khorassan to be such a figure. “Known in the original as ‘the feared Mokanna,’ the Prophet was a hideous dictator who mesmerized his credulous subjects with parties and ornate ceremonies that distracted them from the truth of his tyranny.” During the early nineteenth century, when Moore was writing Lalla Rookh, “many Westerners imagined Eastern governments in places like India, Persia, or the Ottoman Empire as stereotypes of undemocratic rule they could use to point out similar injustices in their own nations.” So while the elite of St. Louis touted the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan as a worldly figure who marveled in the successes of St. Louis, those more familiar with the story and Moore’s intent “might see the affair as a self-aggrandizing display camouflaging selfish urban leaders.”

In addition to the spectacle of a parade that resembled Mardi Gras, the Veiled Prophet organization also used the event as an excuse to host a ball, during which their daughters, and the daughters of other social elites, could mingle with the appropriate kind of men to be their future husbands. “Unlike the parade, the second part of the annual celebration, the Veiled Prophet ball, was not meant to be seen by ‘the masses.’ Debutante balls, about which little scholarship exists, played an important role in the lives of the elites who participated in them. The Veiled Prophet balls allowed sponsors to see themselves as being ‘good fathers’ to their daughters—and these balls enabled these men to control their daughters’ courtships.” In the early years of the event, the Veiled Prophet selected one of the young women to dance with first, and she received the honor of being referred to as the belle of the ball. But her name was not published in the newspapers, because in the late 1870s and early 1880s, “it was considered improper for a young woman’s name to appear in print.” After 1885, the belles of the ball received more public acclaim, including mentions in the newspapers, and a decade later, the title was changed to “Queen of Love and Beauty,” a title that was bestowed on one young debutante who attended the Veiled Prophet’s ball.

The 1887 Veiled Prophet parade and ball were unusual because St. Louis was also playing host to President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland had not traveled widely prior to his ascending to the presidency, and when a delegation of St. Louisans asked him to visit their city, he agreed. As part of a grand tour of the Midwestern and southern states, Cleveland timed his trip to St. Louis to coincide with the Veiled Prophet parade and ball. As such, some changes were made to the standard operations of the event; for example, the Veiled Prophet did not select a belle of the ball in 1887.

While the Veiled Prophet parade and ball have changed greatly since their nineteenth century origins, they are still a part of St. Louis’s culture. From 1981-1995, St. Louis hosted the VP Fair (the VP standing for Veiled Prophet), which took place on the grounds of the Gateway Arch during the weekend nearest to the Fourth of July; in more recent years, the name of the event has been changed to Fair St. Louis, and is sometimes held in Forest Park. The Missouri Historical Society maintains a large collection of elaborate costumes worn by the Veiled Prophet, dresses worn by many debutantes, and other ephemera from the many years of this phenomenon’s history.

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Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.