Tag Archives: missouri history

Book Review: Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis (Harper Barnes 2001)

Rating: 5/5

David Rowland Francis was mayor of St. Louis and governor of Missouri, the only man to have done both in a state that distrusts its urban centers. When Academic Hall burned down at the University of Missouri, he kept the university in Columbia. Francis brought the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair to St. Louis. From 1916 to 1917, Francis was the US Ambassador to Russia, serving through the February Revolution and the October Bolshevik Revolution. In its first half, Standing on a Volcano details Francis’ family life and career in Missouri; in its second half, it details his service in Russia. In Missouri, Francis is a man in his element, a man who knows how the machine whirs; in Russia, we see Francis struggle to grasp the mechanisms of a society whose machine has gone haywire. It’s a fascinating biography and a fascinating history of St. Louis and the Russian revolution.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I attended the University of Missouri. I’m a St. Louis native, and I love Russian history. The quadrangle at Mizzou is the Francis Quad, but I didn’t learn about David R. Francis until the 250th anniversary of St. Louis exhibit at the Missouri Historical Society. I bought this biography in the gift shop.

THE GOOD

  • Volcano (like so many St. Louisans) discusses why Chicago boomed and St. Louis didn’t. We often blame the Civil War, but Barnes suggests the steamboat. Chicago developed rail, while St. Louis languished.  A rail route crossed the Mississippi west of Chicago before the Civil War; the St. Louis Eads Bridge was completed in 1874, well after the contest was lost. Barnes also argues that the St. Louis business community was more conservative in an era that, overall, rewarded risk. After learning about the St. Louis business community in Veiled Prophet and the Chicago business community in Death in the Haymarket, this feels true.
  • Philip Jordan was a light-skinned black man from Jefferson City, an orphan or something close to it, a street fighter with a drinking problem. He became Francis’ indispensable companion, accompanying him to Russia. We so rarely learn about the support staff of our famous antecedents, and Jordan is fascinating. He became fluent in Russian, expertly navigating the food shortages of conflict-ravaged Russia. In Russia Jordan was perceived as native, but perhaps from the south. In the United States, he was often mistaken for white, but subject to the discrimination of the era whenever his race was known.
  • Volcano indirectly reveals how women and people of color get written out of history. Francis wrote little of Jordan, his companion, caregiver, and even partner of many years. A Russian woman, Matilda de Cramm, also occupies much of the book, and was a close friend to Francis during his time in Russia. Francis mentions her once in his book about the revolution. If we were to use only documents from Francis, we would see very little of Jordan or Madame de Cramm.
  • I enjoyed the examination contrast of diplomatic veterans with Francis. Although history has sometimes been unkind to Francis (Russia didn’t turn out so well, after all), Volcano makes the case for Francis.

 THE BAD

  • It’s great that Volcano includes Matilda de Cramm, a Russian woman whom many suspected to be a German spy. Francis had some level of inappropriate relationship with her during his ambassadorship, which elicited a lot of gossip. But we learn little about her. The book includes dozens of contemporary speculations and frettings about de Cramm. It was a big part of Francis’ time in Russia, but ultimately, there is very little of substance. She doesn’t seem to have been a German spy. It was hard to track and boring after a while.
  • Francis’ Kentucky childhood and family genealogy was dull and I would have preferred less of it.

 

OVERALL

If you have an interest in St. Louis history or Russian history, at least half of this book is worth your while. I’ve never read a nonfiction book with such contrasting halves, but I really enjoyed it. The contrast made for an interesting human study as well. We see a man working in his element, and the same man struggling to tread water. We see 19th century American wheeling and dealing, and we see foreign policy. Francis was a free-market enthusiast, but saw the argument for socialism in Russia. The reader sees Francis’ thinking evolve with his experiences; he wasn’t an ideologue. I enjoyed Standing on a Volcano as a history and as a biography.

Advertisements

Book Review: The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration (Thomas Spencer 2000)

Rating: 3.5/5

St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 details a strange institution in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The Veiled Prophet celebration was St. Louis’ response to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras inverts the social order; the fool is king for a day, and the rich man mingles with the poor man. The Veiled Prophet celebration was created to reinforce the social order, to show the lower classes the differences between them and the leading luminaries. Veiled Prophet details the evolution of this celebration; it began in 1878 in response to a massive labor strike in 1877, and continues to this day, although less overtly political.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Starting in the late 1970s, The Veiled Prophet society organized the Fourth of July celebration in St. Louis. Until 1992, the celebration was called the VP Fair (today it is called Fair St. Louis). When I learned with bafflement that the VP stood for “Veiled Prophet,” I grew curious. The Veiled Prophet society is such an old tradition in St. Louis, but little talked about, due to lack of interest and the elitist threads of the society. But many of the most influential St. Louisans took part in this strange organization; it’s a part of St. Louis history and shapes today’s city. Many of you even know a queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball—Ellie Kemper, perhaps better known as Kimmy Schmidt.

THE GOOD

The Veiled Prophet society, to the extent folks even remember it today, has a reputation for being snobbish and racist. It was unsurprising to learn that the society formed to praise the strong hand of business in the face of labor unrest. (For more about 19th century labor unrest, Death in the Haymarket is a great book; I reviewed it here.)

Initially, the parade anchored the celebration, timed to revive the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in October. It was an attempt, although too late, to compete with Chicago. The Veiled Prophet was a robed man, his face hidden, that oversaw the parade. The first Veiled Prophet was Police Commissioner John Priest, an active foe of the prior year’s labor riots. After Priest voluntarily unveiled himself in 1878, the Prophet’s identity remained secret, revealed only once by a crazed caper in 1972.

The celebration evolved with time. Some decades the parade would be educational, others more lighthearted. With time, the Veiled Prophet Ball became the more important component; at its peak it was covered in minute detail in the local papers, and even broadcast nationally after World War 2. The Veiled Prophet character evolved too. Originally just a title, they eventually added a mythology of an exotic easterner.

The relationship between the organization and the media changed substantially with time as well. The Republic was owned by members of the society, and thus covered the events in detail. More recent coverage has been more critical.

I also enjoyed reading about the people involved, though there was less of this than I would have liked. David R. Francis, the man who brought the Olympics and the World’s Fair to St. Louis, was an active member. One of the first members, Alonzo Slayback, died after a fight with a newspaperman. The 1927 Veiled Prophet queen was, scandalously, already married at the time she became queen, and, even worse, without her father’s permission! In an interview in 1977, she mused that the society still hadn’t gotten over it.

THE BAD

Although Veiled Prophet is meticulously researched, it is fairly dry. It reads like a list of facts and newspaper archives more than a narrative. The roles of the people involved in the society are only lightly sketched. This meant the book was shorter, but less relatable.

Also absent is any local St. Louis history. The World’s Fair, the tornado of 1896, mayoral elections and politics, various strikes—these events do not appear in the book.

The book stays narrowly focused on the Veiled Prophet society, for good or ill. I would have preferred more context. This book is, for the most part, just the facts, and less interpretation than some other works of history.

OVERALL

This book is a 5/5 for content about the society and quality of sources. The writing quality is fine, but the narrow approach of the topic makes it a dry read. For someone interested in St. Louis history, it is well worthwhile. I found it less enjoyable and informative than I had hoped; I wanted to better understand St. Louis history, the Veiled Prophet context in that history, and how St. Louis differed from other cities in this respect. This book doesn’t offer a lot of interpretation for the reader. Not everybody wants that, but I was hoping for it.