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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.

Writing prompt: Invent a pivotal historical person

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Invent a fictional person who played a pivotal but unknown role in history” [Note: For my historical event, I chose the marathon of the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, which as you can read here, went farcically badly. The whole Wikipedia page is actually worth a read, with gems like this one: “One of the most remarkable athletes was the American gymnast George Eyser, who won six medals even though his left leg was made of wood.”]

I might not be able to win the marathon. But I could ruin it. The damned heavy cast slowed my walking. The bone was nearly mended, but it was too late now. Even if I sawed it off, my leg would be weak, and I could never run so many miles.

It was so hot. I felt the sweat dribble down my leg, itchy and utterly inaccessible. I drove my car along the route while the runners ran. One looked very sweaty and red in the face.

“Sir, you’re only nine miles in,” I said. “If you’re struggling like this now, you’ll never make it.”

The man ignored me for a time, but his pace slowed. Finally he stopped. “Sir, I have no thanks to offer for your discouragement. But I’ve left my clothes in the stadium. Would you make up the injustice by driving me?”

He was right, and I told him to get in. Ten miles in, though, the car broke. I left it, hobbling slowly. Several angry dogs barked in a yard along the path. With my crutch, I unlatched it and kept on moving before the dogs noticed.

I set my crutches across the road now. In the dust, and with the fatigue of the athletes by this point, they might miss it. I laughed, and turned to the man for whom I’d provided a ride. He was gone. He’d started running again. Oh, well, perhaps a sham winner was better than any idea I could concoct.