Tag Archives: st louis

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.


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.



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.

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.


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 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.


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.


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.

100 posts, 100 fun facts

This list making business is slow stuff, and too interesting, so I decided to split it into two 50-fact posts. Happy memorial day, and happy 100 posts to me! Here are your first 50 factoids!

1. People from different cultures differ in what colors they perceive. As a simple example, english speakers deem pink as a different color than red. Russian speakers don’t, but they have a fundamentally different word for dark and light blue. In chinese, red and pink are red and pastel red, and likewise with blue.

2. Corrosion occurs preferentially where you can’t see it, such as under the head of a bolt or a foot or two under sea water. This is due to small concentration differences which cause a charge differential, which leads to corrosion. This is one reason trying to detect corrosion is very hard.

3. The biggest silicon wafers made are 45 cm or 17.7″, though they aren’t yet in production. The silicon is 99.9999999% pure, and monocrystaline.

4. Glass doesn’t have a set crystal structure; this is why it can cut so badly, because shards can be arbitrarily sharp. Auto glass is laminated with plastic to help hold it in place.

5. Many of the scenes in engineering in “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” are filmed at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Los Angeles. Look for the green labels reading “VF##”– these are vertical fermenters. In another part of the movie, Chekhov slides past some really shiny tanks on a red floor– these are horizontal fermenters. I used to work at an AB brewery, so I got really excited when I first noticed this.

6. A neutron star is so-called because all the electrons and protons are forced by immense gravitational pressure to combine. The whole star is nearly as dense as a nucleus, or 5.9×10^14 times denser than water. This is equivalent to the weight of a 747 in the space of a grain of sand.

7. Have you ever tried dividing by zero on a calculator? A black hole is remarkably similar to dividing by zero in space.

8. Near a black hole, forces called “tidal forces” (which are felt everywhere, but are crazy strong near a black hole) can be very strong over short distances, ripping anything apart. This is called “spaghettification” (no joke).

9.  After the death of Ivan the Terrible in Russia, three men claimed to be his lost son, Dimitri. They are collectively referred to as the false Dimitris. The first successfully became Czar for ten months, after which his was killed and cremated. His ashes were loaded into a cannon and shot towards Poland, as he was believed to be a Polish spy.

10. The word “defenestration” means “the act of being thrown from a window”. The need for such a word was precipitated by two such events in Prague.

11. The 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics were held in St. Louis. In the marathon, the man who finished first hitched a ride in a car, one favorite made himself sick eating apples, and another favorite was run off course by an angry dog.

12. Toasted ravioli, or breaded deep-fried ravioli, are a culinary delight in St. Louis. Also popular is provel, a cheese used almost exclusively in St. Louis (giving a hilarious Wikipedia by someone who seems unimpressed).

13. The Cahokia mounds are a set of artificial hills in Southern Illinois. They may look unimpressive, but they are about a thousand years old, built by a native culture which later abandoned them. An old nickname of nearby St. Louis is “mound city”, because similar mounds used to be found in the city.

14. Peter the Great of Russia was 6′ 7″. In his early adulthood, he traveled to Europe to learn about shipbuilding, a passion of his. He tried to pass off as a member of the company, but his great height continuously gave him away. The little shack where he lived in Holland still stands near Amsterdam.

15. Over 100,000 serfs died building St. Petersburg, Russia. Peter the Great commissioned the city because the only Russian port at the time, Archangel, was occluded by ice 6 months of the year.

16. 5 people died building the Empire State Building.

17.  The first electric light bulb and dynamo west of the Mississippi was on the campus of the University of Missouri at Academic Hall. The building caught fire and burned to the ground, leaving only the front columns of the building. They remain standing today.

18. Thomas Jefferson has two tombstones: one at his home of Monticello, and one at the University of Missouri. The University of the Missouri is the first land-grant university in the Louisiana Purchase, and many aspects of the university were modeled after Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

19. Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks has had over 600 recorded shipwrecks. The most recent occurred during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

20. In November 1956, the USSR invaded Hungary. The Hungarian water polo team fled the country after watching the invasion from nearby mountains. On December 4, the Russian and Hungarian teams met in the gold medal qualifying game of the 1956 Olympics. The game is called the “Blood in the Water” game, due to its violence. The story is told in a documentary called “Freedom’s Fury.”

21. The shortest player in the history of baseball was Eddie Gaedel, who batted for the St. Louis Browns on August 19, 1951. He stood 3’7″ tall, and wore the number”1/8″. Because he had such a small strike zone, he was walked. His contract was voided by baseball the next day.

22. Mercury is a toxic metal that used to be used in thermometers due to its consistent thermal expansion. The mad hatter concept owes to mercury poisoning in old hat makers. A researcher at Duke died in 1997 after a few drops of methyl mercury fell on her glove; organic mercury is incredibly toxic.

23. Humans now have 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs, but at some point in history, they had 48 chromosomes, the same as chimpanzees. Scientists theorize that the number changed when the human population dwindled at one point in history.

24. Splenda is chemically identical to sugar, but it is the mirror image “left-handed” sugar. The left-handed sugar tastes the same as sugar, but it can’t be digested, because the human body only handles right-handed molecules. However, brain scans of people eating sugar or splenda show that the brain registers more reward sensation with sugar. The body can be clever! (I tried to find this study; unfortunately, searching about splenda turns up a lot of nonsense to wade through.)

25. Cuttlefish can change the color of their skin for communication or for camouflage. They can make complex, varying patterns, or they can match a stationary one. Check out this video of a cuttlefish matching a chessboard.

26. Women generally have a better sense of smell than men. in particular, they are better at smelling something they’ve smelled before, where men show less improvement.

27. The Marianas Trench, the deepest ocean trench, is 6.8 miles deep at its deepest point. We still know very little about our deep oceans.

28. Giant squids have been written about since ancient times, but we took our first picture of one in 2004.

29. Only two elements are liquid at standard room temperature: mercury and bromine.

30. The world’s deepest hand dug well in is Greensburg, Kansas. Greensburg was decimated by an EF5 tornado in 2007. It has since started rebuilding, and aims to be the first LEEDS certified green city in the US.

31. Hurricane Camille came over land in Louisiana in 1969 as a category 5 hurricane. Of the 259 deaths caused, 123 were in the mountains of Virginia, in Nelson County (over 1% of the population). The storm dropped 27 inches of rain in a few hours. 133 bridges were washed out, and birds drowned in the trees.

32. Many of Thomas Jefferson’s inventions still reside at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. There is a clock that tells the day of the week, a dumb-waiter, and a device for writing on two pieces of paper at once.

33. Blue eyes are caused by the presence of less pigment in the eye, resulting in a different light scattering pattern. Blue-eyed baseball players sometimes have much lower daytime hitting averages, because blue eyes filter out less glare.

34. Albinism is principally defined by eye defects caused by the lack of pigment during the formation of the eye. Without pigment in the iris, the eye doesn’t properly focus light, leading to numerous vision problems. It is possible to be albino while still having normally pigmented skin.

35. Catgut is prepared from animal intestine, and was used historically to make strings for instruments. Its name is probably a shortening from cattle gut, for those of us who like kitties.

36. Paper didn’t make its way to Europe until after the year 1000. It was made from old fabric and clothes. Old paper doesn’t yellow and age the same way as 1900’s paperbacks because it tended to be acid-free. Books can last centuries if the paper and ink are acid free.

37. Organisms around deep sea vents metabolize hydrogen sulfide from the vents to survive. 300 new species have been discovered around such vents; because exploration there is so hard, there are likely many more.

38. Hydrogen Fluoride is considered a weak acid, because hydrogen and fluoride bond strongly as resist dissociation. However, HF will go after just about anything including glass. HF is very dangerous to work with, because it does not hurt immediately. It seeps through the skin and begins to dissolve the bone.

39. Phosgene was used in chemical warfare in World War 1. The Japanese also used it extensively in World War 2. It smells like freshly cut grass.

40. The kite buggy was invented in China in the 1300s. It is a cart drawn by wind power. It seems hard.

41. Capillary action in trees helps fluid rise in trees. This is how tree several hundred feet tall supply water to the leaves.

42. The Negro Leagues baseball museum is in Kansas City, Missouri. Many of the negro leagues teams were fairly successful, and drew enthusiastic crowds. The exclusion of blacks from baseball was shameful, but they made something great in spite of it. You can learn about Satchel Paige or Buck O’Neal, as well as the various negro leagues teams.

43. The Eads bridge in St. Louis was the longest of its kind when it was built, over a mile wide. The supports are some of the deepest ever sunk, and 15 workers died due to decompression sickness.

44. The Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis is the biggest brewery in the world. It outputs 25 million barrels per year. You can visit for free and get some complimentary beer.

45. The international rose test garden in is Portland, Oregon. It is free to visit and they have over 550 varieties.

47. The male paradise whydah grows out a foot-long feather during mating time to impress the female paradise whydah. The paradise whydah is a parasitic species that uses the nest of the melba finch.The male whydah imitates the melba finches song. In captivity, the whydah cannot reproduce without the melba finch also present.

48. The carrion flower is an enormous bloom that stinks of rotting flesh. It can be up to nine feet tall.

49. Blue is a rare color for organic molecules. This may be because the color is associated with alkaline conditions, which are relatively rare in organisms.

50. Monarch butterflies can sense the earth’s magnetic field. They use it to complete their 2000 mile migration.

Come back Thursday for 50 more interesting factoids! Happy 100 posts!