Clad in white and adorned with jewels, wielding a pistol in one hand and a shotgun in the other, the Veiled Prophet has long cast an ominous shadow over the city of Saint Louis. The mysterious, otherworldly figure looms over city residents, embodies the city’s socioeconomic disparities, and provides a telling example of the city's many forms of public religion.
In 1878, former confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback met with the upper echelons of Saint Louis society and proposed the idea of forming a secret society engrossed in ostentatious ritualism and elaborate symbolism— outward assertions of the aristocracy’s untouchable grandeur and unwavering dominance. Such a display was important in order to reinforce the stature of the city, which, at this time, was rapidly beginning to be overshadowed by Chicago, 250 miles northeast of St. Louis, as a transportation and manufacturing hub. Thus, the myth of the Veiled Prophet was born: a mystic traveler of unknown origins who chose to settle in Saint Louis out of all the places he had been. With the Veiled Prophet as their figurehead, the Veiled Prophet Organization propagated the myth throughout the midwest in an effort to reassert regional superiority.
However, this is only one perceived purpose behind the creation of the Veiled Prophet. The other commonly held belief is far more sinister: the prophet was born, in part, in response to the Great Upheaval, a large-scale railroad strike in 1877. In his history of the VP, Thomas Spencer describes crowds of of thousands of workers, predominately black, gathering in protest of slashed wages and poor working conditions. The aristocracy’s response to the growing labor unrest, led by St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, was to throw a parade. (Beauchamp). The celebration featured floats, fireworks, and other attractions. The seemingly innocent event served the diverting attention from worker’s rights advocates and reiterating social hierarchies. The Veiled Prophet Parade, commonly referred to as the “VP parade,” is still celebrated to this day under the moniker “Fair Saint Louis.”
Class and race have historically been intimately intertwined, so the Veiled Prophet’s subjugation of worker’s rights should also be interpreted as an act of racial violence. Should more proof be required, one would have to look no further than the earliest depiction of the Veiled Prophet which bears a striking resemblance to a klansman. What, then, does it say about the city of Saint Louis that the VP Organization still maintains an active presence? Molly Gott, lead organizer of the “Unveil the Prophet” Movement based in Ferguson, Missouri, argues that, “The VP’s survival is a testament to the power of the St. Louis 1% and the insidiousness of racism in St. Louis… as long as we live in a place where the VP can continue to operate, we will not have justice… It represents the power of the ruling class of St. Louis. And connections between the VP and the Police are strong; the first ever veiled prophet was the Police Chief Commissioner” (Bolger). Today, the Veiled Prophet Organization has taken several steps to “remedy” their fraught history, such as officially desegregating the society and rebranding themselves as a “civic and philanthropic” organization committed to “enriching the city of Saint Louis.” However, as Gott explained, “these organizations are oppressive in their foundations, and reform will just cover that up.”
The philanthropic efforts of the Veiled Prophet are the most apparent in the community outreach and service done by the young women who wish to walk in the débutante presentation of the Veiled Prophet Ball. Every December, one member of the organization is selected to serve as the "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," to preside over the Ball. Five of the debutantes who attend the ball (by invitation only) are chosen by secret process to make up the "Veiled Prophet's Court of Honor." The Veiled Prophet also selects one to be crowned the "Queen of Love and Beauty."
As one might expect of a secret society, information is hard to come by, and an interview with a member even harder. However, we were able to successfully reach out to Alexandra Schnarre, one of the “Maidens of Honor.” In her full length interview, Schnarre recounts her experiences and gives her perspective on the organization. She draws special attention to the emphasis, or lack thereof, placed on the accomplishments of the organization’s women. “Here you are getting presented to the world and, as a woman, that’s all you’re ever going to do,” she felt of the pageantry. “It tells women that all they are good for in life is dressing up and marrying a well-established man,” she continues, as men are the only one’s who hold leadership positions in the society. She also touches on a vein of tacit elitism that runs through Saint Louis society, the looming question at any social gathering: “where did you go to high school?” While perhaps seemingly innocent, this question is a way of making snap judgements and determining social status. At its core, the idea of women being presented to society while masked men look on is reflective of a deeply patriarchal institution.
While not directly affiliated with the Christian faith, as a civic organization whose membership draws from St. Louis business, cultural, and political elites, the VP organization is comprised of primarily white, affluent, Christians (75% of St. Louisans identify as Christian). Furthermore, the troubling connections to the Ku Klux Klan, whose members swear to uphold Christian morality, may be indicative of religious alignment. Secret societies are a strong example of the intersection between politics, religion, and in the case of many, race. Like any society, secret or not, the VP is defined by the set of values and beliefs it holds, how its members self-identify, and how they view their role in the greater world. While the VP doesn’t explicitly identify itself as a religious organization as a whole, the homogeneity of its members and its historical connections--iconographically and culturally--to extremist sects of Christianity cannot simply be written off as coincidence. Additionally, this homogenous identity creates a de facto cultural religion--especially as it continues into the 21st century. As the founding ideology of the VP may be fading into history the traditions they uphold, annual celebrations, and rituals they continue are still alive and well. While these practices may lack a type of theological reasoning now, the continued practice perpetuates a type of religion of its own--based in culture and history instead of theology and divinity. With this in mind, we can look at the VP as a kind of "secular religion," itself within a community of religious individuals who view their collective actions as an expression of their own religion.
Written and researched by Jon Ferguson and Jen Jones.