For all the civic hoopla over bounding growth during the 1870s, it was a time of deep trouble in working-class neighborhoods. A Wall Street financial panic threw people out of work and cut wages.
On July 16, 1877, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad — a line connecting to St. Louis — slashed pay a third time in three years. Crews in Martinsburg, W.Va., refused to move trains. Resistance spread. Strikers were shot down in Reading, Pa., and Cumberland, Md.
In East St. Louis, railroad workers moved to halt traffic over the Eads on July 22. The next day, their brethren in St. Louis took over Union Depot on 12th (Tucker) and Poplar streets, the city’s main station.
Workers in many local industries joined in a wildfire of protest, creating the first and probably largest general strike in the United States. The strike controlled the city for four days until it was snuffed by a counterattack by the upper classes. Somehow, nobody died.
For three nights, thousands of strikers attended rallies at the open-air Lucas Market at Olive and 12th streets. It was a fitting location for the city’s gaping social divisions.
St. Louis’ rich lived in fine homes to the west on Olive, Pine and Chestnut streets, around Lafayette Park and on tony new Vandeventer Place, near North Grand and Delmar boulevards. They dined at Tony Faust’s restaurant, at Broadway and Elm Street.
The poor shared woeful conditions in neighborhoods north and south of downtown, running west from the river. A squalid tenement called Castle Thunder was at Eighth and Carr streets, one block northwest of today’s Edward Jones Dome. Nearby were shabby rows called Clabber Alley and Wildcat Chute.
In 1877, less than a fifth of St. Louis’ workforce wore suits and ties. The rest toiled for 36 railroads, 32 breweries, 28 iron foundries, 26 flour mills, 500 clothing manufacturers and other grimy places. Many worked for less than $1 a day.
The first recorded strike in St. Louis was by the Benevolent Society of Journeyman Tailors in 1835. Unions grew during the Civil War but were crippled by the financial Panic of 1873.
The high tide of the general strike in 1877 was on July 25, when workers marched through downtown singing the “Marseillaise,” the anthem of the French Revolution. Police hid behind the walls of the Four Courts Building, at 11th and Clark streets.
Nervous business leaders gathered volunteers and guns for a militia. On July 27, more than 600 marched upon strike headquarters in Schuler’s Hall, at Broadway and Biddle Street. A vanguard of police rushed the building, arresting 75 strikers. The rest fled.
Federal troops retook the East St. Louis yards the next day. The strike was broken.
Eight months later, leading businessmen founded the Veiled Prophet organization. Riding upon floats bought from Mardi Gras in New Orleans, members rolled their first parade on Oct. 8, 1878. It was a blunt assertion of social hierarchy.
That year’s prophet — the only one ever revealed by the secret society — was Police Commissioner John G. Priest, who had worked to suppress the strike.
Slayback brothers help found Veiled Prophet in year after General Strike
Charles and Alonzo Slayback were brothers from New Orleans. Charles was a wealthy grain dealer, Alonzo a lawyer who had been a Confederate officer.
They were leading organizers in 1878 of the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophet, a secret society of successful men in St. Louis. Their first meeting was in the swank Lindell Hotel, at Sixth Street and Washington Avenue.
Charles proposed forming the organization to revive the city's flagging Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, an annual event. Alonzo added the sparkle of a mysterious prophet and a parade for the masses.
For high society, they held a formal ball. Alonzo's daughter, Susie, was the first "belle of the ball," forerunner of the annual VP queen.
In 1882, Alonzo Slayback and the Post-Dispatch jousted over a congressional race. Slayback called the newspaper a "blackmailing sheet," the Post-Dispatch responded with a nasty attack.
On Oct. 13, Slayback charged into the office of managing editor John Cockerill, who shot Slayback dead. The newspaper claimed Slayback had a pistol, but his friends swore he was unarmed. Cockerill was not charged.