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THIS WEEK IN SOUTH SIDE HISTORY: Veiled Prophet ball and parade were attempts to assert control
Missouri History Museum/ This wood engraving shows the first Veiled Prophet Parade on Oct. 8, 1878.

For generations, the Veiled Prophet Parade has been an occasion for fun for children and adults.

Many have seen the accompanying Veiled Prophet Ball as a party for the rich.

But when the first ball and parade were held on Oct. 8, 1878, there was a different purpose. That's the view of Thomas M. Spencer, assistant professor of history and philosophy at Northwest Missouri University in Maryville, in his book, "The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade 1877-1995."

The parade and ball came after the general strike of 1877, which happened after several railroads cut wages three times in four years, Spencer wrote. While some have described the parade as an attempt at healing the wounds, Spencer wrote, "The first Veiled Prophet parade was more a show of power than a gesture of healing."

Spencer wrote that those who founded the Veiled Prophet organization in March 1870 wanted to provide a way for businessmen to network and to revive interest in the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Association Fair held in October.

At the same time, though, they wanted to assert control over city streets after the challenge of the previous year.

"The Veiled Prophet Organization gave those who viewed themselves as the social and economic rulers of St. Louis a way to celebrate their status in a public way," Spencer wrote.

"Through their celebration, they greeted one another as members of an elite and reminded the less privileged of their place as well. The Veiled Prophet parade enabled St. Louis' city fathers to reward peace with a flamboyant spectacle, while at the same time asserting their absolute control over the city and conveying a readiness to meet all challenges," Spencer wrote.

New Orleans native Charles Slayback, who sold grain and fought in the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War, provided many of the ideas for a New Orleans-style Veiled Prophet Pageant and Parade to replace the trade procession that normally was held during the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Association Fair. He took the name "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan" from "Lalla Rookh" by the Irish Poet Thomas Moore.

The Veiled Prophet would choose the Queen of Love and Beauty and maids of honor from debutantes invited to attend.

The parade was organized by many of the city leaders who had put down the strike the year before. Police Commissioner John G. Priest was the first Veiled Prophet. He rode on a float along with an executioner and a butcher's block.

Over the years, the parade and ball grew and prospered and eventually was broadcast on television.

In 1972, the ball became a center of the controversy when Percy Green and the civil rights group Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) organized protests against it.

The identity of the Prophet has always been a closely held secret. But during the ball that year at Kiel Auditorium, the Prophet was unmasked by Gena Scott. She had obtained tickets to the ball and managed to sneak past security to approach the Prophet and swipe his mask.

The Prophet was Monsanto Executive Vice President Tom K. Smith. Both city newspapers refused to publish the name of the unmasked Prophet. The Veiled Prophet organization dropped charges of disturbing the peace and destroying public property because it would have to reveal the name of the Prophet.

ACTION then sued saying the city couldn't rent Kiel to a private club. Not long after that, the ball was moved to the Chase Hotel.

In time, the Veiled Prophet Organization started the Veiled Prophet Fair on the riverfront on the July 4 holiday. Later, that became Fair St. Louis. The Veiled Prophet Parade today is held in conjunction with Fair St. Louis on July 4.

The ball is held in December.

Last year, Katherine Remington Martin of Ladue was crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the 123rd annual Veiled Prophet Ball. More than 2,000 guests watched as Martin, 20, a St. Louis University student, was crowned at the event, held at the Adam's Mark Hotel.

Have a date you'd like us to write about? Contact Jim Merkel at 664-2700, Ext 134 or jmerkel@yourjournal.com.