It is held by the Veiled Prophet Organization, which was founded in 1878 by prominent St. Louisans, including a former Confederate officer. Each year, one member is chosen to serve as the "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," to preside over the Veiled Prophet Ball and its roughly 2,000 attendees. The event's focus is on the 50-plus debutantes who are walked down the aisle by notable St. Louis businessmen, usually a friend of their father's, to bow before the Veiled Prophet. Five are chosen by the Veiled Prophet to be the Special Maids of Honor of the "Veiled Prophet's Court of Honor", and one is crowned the "Queen of Love and Beauty".
Inspired by the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the founders aimed to create an annual local celebration similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, eventually to include pageantry and costuming as well as a parade with floats. The parade and ball were both originally held in October. The ball was eventually moved to the Friday before Christmas; the parade and fair celebration, once called the VP (Veiled Prophet) Fair and VP Parade, are now called Fair St. Louis and America's Birthday Parade and are held during the week of Independence Day.
The event had its roots in the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, an annual harvest festival which had been held in St. Louis since 1856. It attracted agricultural crops, crafts, demonstrations and attendees from throughout the region. In the economic difficulties after the American Civil War in the 1870s, such events declined. City boosters devised the Veiled Prophet Fair in an attempt to reclaim, from the rapidly growing city of Chicago, pre-eminence for St. Louis as a manufacturing center and agricultural shipping point.
On March 20, 1878, Charles Slayback, a grain broker (who had spent several years in New Orleans after the Civil War and become acquainted with its Mardi Gras traditions) called a meeting of local business leaders at the Lindell Hotel. Together with his brother Alonzo, a Confederate Army officer, Slayback created a mythology for a secret elite society, whose public demonstrations would coincide with the annual fair. The Slaybacks borrowed the name "the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan" from Irish poet Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh; they also incorporated features from Comus of New Orleans. In Moore's poem, the Veiled Prophet was a horribly disfigured man who considered himself a prophet. In the Veiled Prophet Organization's version, the Prophet was a world traveler who chose to bless St. Louis, and was later marketed as a type of Santa Claus figure. The first parade and ball were held on October 8, 1878; attendance at the parade was estimated at more than 100,000.
"Boosting trade was one of the main goals of the Veiled Prophet organization," and "class control" was "a second, equally important objective," wrote historian Thomas M. Spencer of Northwest Missouri State University. "Newspaper feature stories since the 1950s have described the 'first Veiled Prophet parade' as a way of healing the wounds of a bitter labor-management fight," the 1877 St. Louis general strike. However, the first Veiled Prophet parade was more a show of force than a gesture of healing."
The October 6, 1878, Missouri Republican described the Veiled Prophet dressed with a white hood and robe while armed with a pistol and rifle. "It will be readily observed from the accoutrements of the Prophet that the procession is not likely to be stopped by street cars or anything else," the newspaper wrote. Spencer interpreted the reference of the Republican to "streetcars" as related to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's description of the 1878 parade says the Veiled Prophet was "costumed in green and red" with "a mosquito bar over its face." While the image of the Veiled Prophet displayed in the Missouri Republican bears resemblance to the uniforms of the Second Ku Klux Klan, it predates the adoption of the uniforms by 37 years, the latter being inspired by 1915's The Birth of a Nation.
The Prophet was selected secretly from among male members, who were made up of St. Louis's business and civic elite. The first prophet was Police Commissioner John G. Priest. Although the identity of a given year's Grand Oracle, or Veiled Prophet, was officially a secret, early holders of the office were reported to include Col. Alonzo W. Slayback, Capt. Frank Gaiennie, John A. Scudder, Henry C. Haarstick, George Bain, Robert P. Tansey, George H. Morgan, Col. J. C. Normile, Wallace Delafield, John B. Maude, Dr. D. P. Rowland, Charles E. Slayback, Leigh I. Knapp, David B. Gould, Henry Paschell, H. I. Kent, Dr. E. Pretorious, Win. H. Thompson, and Win. A. Hargadine. There have also been suggestions that the Veiled Prophet is the richest man in St. Louis of a given year, or the man that donates the most money to the organization that year.
The Queen of Love and Beauty and later the maids of honor were selected by the Veiled Prophet from among the debutantes who had received invitations to the ball. The list of invitees was determined by a process never made public. The supply of tickets was limited to members of the VP organization, which had a secret constitution, and the assignment of these non-transferable tickets required the organization's approval. The Veiled Prophet danced the "Royal Quadrille" with the Queen and then awarded her some keepsake of the occasion. Over the years, the Queens and their courts received pearl necklaces or silver tiaras, which became family heirlooms (as did the elaborate invitations themselves).
Queens include the daughters of the most influential members of the organization. In 1999, actor Ellie Kemper was crowned Queen of Love and Beauty. Kemper's father, David Kemper, was then the CEO and Chairman of Commerce Bank.
In 1928, Mary Ambrose Smith, who was selected as Queen, was found to have secretly married Dr. Thomas Birdsall days earlier, violating the rule that the Queen of Love and Beauty must be a "maiden." In a 1979 interview with the St. Louis Times, Smith recalled how the Veiled Prophet:
gave her travelling money and told her to "begone, don't register at any large hotels, and don't use your real name."... Smith was "made to feel she disgraced her family. None of her friends stuck by her (she was told she could not visit their houses), she was never invited to another VP ball, her picture was removed from the collection of queens' portraits at the Missouri Historical Society, and her name was deleted from the Social Register.[This quote needs a citation]
The ball, parade and fair became a St. Louis tradition, though not without controversy. "The traditional VP celebration has represented for St. Louisans a perceived link between different components of the community in a holiday celebration, while also reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite," the St. Louis city government website says. Historian Spencer believes that the event generally revealed rather than soothed class conflicts. In 1882, public objections were raised by Irish Americans to a float which featured that ethnic group, and it was withdrawn from the parade. Onlookers used pea-shooters, rocks and other missiles against the floats. Confectioners' shops stocked the pea-shooters in anticipation of the parade, one observer recalled.
The VP parade had been created in part to displace the parades regularly held by the trade unions. Spencer believes it cast workingmen in a passive rather than active role, not merely in the celebration, but in the mythology asserted for the history and economic life of the city. Occasionally the unions would stage events intended to mock the pretensions of the VP Ball. The leading socialist and working-class newspaper, St. Louis Labor, "wrote negatively" about the VP event and its organizers for decades.
But the parade continued to attract large crowds and exerted a certain fascination. In 1949, for the first time, the ball was broadcast on KSD-TV (now KSDK), and the station estimated that more than 80% of area viewers tuned in. According to historian Spencer, "Most St. Louisans probably enjoyed the 'fairy tale' nature of it. By watching the ball, they were vicariously living the experiences of the elites dancing across their television screens." According to Harry Levins, "The parade was aimed at boosting the spirit of the city's common folk. The ball was aimed at reassuring the city's elite of their exclusive status." The early pageants had been partially meant to move working-class viewers to awe at the accomplishments of great men, all of whom were said to be ancestors of the Prophet.
By 1969, the ball was the object of civil rights protests, resulting in numerous arrests. Percy Green and the civil rights group Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) conducted numerous protests against VP activities. Green has stated numerous times that his goals were to stop the use of the public Kiel Auditorium for the organization's private party, to get the organization's leaders, all heads of St. Louis corporations, to hire more minority workers, specifically black males, and to abolish the organization that flaunted its wealth in front of the city's poorest residents. It was said that editorial staffs suppressed much of the reporting of the protests by ACTION against VP activities. Pat Buchanan, then an editorial writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper, particularly portrayed the group as radical dissidents. ACTION used dramatic displays to get attention, often laying in front of VP Parade floats, or marching outside of the VP Ball with the Black Veiled Prophet and the Queen of Love and Human Justice.  Green had a flair for the dramatic, and had once climbed the St. Louis Arch with suction cups during its construction to protest the lack of minority workers.
On December 22, 1972, in Kiel Auditorium, the three Caucasian female members of ACTION crashed the ball using tickets given to them by Veiled Prophet insiders. Gena Scott, Phyllis Knight, and Jane Sauer (née Gottlieb) dressed in evening gowns and entered the ball, sitting in a high balcony reserved for unimportant friends. Knight's actions that evening are unknown, but Sauer crossed the auditorium and threw leaflets from an upper balcony while screaming "Down with the Veiled Prophet!" Amid Sauer's diversion, Scott slid down a three-inch thick electrical cable towards the stage. The cable snapped and dropped Scott an estimated 50 feet onto the steps of the stage. Scott says she broke three ribs and blacked out for a moment, then convinced guards that she had fallen from the balcony. After being escorted to the back of the stage, Scott diverted a security person's attention and ran up behind the Veiled Prophet's guards, the Bengal Lancers. She was able to get even closer, and Scott reached forward and yanked the mask off the Veiled Prophet, then threw it to the ground. There was complete silence as the unmasked prophet was seen to be Monsanto Company Executive Vice President Tom K. Smith, whose name was published in only the St. Louis Journalism Review.
Lucy Ferriss, one of the debutantes seated on stage that night whose aunt, Ann Chittenden Ferriss, was the 1931 Queen of Love and Beauty, wrote about the events and interviewed Sauer and Scott for her memoir Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante. Ferriss noted that her date, a young Jewish man that she brought specifically to scorn the Veiled Prophet's racist views, clapped as everyone else sat stunned, as he assumed it was all part of the show.
After a moment, Smith picked up the veil and placed it back on his head, and the ball went on as normal. Scott was later arrested after being taken to the hospital to have her ribs taped, but charges were ultimately dropped, as the Veiled Prophet Organization would have had to publicly admit that Tom K. Smith had been the Veiled Prophet.
In early 1973, Scott was awakened when her car was bombed outside of her apartment. Her apartment was vandalized numerous times. The unveiling of the Prophet was the most dramatic disruption in ACTION's long campaign (1965–1976) to encourage the many CEOs in the VP Organization to hire more minority workers at their businesses. Other efforts include in 1975, ACTION member Patrick Dougherty unfurling a banner on stage reading "ACTION Protests Racist VP," and in 1976, two ACTION members sprayed what Green called "commercial tear gas" at VP audience members along the stage. While VP spokesmen said they took no notice of ACTION, its leader, Percy Green, had been laid off in 1964 and never was able to get another job for a St. Louis corporation.
The activists encouraged disbanding the VP organization so that public and private funds could be spent on worthier projects. Spencer sees the unveiling at the Ball as a crucial moment in a long process of disintegration of the civic unity and class harmony that the VP Fair claimed to celebrate. According to Spencer, by the late 1970s, the wives and daughters of the elite, for whom the Ball constituted a sort of marriage-market, had become resistant to its inherent sexism. ACTION member Jacqueline Bell "claimed the elites in the organization were 'heavyweights' who 'auction off their daughters among themselves, showing no respect for women.'" Even members of the VP Organization began to express distaste: William Maritz, a one-time Veiled Prophet, said, "'A lot of members' in the late 1970s 'felt uneasy with the social connotations' and that 'people were saying 'get that goddamned ball off of television, don't force that on the community."
The subversive act of unveiling the Prophet revealed what Spencer said had been the classist underpinnings of the event from its inception. Only in 1979 did the Veiled Prophet Organization admit its first black members, three physicians. In 1987, fair officials and St. Louis Metro Police Department were confronted with accusations of racism when they closed the Eads Bridge to pedestrian access, which reduced the ability of attendees from East St. Louis from reaching the fair. East St. Louisans, mostly African American, were blamed for the crime that had been occurring at the fair. Judge John F. Nangle ordered the bridge to reopen, saying that there was no proof that the crime was caused by East St. Louisans. According to Ronald Henges, "People just didn't want other people flaunting their wealth and their position."
The 1980s and 1990s saw the Veiled Prophet Organization become more secretive as the group took steps to lessen its public profile. The Veiled Prophet Ball was reworked in order to be a more private event and the parade changed to be more focused towards general entertainment, though the Veiled Prophet and his entourage still rode in the Parade. The largest change came in 1992 as the VP Fair was renamed to Fair St. Louis, removing all reference to the Veiled Prophet in the Fair's name. Because of construction related to redesign of roadways and the National Gateway Arch Memorial, Fair St. Louis was moved to Forest Park in 2014 and was held there again in 2015.
The ball still occurs on the Friday before Christmas each year, is attended by thousands, and has been protested recently by Black Lives Matter members, as well as the St. Louis based group Missourians Organized for Reform and Empowerment.
In 2018, two "jewel-encrusted" gold and silver Veiled Prophet tiaras, worn by a Special Maid in 1894 and the Queen of Love and Beauty in 1896, were stolen from the Missouri History Museum. They have never been returned.
Though the organization members still dress as the culturally appropriated Bengal Lancer guards, including faux facial hair and darkened skin, the Veiled Prophet organization has tried to recreate their image in 2003 with the addition of the Community Service Initiative (CSI). The CSI arm of the VP organization participates in a wide variety of projects in and around the city of St. Louis.
Due to the demands of world wars, the ball was suspended in 1917–1918 and from 1942 through 1945.
In the first part of the 20th century, the ball was held at the St. Louis Coliseum. Later it was held at the Kiel Auditorium until ACTION's lawsuit against the organization for shutting down a public auditorium for weeks at a time, arguing that the common taxpayers did not have access to the event. In the 1950s, the Chase Park Plaza Hotel constructed the opulent Khorassan Ballroom specifically to host the annual debutante ball, and the event was formally moved to the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in December of 1975.
Beginning in 1974 the Veiled Prophet Fair was held on the riverfront.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the Ball has been held at the Downtown St. Louis Hyatt at the Arch.
The Fair was moved from the riverfront to Forest Park in 2014 and 2015 due to construction in the area around the Gateway Memorial Arch and reworking of roadways and the park.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (March 2019)
The Veiled Prophet queens have included:
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