Past Treasure of the Month – October 2011
The Rosenberg Library Museum displayed a heavy cardstock invitation to the Veiled Prophet’s Ball, ca. 1890 as the October Treasure of the Month. The elaborate summons consists of a rectangular envelope with a picture of the Prophet veiled by a thin piece of silk and an inscription that reads A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men. Inside the folder was an invitation to the Veiled Prophet’s Ball. This rectangular piece of cardstock and metal pendant informs its recipient Ye Veiled Prophet commands your presence at the Grand Music Hall, Exposition Building. Tuesday Evening Oct. 7th 1890. Although its original receiver remains a mystery, it is possible that a prominent Galvestonian could have been asked to attend the popular and prestigious event. This fascinating piece of Americana was donated by Mrs. John G. Sinclair in 1973.
The Veiled Prophets Parade and Ball was initiated in 1878 by a group of ‘anonymous’ businessmen in St. Louis called the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophets. Like many aspects of America’s past, the story of how and why the parade began is highly contested. According to the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophets, the annual event sought to boost tourism, increase civic engagement and patriotism in the community, and reassert St. Louis as the regions most important city. Other interpretations argue that the parade represented an attempt by genteel patriarchs to reassert their control over society with displays of force and class solidarity.
Amidst faltering agricultural and mechanical fairs and the social upheaval of the Great Uprising (an 1877 nationwide labor strike that brought the country to a virtual standstill), Charles Slayback and his brother Alonzo brought together many of St. Louis’ business and civic leaders to revive interest in harvest season events. Drawing inspiration from the poet Thomas Moore’s Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, the founders of the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophets wanted the organization’s members to remain anonymous so that the focus of the Order’s good deeds would be on the organization as a whole, and not any single member. Later on, secrecy would lead to controversy. Groups excluded from the Mysterious Order began to accuse the organization of being a front group for anti-labor, anti-Semitic, and racist elements in St. Louis society.
The Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophets created an entire mythology around the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan adapted from their city’s Mardi Gras Mystick Krewe of Comus. The story held that the prophet was a powerful world traveler with super-human traits who made his home in St. Louis.
Held for the past 130 years, the parade is one of the longest running in the United States, and was wildly successful from its inception. Organizers occasionally brought in floats from the New Orleans Mardi Gras, and participants shot off whistling torpedoes, making for quite the spectacle. Its many dazzling floats were sometimes arranged around a particular theme. The October 6, 1886 Galveston Daily News reported that “the prophet’s pageant consisted of twenty-one floats which were illustrated with the most interesting and important events of America’s history.” The first year alone saw as many as 50,000 visitors flood the streets of St. Louis, and within twenty years, attendance topped hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the nation.
The exclusive Veiled Prophets Ball required an invitation to attend. These invitations were very ornate and elaborate, and oftentimes became family heirlooms. Invitees usually came from the upper crust of society, but the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophets took great care in ensuring that the entire process remained shrouded in mystery. While the organization has become more transparent over the years, its origins, membership, and mythology will continue to intrigue and entice visitors for years to come.