Devin Thomas O’Shea
Each December in St. Louis, Missouri, a secret society dedicated to an enigmatic character known as “the Veiled Prophet” hosts a debutante ball. Fifty daughters of the rich are paraded forth on the arms of their fathers’ colleagues, their business partners, their friends from the club. Onstage, they bow before an anonymous figure seated on a golden throne, his face hidden behind a veil. One lucky daughter is crowned the Veiled Prophet’s Queen of Love and Beauty. She takes her seat beside the faceless man. She is the only debutante allowed to wear white.
For most of the wealthy attendees, this symbology likely has little more meaning than any other mysterious, self-consciously cultish campus society, like the ones they might have joined at their elite colleges. The debutante ball is just another gala in a series of champagne-party traditions: a mix of prom, a daddy-daughter dance, and Mardi Gras.
In 2021, the actress Ellie Kemper ran into some controversy when photos of her 1999 crowning as Veiled Prophet Queen resurfaced. Kemper was nineteen at the time, just as many of the debutantes are, but her youth did not spare her from the media cycle. The story spread under headlines like, “Kimmy Schmidt is a KKK Princess.” This is not entirely untrue: the Veiled Prophet is, in fact, a creation of the 1870s Klan, and is supposed to evoke a Klansman himself. For over fifty years, Black St. Louisans have been demanding that his image be removed from public life.
A year after the Kemper debacle, Trudy Busch Valentine, heiress to the Busch beer fortune, announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket. She was also made a Queen in 1977; ever since that particular fact was disinterred, it has continued to dog her senatorial bid. Becoming the Veiled Prophet’s Queen—drinking from the red cup—has branded these young women with an eldritch symbol of power and whiteness. For those who end up hoping to burnish their future careers with more liberal bona fides, serving a stint as Queen has turned out to be something of a curse.
Yet the contemporary Society is not the origin of the Veiled Prophet’s mythical visage. In fact, the symbol of the Prophet has a long history of serving as a stand-in for, in different contexts, imperialism, patriarchy, and white supremacism. It has a general aura of fearsome power. In the process, the Prophet has accrued a great deal of (very well-documented) historical baggage. St. Louis’s Veiled Prophet Society, however, denies these demonstrable associations that their mascot has earned. However, they are willing to admit one connection: that the Veiled Prophet and his associated lore is derived from Lalla Rookh (1817), a book of poetry by the Irish writer Thomas Moore.
Though it was once ubiquitous, few have read Moore’s poem in a long time. It seems doubtful that any of St. Louis’s proud Veiled Prophet members—among them right-wing elements, corporate executives, power brokers, and higher-ups from intelligence agencies and defense industries—have read it either. If they had, they might wonder how such a narrative became associated with the historical networks of influence that run through St. Louis, and the South as a whole. (Those networks are themselves interwoven with racist reaction, anti-Black and anti-worker KKK vigilantism, and the Confederate cause.)
After all, Moore’s poem, an exoticized, orientalist product of the early 19th century, was written on very different premises. In adopting Moore’s Veiled Prophet as their symbolic embodiment, the St. Louis powerful have chosen to associate themselves with a megalomaniacal dictator who sends the young men of his kingdom off on endless wars, deploying chemical weapons and psyops, and gorging on power. Perhaps the metaphor is more apt than they know.
Thomas Moore, though an Irishman, spent much of his early career writing in the style of English folklore1. That was what his audience wanted—the English reader was the kingmaker of literature in the early 1800s. Moore’s hit2, Irish Melodies (1807), was popular amongst the colonizers of Ireland at the time. Today it comes across as a little hamfisted: “somewhat overloaded with harps, bards and minstrels of Erin.”
Hearts, stars, and horseshoes—poems like “The Minstrel Boy” turned Ireland into an exaggerated caricature, a set of catchall symbols used to depict a romantic view of a Celtic culture that many English would never experience firsthand. (In part, because they were actively stamping it out.) The orientalist fiction of Khorassan is no different.
In the 1810s, Lord Byron advised3 his fellow poet to get out of a creative rut by experimenting in a hot new genre: cartoonishly racist depictions of Middle East. Moore decided to mobilize those tropes to made some barely disguised (veiled, you might say) critiques of those actively colonizing his country. The crown’s censors of the time would only permit so much dissent to enter public discourse, but if Moore set his story in the faraway land of “Khorassan,” then church and king might not read between the lines.
Moore’s Veiled Prophet is based on a real historical figure. al-Muqanna (المقنع in Arabic, meaning “The Veiled One”), who lived around 700 A.D., was a Persian rebel and cult leader whose boutique religion brought together aspects of Islam and Zoroastrianism. A chemist, he was a victim of a lab accident, in which an explosion purportedly burned and scarred part of his face. al-Muqanna died in 783 A.D. in what is now northern Afghanistan. It was said that, to hide his disfigurement, he wore a veil all his life.
There are numerous versions of the al-Muqanna story. In some, he perishes by immersing himself in a bathtub of mercury in his palace buried deep inside a mountain. Others attribute to him the power to summon the moon from within a well. The folktales are, among other things, parables about God’s providence and man’s hubris, and the dangers of screwing with chemistry.
Khorassan is a real Iranian province. But in referring to Moore’s setting, we have to speak of “Khorassan,” the orientalist trope, of the type famously theorized by Edward Said. Moore’s “Khorassan” is a product of the poet’s armchair speculation and an exoticized image of “The Orient” that was refracted through multiple distorting lenses, deriving largely from books penned by other white European authors. The setting is like a painted stage background on a Hollywood set. Such renditions evoke a dreamland where Christian-European fantasies of “the other” can run wild, demonizing and dehumanizing foreign peoples. Ultimately, these representations are ideological—the imagery of brutal, godless warlords, dens of drugs and sin, and untamed barbarism serve to justify imperial conquest.
Lalla Rookh is a complicated (and overwrought) text. “The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan” is one of three parables nested inside a larger frame story. It is a long poem about a tyrannical leader, a strongman who promises to bind back together the fraying threads of a society, reforming the fasci. Instead, upon achieving power, this lying despot enriches those closest to him while cannibalizing the empire. His nihilistic, runaway profiteering and self-aggrandizement ultimately ends in civil war and mass suicide. Moore’s framing moral inquiry seems to be, “Is it better to have true love? Or money and power?” Its answer: love. (Probably.)
We enter Moore’s story with the Prophet-Chief, The Great Mokanna, sitting on his throne in that “delightful Province of the Sun,” ancient Persia. This leader wears a silver veil over his “dazzling brow.” Allah had appeared in physical form to Mokanna, blessing him with miraculous powers. Mortal man is not yet ready to look upon the Veiled Prophet’s face; doing so could result in something of a Raiders of the Lost Ark situation.
Moore’s Veiled Prophet uses his powers to convince a well-known hero named Azim to pledge allegiance to a rebellion against Islam. (On Mokanna’s banner is emblazoned “Freedom to the World.”) Azim is shipped off to the front lines, exchanging his “sylvan dwelling-place for the rude tent and war-field’s deathful clash.”
The Veiled Prophet has gathered around him a harem (without which no European rendering of “The Orient” would be complete.) His concubines want to see beneath the veil—a sort of erotic-spiritual fixation. Azim’s lover, Zelica, also kneels before the divine ruler.
For two summers, Zelica waits for her lover Azim to return, but “ill-omened rumors” seem to indicate that the hero has died in battle. Zelica is thrown into blind grief. The only way to be beside Azim again is in Paradise. How do you get to Paradise? Fortunately, according to the Veiled Prophet Mokanna (who now holds Zelica enrapt in a kind of trance), all of those in his harem are automatically Heaven-bound.
In the afterlife, Zelica is promised a frolic through fragrant fields by Azim’s side: “His own blest, purified, eternal bride!” But to be purified and renewed, she must become the wife of Mokanna. Zelica drinks from a red cup, and is thereby enslaved to the Prophet.
The Veiled Prophet has a penchant for retiring to his garden to soliloquize. He will select a “chosen nymph” from his harem to “share his orison” (i.e., to pray with him). One night, it is Zelica’s turn. She finds the Prophet sipping golden wine, getting a little loose. As Zelica approaches, Mokanna, laying on a couch in the glow of luxurious lamps (more indispensable scene-setting for the orientalist), muses aloud and talks some shit. He’s disgusted with humans, the stupidity of their faith. Naturally, his sympathies lie more with Satan—the classic pivot of the edgelord atheist.
Ye creatures of a breath, proud things of clay,
To whom if LUCIFER, as gran-dams say,
Refused tho’ at the forfeit of heaven’s light
To bend in worship, LUCIFER was right!
The Veiled Prophet reveals that, in fact, he does not believe in Heaven. Mokanna despises humans who tell each other fanciful stories about miracles and incredible creeds, “Whose faith enshrines the monsters which it breeds.” Zelica has been conned—and she is now his possession, his bride. The speaker of the poem now brands Mokanna “the impostor.” He seals the deal by showing Zelica what lies beneath the veil. And what does she see? As the Veiled Prophet lifts his disguise, Zelica blacks out and collapses; the reader is left to imagine some divine terror.
Seasons pass. Azim, it transpires, still lives, and returns from conquest to find the palace of Mokanna decked out with expensive loot that the Prophet has accumulated at the expense of the people. Doubts begin to occur to Azim: the vibe is a “witching scene,” more like some gauche conspicuous consumption that the divine route to Heaven that was promised. He follows the sound of music through the halls in search of Zelica. Azim is heartbroken to discover that his girlfriend has taken up the lute—and is now among the Veiled Prophet’s harem. They are still in love, but Zelica is deep under Mokanna’s spell, which is, unfortunately, legally binding. Two other harem nymphs come out and make fun of the couple for being star-crossed idiots.
Distressed and disillusioned, Azim leaves Khorassan to join a rival caliph’s army. He sets out to take on the heretical Veiled Prophet and the senseless bloodshed he has wrought:
Around the Prophet-Chief—all eyes still bent
Upon that glittering Veil, where’er it went,
That beacon thro’ the battle’s stormy flood,
That rainbow of the field whose showers were blood!
In the course of the climactic battle, as the Veiled Prophet’s forces deal death all around, it’s Azim who is able to cut through the enemy ranks, causing Khorassan’s allies to flee. In a desperate last attempt, the Veiled Prophet conjures a distraction (“Look over there!”), raising a glowing orb from “the Holy Well.” It seems to be the type of magic trick involving mercury for which the Prophet is known—but it rallies what remains of the Veiled Prophet’s warriors. They plunge into the caliph’s troops in a “Charge of the Light Brigade”-style massacre. Yet despite their sacrifice, Mokanna’s camp is overrun. Retreating, he whisks Zelica away. Behind sealed palace gates, Mokanna gathers his last scattered followers and threatens to unleash the superweapon hidden by his veil:
Beneath this Veil, the flashing of whose lid
Could like a sun-stroke of the desert wither
Millions of such as yonder Chief brings hither…
After midnight, Zelica is led into the royal gardens. Amidst the battles around the palace, the heavens have been stained a dramatic red. In the same garden where Mokanna first lifted his veil, Zelica learns that the Prophet has chosen the Kool-Aid route: his last followers lay dead, felled by poison. “They’ve been my dupes and shall be even in death,” Mokanna says. He wants Zelica to take the last drops of poison and deliver a deadly kiss to Azim. The big man himself doesn’t plan to survive, and goes out in a tub full of unspecified substances:
Thou seest yon cistern in the shade—‘tis filled
With burning drugs for this last hour distilled;
There will I plunge me, in that liquid flame—
Fit bath to lave a dying Prophet’s frame!
After the Veiled Prophet casts himself into the chemical fire, the caliph and his troops batter down the palace gates and find its occupants dead. But “forth from the ruined walls” they glance a silver-veiled figure, highlighted in a sunbeam. Azim chucks a spear and expertly impales the target—and oh shit, oh fuck, it’s Zelica. It’s my girlfriend. Goddammit.
As she dies, Zelica explains that she put on the veil to do a suicide-by-cop, hoping to be “struck by a thousand death-darts” and delivered, along with the Prophet’s retinue, unto Heaven’s Gate (as it were). She didn’t intend for her death to occur by Azim’s hand, but no matter. Azim, she says, should go on living. See you in heaven! The denouement: Azim grows old and dies at the site of his first love’s grave. “He and his Zelica sleep side by side.”
A great deal of orientalist artwork suggests that “the Orient” is a place of taboo, hidebound tradition, and inherent volatility—a savage land in need of taming, of civilizing order. Colonial dominance, these narratives imply, would be a welcome improvement. Moore’s Lalla Rookh (ironically, given its origins as a denunciation of English imperialism) became hugely popular throughout 19th-century Europe as the colonial project advanced. The story proved to have ideological utility in derogating populations with a nebulous foreignness—for instance, French theatrical adaptations of the poem grew popular as France extended its empire into North Africa.
The poem’s verdict on the Veiled Prophet is unambiguous: the narrator makes it clear that Mokanna is “The Impostor,” a demon, a devil. More than anything, he is a cynic, turning the faith of his followers to his own godless ends:
So shall they build me altars in their zeal,
Where knaves shall minister and fools shall kneel;
Where Faith may mutter o’er her mystic spell,
Written in blood—and Bigotry may swell
The sail he spreads for Heaven with blasts from hell!
So shall my banner thro’ long ages be
The rallying sign of fraud and anarchy…
It is impossible to read this poem and interpret the Veiled Prophet as a swell guy doing his best. Yet the character—maybe just by virtue of being kind of badass—apparently proved a compelling one for later bigots, who enlisted him into their own cause. (Though, perhaps not coincidentally, these adoptees were, like the Prophet, also fans of slaveholding.)
In 1878, an engraving depicting a version of the Veiled Prophet character ran in St. Louis’s Missouri Republican newspaper—a publication sympathetic to the Confederacy. The illustration’s placement was the doing of a former Confederate cavalry officer named, preposterously, Alonzo Slayback. St. Louis at the time was facing a trolley operator’s strike, amidst other labor unrest, and Slayback’s intent in printing the image was clear: the strike (in addition to the end of slavery and Reconstruction) was something to be resisted with violent force. The Prophet, shown as a hooded warrior-clown, was coming to St. Louis, armed (anachronistically) with several guns, eager to stamp out the strike.
In the antebellum years of 1855 to ‘56, Alonzo Slayback was a “border ruffian”—a raider who would cross from Missouri into Kansas to intimidate anti-slavery voters. In “the war between the States,” Slayback’s wife would later write in his obituary, “he promptly took the side that to him was right.” After the Civil War broke out, Slayback fought as a cavalry officer in the Trans-Mississippi theater, south of St. Louis, between Missouri and Arkansas. After the Battle of Lexington, Slayback was made colonel of a cavalry regiment, which came to be known as “Slayback’s Lancers.”
Before the ink had dried on Jefferson Davis’s signature at the Appomattox surrender, Slayback, his compatriot General Sterling “Old Pap” Price, and other Confederate higher-ups were booking it south to Mexico, fleeing the firing squad. Their quixotic plan was to set up a satellite Confederate state at the edge of Mexican Emperor Maximilian I’s kingdom. There, they would reintroduce slavery to Mexico, where it had been outlawed since 1837.
In exile, Alonzo wrote saccharine poems4 about burying his beloved stars and bars in the riverbed of the Rio Grande. For months, his “New Virginia Colony” petitioned the Emperor to establish a new slave state. Maximilian would never acquiesce, but to this day, there remain traces of ex-Confederates in South America, especially Venezuela and Brazil.5 At some point between the outbreak of the war and his exile, it’s almost certain that Slayback read a wildly popular book of poems called Lalla Rookh.
Pardons for Confederate officers began at Appomattox and accelerated after Lincoln’s assassination; the threat to Alonzo and Ole Pap soon receded, and both wound up back in the Mississippi region. Alonzo and his brother Charles joined the New Orleans bourgeoise, then moved north to St. Louis. (Old Pap, for his part, died shitting himself to death6 in St. Louis in 1866.)
Three years after Appomattox, in New Orleans, a secret parade society called The Mystic Crewe of Comus chose their Mardi Gras theme: “The Departure of Lalla Rookh”.7 The parade included a float tableau for each of Moore’s three poems. Somewhere in this Mardi Gras celebration, Alonzo likely encountered the Veiled Prophet in costume—white robes, a staff or scepter, his face obscured behind a veil of silver lace.
A decade later, 1877 saw one of the largest workers’ strikes in American history. In St. Louis, the Workingmen’s Party briefly formed the first American Commune government before the strike was violently crushed. The strikes had called for an eight-hour workday, the codification of the weekend, and the end of child labor. Across the country, workers were moving against the ruling class, and the bluebloods felt the heat—during the strike in St. Louis, the bourgeoise filled their bathtubs and sinks with water for fear that the workers would cut service to their tony neighborhoods.
In October of 1878, St. Louis trolley workers kept the spirit of the Commune alive by launching another strike. Alonzo wrote a self-congratulatory entry in his diary: “Today I gave to the printer the descriptive manuscript whereby I have woven a classical story and brought into order and coherency the ‘Floats’ for the Parade or Illuminated nocturnal pageant of the secret society known as the ‘Veiled Prophets.’ I think it is the nearest thing to a ‘stroke of genius’ that I have ever produced.”
The next day, Slayback’s sketch of the Veiled Prophet appeared in the Missouri Republican. The Prophet, looking, again, like a mopey clown, wielded multiple guns. Accompanying this tacit threat to murder the strikers was the announcement of the “Veiled Prophet’s Parade.” The image was captioned: “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 strike was crushed.
Shortly afterwards, 20 local St. Louis businessmen received letters that “invited them to ‘attend a meeting of prominent gentlemen’ with the object of promoting ‘the interests of St. Louis.’” The Veiled Prophet’s “Originals” included Alonzo, his brother Charles, and several shipping company magnates, recruited to transport Mardi Gras parade equipment upriver from New Orleans.
That autumn, the first Veiled Prophet parade took a detour into the working-class districts. The Prophet himself appeared in person to St. Louis; he stood beside a butcher in a black hood, a “villainous looking executioner,” as Thomas Spencer relates in The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration, Power on Parade. Spencer notes: “Veiled Prophet members tried to use an element of nineteenth century popular culture—the parade—for their own purposes of shaping the values of their working-class audience.”
The message was clear: you are down there, the Veiled Prophet is up here, and violence is close at hand. The average St. Louis citizen would have recognized this symbol for what it was: an unsubtle invocation of the costume of the Ku-Klux Klan.
There is little doubt that Slayback’s Veiled Prophet was a Klansman. At the end of the Civil War, the Klan was regularly appearing in the news. Many Union and Confederate veterans alike were in agreement that Black rights needed to be repressed. A deep sense of grievance, libidinal bigotry, and sublimated anxiety permeated the narrative; Southerners “shared a widespread fear that their former slaves would rapidly overtake them.”
The Klan of Reconstruction was not half as organized as its second coming in the 1920s. Before the steepled hats, white robes, and burning crosses, the post-war Klan’s vestments more resembled the ad hoc costuming of “charivari,” a nocturnal public-shaming ritual. Ex-Confederates, sheriffs, former slave patrollers, or any other sympathizers could use this costuming to cover their faces and transcend the law for the purposes of reordering society through violence. “Nightriding”—to burn someone’s farmhouse, to chase a rival out of town, or to police interracial couples—was a way of reasserting the pre-war racial hierarchy.
Slayback used Thomas Moore’s character as a model for his own strongman costume. It was a tool to keep the working class in line, and to protect, by threat of violence, his status as a St. Louis elite. Slayback’s next innovation was to add a debutante ball. This venerable tradition is effectively an auction-house ritual to safely intermarry daughters and consolidate wealthy families. The society and its symbol now incorporated a reiteration of patriarchy and gender hierarchy, protecting and enshrining the white feminine ideal. In its first year, the ball fêted Slayback’s own daughter: 1878 saw Susan Slayback crowned the first Queen of Love and Beauty. The dowry ritual had begun.
We might, then, wonder about Slayback’s reading of Lalla Rookh. Did Moore’s warning about runaway imperialism go over his head? (That seems eminently possible.) Was the antiquated sing-song too difficult to follow? Slayback’s own poetic endeavors showed, to put it lightly, some deficits in artistic merit. He was much better known as a businessman and a Missouri lawyer, and as someone deeply involved in politics. He was also involved in media—namely, the Missouri Republican. In fact, it was that endeavor that ultimately put an end to all his others.
Slayback was shot dead by the editor of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1882. The paper’s editor had refused to retract a defamatory exposé on Slayback’s chosen candidate for the Missouri Senate, and Slayback went to the Post-Dispatch office to settle the dispute with guns—in retrospect, an inadvisable move.
Slayback’s interpretation of Moore’s poem is probably immaterial. Instead, his use of Lalla Rookh was only a pretense: a Klansmen with some thin literary cover. Around the time of the Veiled Prophet Society’s founding, federal troops had begun to enforce the Ku Klux Klan Act, intended to stop the unchecked racial violence that was heating up, threatening to reignite the embers of the Civil War. Part of the act banned head coverings in public—a roundabout way of cracking down on Klan rallies and nightriding. The Veiled Prophet Parade was, more likely than not, an elaborate way for the St. Louis bourgeoise to display a Klansmen in all his violent authority, while writing it off as theater.
Ever since, the image of the Veiled Prophet has served to launder deep-seated racial and political connotations in the guise of a fun, ideologically neutral character. The Prophet, shorn of context, allowed for the manufacture of new, parallel signifiers, evoking the Klan at a degree of remove. It was, and is, a cultish, wink-and-nod lore for a booster club of powerful businessmen of the Mississippi region: a more-or-less blank slate on which could be projected all of their racial grievance, revanchism, and hatred.
And so it is in the present day, however diluted by a century of distance. We should be clear that Ellie Kemper, and the other young women who have participated in the Veiled Prophet Ball, cannot entirely be faulted for joining in what must have seemed like an innocuous, parentally sanctioned local tradition. We can’t expect a high schooler to have pieced this together and disavowed the ball in 1999—and furthermore, there are few aspects of American history that are not in some way shot through with this country’s indelible bigotries. But those who willingly persist in the Veiled Prophet celebration, especially now that its heritage has been publicized, can’t escape the unseemly implications.
The Veiled Prophet Society maintains its own internal origin story: a much less fraught history of the character, first described in a publication called The Golden Book, which was printed by “Veiled Prophet Press” in the 1940s.8 This silly and anodyne version portrays the Prophet as something more like an authoritarian Middle Eastern Santa Claus. In the booklet, and in a few other documents of the men’s club, the Veiled Prophet is described (a bit oxymoronically) as a “beloved despot” from the faraway “Land of Khorassan.”
In the fairytale, Khorassan is a utopia experiencing too much prosperity. A much more benevolent Veiled Prophet is compelled to spread his wealth, setting out on a journey by magic carpet, searching for a people who are worthy of his wisdom and largesse. The first candidate regions are Egyptians, then Europeans—but those folks are too stuck in their ways. He finds the deserving at a confluence of rivers: in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Prophet descends from the sky and throws a big party. In fact, he is so taken with the good people of the Midwestern city (the elite, mostly) that he vows to return each year, hosting another celebration each time. At the debutante ball, he crowns the fairest maiden as his queen. It’s her job to sit on the throne beside him for the duration of the party. She will, when he departs the next day, be left to rule in his absence.
This is the sanitized narrative that participants in the contemporary ball would be familiar with—a Disneyfied story that doesn’t dwell on questions about the true nature of this faceless man of nigh-unlimited power. That’s not to say it’s devoid of ideology: The Golden Book contains the premise that the CEO class are the only people a great magical guru might wish to speak to upon visiting St. Louis. But regardless, skeptics can be assuaged; nothing untoward is at work here. The Veiled Prophet story is as heartwarming as that of Saint Nicholas.
It’s in many ways fitting that the affluent class of the St. Louis region has come to appoint the Veiled Prophet—whether he is traveling by magic carpet or unleashing chemical weapons and annihilating ranks of soldiers—as their symbol. One of the U.S.’s largest military outposts, Scott Air Force Base, is located close to St. Louis, as is an office of one of the most prolific dealers of airborne death to ever exist: the Boeing Company.
Numerous military-industrial executives—who’ve made a lot of money bombing the people of the Middle East—have been members of the Veiled Prophet Society. A former high-ranking judge and eventual head of the CIA and FBI and Homeland Security, the very accomplished William Webster, was a documented member. High-placed representatives of all manner of capitalist enterprises have also been a constant presence at society functions. Purina, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Peabody Coal, Arch Coal—just a few of the heavy hitters in the metro region with executives who can be counted as members of this Arabian Nights-themed men’s club.
Moore’s Veiled Prophet is a portrait of cartoonish megalomania. Like the historical al-Muqanna, he can summon moons, the orbs that delude his soldiers into fighting to their death for nothing, instilling a literal lunacy. His “hidden brow” brings forth enchantments; his face is a hollow, his humanity a void. His soul is missing, and this psychopathy affords him endless powers of manipulation.
In 1972, a protest by the St. Louis Black-rights group ACTION revealed the identity of the man who, at that year’s ball, wore the Prophet’s costume. Yet despite this newsworthy development, local major-media outlets kept his name out of the papers. It was almost as if the Prophet was truly faceless—as if he was, in actuality, able to summon a delusive spell that could influence the masses and wipe away his identity. But one outlet, the St. Louis Journalism Review, was willing to publicize his name: beneath the veil of the 1972 Prophet was Tom K. Smith, Vice President of Monsanto.
In the stanzas of Lalla Rookh during which Moore’s Veiled Prophet reveals his true thoughts to Zelica, he voices the vast extent of his greed, frustration, and nihilistic cynicism. Yet she doesn’t lose her faith. He speaks with the false grandiosity of the rich, a blasé bitterness at the meaninglessness and foolhardiness of humanity. Zelica just nods along. The scales never fall from her eyes until it’s too late.
Even as his ever-growing conquests—of riches, pleasure, women, land—begin to precipitate the Veiled Prophet’s downfall, the comforts of the palace numb the pain of the Prophet and his inner circle alike. At all costs, Mokanna continues to prosecute wars and hoard the spoils, his deceptions cloaked in the false promise of God’s favor.
Everyone around the Veiled Prophet swallows the lie. They’ve drunk from the red cup. His oratory soothes even as the poison begins to course through their bodies, as hordes of enemies beat down the palace doors. Ultimately, the Veiled Prophet himself pays no price. He vanishes in a billowing, mercurial cloud—a coward escaping into oblivion.
There is a reason that the elites of St. Louis sewed this strongman costume for themselves in 1878, and have enjoyed trotting it out annually for over a century. The strength of solidarity displayed by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877—and especially the gains in Black civil rights—were truly frightening to powers at be. They knit the robes together, put on the crown, hid their faces to calm their anxieties: armor against the subterranean fears that the little people are waking up, that their empires are more fragile than they have allowed themselves to believe.
Donning the veil binds the members of the club to a collective delusion—an exclusive taste of invincibility. Each year, a new virginal Queen that will sustain the lineage and secure their immortality. And each year, a new Prophet, an anonymous, powerful man allowed to become faceless, to inhabit the fantasy that his power might be infinite. A secret kept by brothers, wives, class conspirators.
The insistence that the Prophet is an innocuous local tradition, devoid of historical resonance and symbolism, becomes an absurd one in this light. Learning of the event continues to stun outsiders who are unaccustomed to its bizarre reality. These days, the rich (usually) take a little more care to disguise the loathing they have for the poor. But privately, the ruling class still circulates their bigotries and self-aggrandizing legends amongst themselves. They revel in evoking their power through ritual. In the process, they develop what resembles, more than anything, an occultism of the elite.
The Veiled Prophet has survived so long because St. Louis is old and haunted. The city is older than its country. At the same time, it has long been stagnant, if not in outright decline. It is racially and economically fragmentary and stratified. Even a cursory glance at a history book—or modern-day newspapers—makes it clear that the St. Louis streets are awash in blood. The working class’s blood, Michael Brown’s blood, and untold thousands of others before and since, old and new, on and on and on. All the while, the rich white men of the Veiled Prophet Society remain at the helm. Once a year, the devout arrive at the party, put on the robes, and slip into a shared daydream, a lulling reverie assuring them that they are righteous, that they are blameless, and that none of it will ever fall apart. ♦
Devin Thomas O’Shea’s writing is in Jacobin, The Nation, Current Affairs, Boulevard, CHEAP POP, The New Territory, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He graduated Northwestern’s MFA program in 2018. Find him at @devintoshea on Twitter and Instagram.
1 Kelly, Ronan. Bard of Erin: The Life of Thomas Moore. Dublin: Penguin Ireland, 2008.
2 Nolan, J.C.M. “In Search of an Ireland in the Orient: Tom Moore’s Lalla Rookh.” New Hibernia Review, vol. 12 no. 3, 2008, pp. 80-98.
3 Rangarajan, Padma. “Lalla Rookh and the Afterlife of Allegory.” English Language Notes, vol. 54 no. 1, 2016, pp. 77-92.
4 Slayback, Alonzo William. Memorial Volume: Being Selections in Poetry and Prose from the Written Thoughts of Col. Alonzo Slayback. Forgotten Books, 2016. p. 20.
5 Hill, Lawrence F. “The Confederate Exodus to Latin America, III.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, 1936, pp. 309–326.
6 Welsh, Jack D. (1995). Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. p. 177.
7 “Mistick Krewe of Comus.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Feb. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistick_Krewe_of_Comus.
8 Spencer, Thomas M. Power on Parade: the Origins and History of the Veiled Prophet Celebration in St. Louis, 1877-1995. 1996, p. 82.