By Joanna Campbell Slan
Ah, fame. It certainly is fleeting.
Most of us would scratch our heads in confusion when hearing the name “Thomas Moore.” But back in the 1800s, Edgar Allan Poe called Moore “the most popular poet now living.” His Oriental poem “Lalla-Rookh” not only inspired Poe’s “Al Aaraaf,” it also inspired a St. Louis tradition that I included in my latest book, Photo, Snap, Shot (May/Midnight Ink).
More than one hundred years ago, a businessman named Alonzo Slayback spun “Lalla-Rookh” into what he called “an illuminated nocturnal pageant,” featuring “the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan,” a character from Moore’s poem. The pageant would include a lavish parade and a debutante ball. Slayback wrote in his diary, “for next year, and the year after, and so on for a hundred years, the strangers who visit our October fairs can be entertained.” Along with his goal of civic boosterism for St. Louis, he and a group of likeminded individuals wanted to create an ongoing organization, a “mysterious brotherhood.”
To build interest in their organization, the group sent a messenger bearing “information” to the local newspapers. The image you see here ran in the Missouri Republican along with information about the “carnival feature” to come.
On October 8, 1878, at 8 p.m., a crowd gathered on the banks of the Mississippi River. The air was crisp, the sun had set, and anticipation grew to a fevered pitch when someone cried out, “I see it! I see it! The barge! He’s coming!”
Rockets exploded, filling the sky with streamers of fire.
As the flat boat grew closer, onlookers could make out a lavishly costumed figure who looked much more benevolent than the image in the woodcut. The Veiled Prophet wore a white veil, a Carnival-type mask, and a deep green robe. In one hand was a mirror and in the other was a “magic scroll.” To the cheers of fifty thousand spectators, the Prophet was escorted to a gold throne on a float pulled by prancing horses. Seventeen more floats followed behind, making their way down one and one-half miles of cobblestone streets lit by more than 1,000 torches.
The Prophet had arrived to bestow his blessings on St. Louis, a city that found great favor with him. As a token of his esteem, the Veiled Prophet also made an appearance as a special guest at a debutante ball. There he chose one young maiden to rule for an entire calendar year as his Queen of Love and Beauty.
This tradition continues today. And my protagonist Kiki Lowenstein learns that a murder at her daughter’s school may have its internecine roots in the city’s century old pageantry.
Over the past 132 years, the Veiled Prophet has meant many things to the people of St. Louis. Slayback would be proud that his idea has enjoyed such a long and colorful history. Today, the Veiled Prophet (VP) is still a vital part of St. Louis high society. The debutante ball remains unparalleled in its beauty and grandeur. What was once an elitist organization has become ever more inclusive. The organization has made investments of more than $1.75 million in the city, and VP volunteers have given service projects more than 1800 man-days of sweat equity.
For my purposes, the Veiled Prophet celebration forms a fascinating diversion in a murder investigation. When I started this series, I chose St. Louis as the setting not only because I lived there (“write what you know”), but also because I think St. Louis is such an interesting and unique place.
I’m curious. What do you think about all this? Would you like to see a Veiled Prophet Parade? Have you ever attended a debutante ball? Can you imagine yourself as part of a coronation fit for a queen?
Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of eleven non-fiction books as well as Paper, Scissors, Death, an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel. Photo, Snap, Shot (May/Midnight Ink) is the third book in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series. Publisher’s Weekly called Photo, Snap, Shot a “diverting” mystery that is “a cut above the usual craft themed cozy.” Joanna is a regular blogger at http://KillerHobbies.blogspot.com. Visit her at www.JoannaSlan.com.