February 8, 2023

How the Veiled Prophet got its start: An era of class dvision in St. Louis in 1878 | History

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For all the civic hoopla over bounding growth during the 1870s, it was a time of deep trouble in working-class neighborhoods. A Wall Street financial panic threw people out of work and cut wages.

On July 16, 1877, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad — a line connecting to St. Louis — slashed pay a third time in three years. Crews in Martinsburg, W.Va., refused to move trains. Resistance spread. Strikers were shot down in Reading, Pa., and Cumberland, Md.

In East St. Louis, railroad workers moved to halt traffic over the Eads on July 22. The next day, their brethren in St. Louis took over Union Depot on 12th (Tucker) and Poplar streets, the city’s main station.

Workers in many local industries joined in a wildfire of protest, creating the first and probably largest general strike in the United States. The strike controlled the city for four days until it was snuffed by a counterattack by the upper classes. Somehow, nobody died.

For three nights, thousands of strikers attended rallies at the open-air Lucas Market at Olive and 12th streets. It was a fitting location for the city’s gaping social divisions.

St. Louis’ rich lived in fine homes to the west on Olive, Pine and Chestnut streets, around Lafayette Park and on tony new Vandeventer Place, near North Grand and Delmar boulevards. They dined at Tony Faust’s restaurant, at Broadway and Elm Street.

The poor shared woeful conditions in neighborhoods north and south of downtown, running west from the river. A squalid tenement called Castle Thunder was at Eighth and Carr streets, one block northwest of today’s Dome at America’s Center. Nearby were shabby rows called Clabber Alley and Wildcat Chute.

In 1877, less than a fifth of St. Louis’ workforce wore suits and ties. The rest toiled for 36 railroads, 32 breweries, 28 iron foundries, 26 flour mills, 500 clothing manufacturers and other grimy places. Many worked for less than $1 a day.

The first recorded strike in St. Louis was by the Benevolent Society of Journeyman Tailors in 1835. Unions grew during the Civil War but were crippled by the financial Panic of 1873.

The high tide of the general strike in 1877 was on July 25, when workers marched through downtown singing the “Marseillaise,” the anthem of the French Revolution. Police hid behind the walls of the Four Courts Building, at 11th and Clark streets.

Schuler's Hall

Schuler’s Hall, at Fifth (Broadway) and Biddle streets, which served as headquarters for the general strike. Police officers and militia members moved north on Fifth at midday on Friday, July 27, and arrested or chased strikers from the building. This photo was taken some time before the hall was demolished in 1956 to make way for Interstate 70. Image courtesy Missouri History Museum

Nervous business leaders gathered volunteers and guns for a militia. On July 27, more than 600 marched upon strike headquarters in Schuler’s Hall, at Broadway and Biddle Street. A vanguard of police rushed the building, arresting 75 strikers. The rest fled.

Federal troops retook the East St. Louis yards the next day. The strike was broken.

Eight months later, leading businessmen founded the Veiled Prophet organization. Riding upon floats bought from Mardi Gras in New Orleans, members rolled their first parade on Oct. 8, 1878. It was a blunt assertion of social hierarchy.

That year’s prophet — the only one ever revealed by the secret society — was Police Commissioner John G. Priest, who had worked to suppress the strike.

Slayback brothers help found Veiled Prophet in year after General Strike

Charles and Alonzo Slayback were brothers from New Orleans. Charles was a wealthy grain dealer, Alonzo a lawyer who had been a Confederate officer.

They were leading organizers in 1878 of the Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophet, a secret society of successful men in St. Louis. Their first meeting was in the swank Lindell Hotel, at Sixth Street and Washington Avenue.

The first Veiled Prophet parade

The first Veiled Prophet parade moves south on Fifth Street (Broadway) on Oct. 8, 1878, past the St. Louis (Old) Courthouse. Some of the wealthy businessmen who formed the secret organization had helped put down the 1877 general strike. Many historians believe that part of the reason for creating the parade was to reassert the social hierarchy. Members rode on floats high above the masses watching from the sidewalks. The organization bought its first floats from New Orleans Mardi Gras. Image courtesy Missouri History Museum

Charles proposed forming the organization to revive the city’s flagging Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, an annual event. Alonzo added the sparkle of a mysterious prophet and a parade for the masses.

For high society, they held a formal ball. Alonzo’s daughter, Susie, was the first “belle of the ball,” forerunner of the annual VP queen.

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