There's no more American tradition than the beauty pageant. On this rigorous proving ground, young women with eyelashes bigger than their bathing suits stand in front of a mic and try to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict in under two minutes. But there are some downsides to competing in a beauty pageant, like being ogled by some jury made up of sleazy game show hosts and real estate moguls. Wouldn't women feel much more comfortable if they were being judged on their feminine worth by someone less creepy and patriarchal? Say, a cloaked elder dressed like a Central European Santa precursor who calls himself the Veiled Prophet?
In 1878, the cream of the crop in St. Louis, Missouri, started a secret society called the Veiled Prophet Organization. At its head was the mythical mystic, The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, which sounds like a name a True Detective character would find scratched in a notebook made of human leather. Each year, one of its members was anonymously selected to become The Prophet, to dress head to toe in lace robes and a hood to mask his mortal visage. Perhaps the most important duty of the Prophet was to select one of the city's top debutantes and, after a series of trials and pleas, crown her as The Queen of Beauty and Love and have her sit in the throne beside his as they lead a mad parade down the St. Louis streets. Former Chosen of the Veiled Prophet includes just about every local robber baron's daughter, but also radical feminist Laura X, and Ellie Kemper, star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
If that all makes you feel like there are translucent tentacles just slithering beneath all those bacchanal floats, that's kind of the point. In the 1870s, St. Louis, was suffering an economic slump due to Northern competition and labor reforms. In response, the local business and civic elites created their secret with a mission to be as weird as possible. Mixing the decadence of Mardi Gras with the otherworldly writings of Thomas Moore (whose poetry gave the society its sinister name), these powerful wanted their intentionally Cthulhu-ish country club to draw as much attention to the city's glamor (and away from violent put-downs of labor strikes)
But eldritch-tinted pomp and circumstance isn't the only Lovecraftian aspect of the Veiled Prophet. There's also the racism. Per its Confederate founder Charles Clayback, the Veiled Prophet society was an "elite" or all-white secret society. It also had many themes of the Confederate knight with a capital KKK, with early versions of the Prophet dressed in a plain white robe with a pointy hat and brandishing a pistol and shotgun to ward off undesirables.
But just like every monument slyly dedicated to the Confederacy, the Veiled Prophet Organization is slowly being pulled down. The organization finally opened its doors to its first black members in 1979 -- though that hasn't stopped every single Queen of Love and Beauty from being whiter than the audience of an Imagine Dragons Tiny Desk Concert. In 1992, the ball itself was redubbed to the Fair Saint Louis for obvious PR reasons. And in 2020, the ball may be canceled for the first time ever (not counting the voluntary pauses during both World Wars) due to the current plague that is sweeping the lands. If only they knew some kind of occult tradition involving sacrificing young women to The Old Ways to cure their city of this blight.
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Top Image: The Missouri History Museum/The Veiled Prophet Organization