In the summer of 2021, images resurfaced of nineteen-year-old Ellie Kemper being crowned the queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball in 1999. The actress was forced to account for her royal heritage on Instagram. Of the Veiled Prophet Society, Kemper wrote, “The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past.”
In 2022, just a few days after entering the race for Missouri’s open Senate seat, Trudy Busch Valentine apologized for her queenship in 1977. “I should have known better,” the sixty-four-year-old candidate wrote in a press release, “and I deeply regret and I apologize that my actions hurt others.” Busch Valentine pledged “to work tirelessly to be a force for progress in healing the racial divisions of our country.” It was later reported by Ben Kesslen that the farm featured in Busch Valentine’s campaign video was formerly a plantation called White Haven. According to Amanda Clark, community tours manager for the Missouri Historical Society, “records show between 30 and 90 enslaved people living on White Haven depending on the decade.”
When asked how she differed from the rest of the Democratic Party, Busch Valentine said, “I think defunding the police is totally wrong, because we need to be funding the police with the money and training they need to keep all of us safe.”
For some, the case is closed — everyone is sorry, and will not be participating in a debutante ball hosted by someone dressed as an 1870s Ku Kluxer ever again. Unrelated: the cops need more money.
Missouri analysts believe that Busch Valentine has “billions of dollars’ worth of name identification,” referring to the popularity of her family’s company, Anheuser-Busch. But the Busch family’s influence in Missouri politics goes far beyond beer, from undemocratic civic groups to the family name on half the buildings in St Louis and a long history with the Veiled Prophet Society.
Down With the VP!
Local activist Percy Green and the integrated St Louis civil rights group ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes) protested the Veiled Prophet Ball every year between 1965 and 1984. For Green, the Veiled Prophet Society’s two annual celebrations — the debutante ball and Fourth of July parade — were exactly as Kemper described them: elitist displays of racism and sexism.
ACTION’s primary goal in the late ’60s was to demand better labor conditions for African American workers. Just their luck: the Veiled Prophets conveniently gathered every CEO and business leader in the greater St Louis region in one room at the taxpayer-funded Kiel Center.
For seven years, ACTION tried disrupting the parade and grabbing press headlines by putting on a rival Black Veiled Prophet ceremony with a Queen of Human Justice. Then, in 1972, three female protestors gained entry to the Kiel Center.
In the middle of the ceremony, from the upper balcony, Phyllis Knight and Jane Sauer threw leaflets down into the crowd yelling, “Down with the VP!” referring to the Veiled Prophet. The third protestor, Gena Scott, used a dangling power cord to swoop down onto the stage, fracturing her ribs as she boarded the stage where the Veiled Prophet sat on a gold throne. Despite her injury, she successfully unveiled the VP. That year’s godhead was Tom K. Smith, vice president of the Monsanto Corporation.
Knight, Sauer, and Scott were arrested and released with a court date that was later dropped, but Gena Scott’s apartment was broken into and vandalized. Scott’s car was later bombed outside her home.
The media hushed up; all but the St. Louis Journalism Review failed to print Tom K. Smith’s name and title, and Smith refused to admit he was the Veiled Prophet. There were photographs taken of an unveiled Smith, but none have ever surfaced.
The unveiling was the high-water mark of the Veiled Prophet protests, but far from the last. The next year, ACTION filed a lawsuit to dislodge the secret society from its public venue, and won before it went to court. As Thomas Spencer notes in The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration, “By moving to a private facility, the Veiled Prophet organization took away one of ACTION’s major and most effective arguments about the annual celebration.”
But the protests didn’t stop. In 1975, a University of Missouri-Columbia faculty member, Patrick Dougherty, climbed onstage and unfurled a banner reading, “ACTION protests the racist VP.” Though this protest was less confrontational, police forcefully removed Dougherty from the ball and charged him with disturbing the peace. Neither officer appeared in court to testify, and the suit was dropped.
The next year saw a big escalation. Spencer writes, “The demonstration at the 1976 Veiled Prophet ball has been called ‘the death rattle’ of ACTION by one of its former members and ‘going too far’ by another.” Jessie Baker was crowned queen that year — the year before Busch Valentine. Two protestors took the stage armed with pepper spray. “The plan involved a ‘cry in’ against racism.”
“The two activists ran across the stage spraying tear gas into the air,” Spencer notes, “trying carefully not to spray it directly into anyone’s eyes.” The stunt nonetheless resulted in macing a few members belonging to the wealthiest families in the St Louis metropolitan area.
Police accused protestors of being hired agents attacking the ceremony with a “paralyzing agent,” but the tear gas was commercial, and the ACTION members were volunteers.
According to Spencer, the “cry in” resulted in a lot of negative press for ACTION. The group found it more difficult to garner press attention to their efforts afterward, due both to their flirtation with violence and the celebration’s move to a private venue.
But ACTION continued to protest the ball, including a picket outside the venue the following year, when Trudy Busch Valentine was crowned the Veiled Prophet’s queen. “There were extensive and extraordinary security measures,” an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said of that ceremony. It’s hard to image, then, that Busch Valentine was unaware of the St Louis black community’s intense objection to the Veiled Prophet.
Prophet of Capital
The year after Busch Valentine’s queenship, in 1978, William H. Webster of St Louis was nominated as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His confirmation hearings included questions about several all-white men’s clubs he belonged to, including the Veiled Prophet Society. ACTION member Jacqueline Bell testified against his nomination, claiming that the VP organization was composed of “heavyweights” who “auction off their daughters among themselves, showing no respect for women.”
Webster was confirmed anyway, and went on to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then the director of Homeland Security under George W. Bush.
In 1979, the Veiled Prophets admitted its first black members — three doctors. As quoted in Spencer’s book, Tom K. Smith said he “hardly recognized ACTION” as the cause of integration. Smith claimed that it had nothing to do with the protests. “As blacks became more active in business, they became members. We didn’t think about them [ACTION]. I was too busy. Not that I wasn’t interested. I just didn’t have time.”
Since its founding in 1878, the Veiled Prophet Society has been a para-political organization of capitalists symbolically exercising authority through a metaphor, and law enforcement has always been integral to that metaphor.
According to the Veiled Prophets’ self-published Golden Book, the inspiration for the VP’s appearance and lore comes from a Thomas Moore poem. As argued by many, including myself, the VP’s costume is unmistakably a Ku Kluxer from the first wave of the Klan. As Professor Elaine Franz Parsons notes in Ku-Klux: Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction, before white steepled hats and burning crosses, Klansmen dressed as Moonman, wizards, or the ghosts of Shiloh.
The Veiled Prophet first appeared in St Louis newspapers as a strike-crushing magus. St Louis’s racially and ethnically integrated Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was one of the most effective expressions of worker power of its time. The strike shut down St Louis for nearly a week, terrifying the city’s elites.
The first sketch of the VP is credited to the ex-Confederate cavalry officer Alonzo Slayback. That depiction ran in the Missouri Republican (a paper sympathetic to the Confederacy) and depicted a hooded warrior-clown coming to St Louis, armed with three guns and a text explaining his preparedness to crush a trolley operators’ strike.
The Veiled Prophet was a strongman costume for the rich to allay their fear of the multiracial working class. It was also intended to symbolically intimidate working people in St Louis, especially immigrants and former slaves. On the Veiled Prophet’s first appearance, he stood in a public parade beside a butcher in a black hood, whom Spencer calls a “villainous looking executioner.”
Of the many Veiled Prophet debutante balls held since 1878, we know two identities of the Veiled Prophet. Monsanto CEO Tom K. Smith, from 1972, and the very first VP, John Priest, who was then the chief of police. Capital and law enforcement joining together to reinforce the unequal social order — that’s the legacy of the Veiled Prophet.
In 1953, St Louis mayor Joseph M. Darst established an organization called Civic Progress. The group’s purpose was to “serve as a civic conscience” to a city tipping further and further into disrepair. White flight and deindustrialization caused the city’s population to fall rapidly, spilling into the county. The destabilization of the city’s central tax base yielded “blight,” which encouraged more suburban outmigration for those who could afford it, creating a cycle of perpetual decline.
Civic Progress was composed of a group of prominent executive officers of the largest corporations and financial institutions in St Louis. “Because of their power over loan capital in St Louis,” Spencer notes, “any large-scale civic or business project must be brought to Civic Progress first for approval.”
The presidents of the three largest universities in the area sat on the board, as well as the chairman of the St Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association. The St Louis mayor and the county executive had spots as well. August A. Busch Jr, Trudy Busch Valentine’s father and president of Anheuser-Busch, served on the board at the earliest stages, as did August Busch III, Trudy’s brother. Though the family lost majority ownership of Anheuser-Busch to the InBev Corporation in 2008, Tom Santel of Anheuser-Busch was named executive director of Civic Progress in 2018.
This organization has been labeled an unelected shadow government for the city. We could just as well call it a sanitized expression of the Veiled Prophet Society — a powerful group of unelected capitalists who have special access to elected officials.
A staggering number of things in St Louis and the surrounding area are named after the Busch family — Busch Gardens, Busch Memorial Conservation Area, and Anheuser-Busch Hall, located on the Washington University campus. Its influence even extends to distant centers of privilege: Adolphus Busch Hall graces the Harvard campus. There was a short-lived MTV reality show titled The Busch Family Brewed. The Cardinals play at Busch Stadium. Busch Student Center sits on prime real estate on the Saint Louis University campus. And so on.
The Democratic candidate for senate graduated nursing school at Saint Louis University — and then turned over a $4 million donation to rename the entire program to the Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing. After Trudy Busch Valentine was crowned VP Queen of Love and Beauty, she kept attending the ball. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Intercept, “Her daughter, Christina Valentine Cammon, was at the 2010 Veiled Prophet ball, escorted by her uncle Peter Busch.”
Saint Louis University is also the school that allowed Busch Valentine’s nephew, August Busch IV, to enroll after his involvement in the death of a woman at Arizona State. August Busch IV has numerous scandals to his name, including a late-night drunk-driving incident where the beer scion drove his Corvette too fast around a bend called Dead Man’s Curve and flipped the vehicle, fatally ejecting a woman named Michele C. Frederick. The party boy fled the scene and was found at his house in the morning by police, covered in dried blood with an AR-15 at the foot of his bed.
August Busch IV avoided prosecution. At Saint Louis University he received, among other privileges, a parking pass for the teachers’ lot.
There’s a big difference between Kemper apologizing for her queenship in 1999 and a similar apology from the Anheuser-Busch beer heiress seeking high political office. As of right now, Erin from The Office does not want to represent 6.1 million Missourians, and 1999 was long after some of the most contentious civil rights confrontations over the Veiled Prophet.
Busch Valentine says she supports funding the police because they keep us safe. But who is “us”? Presumably it refers to all citizens, not just the children of the St Louis elite. But can voters look at the history of the Veiled Prophet and the Busch family and grant her the benefit of the doubt?
In 1982, organizers of the Veiled Prophet Fair downtown closed the Eads Bridge to East St Louis in order to prevent African Americans from attending the public portion of the festival. The backlash was enormous, including a filed complaint from the NAACP. Spencer writes, “The decision was explained as a safety matter to prevent ‘East Side street gangs’ from ‘coming across the bridge to rob and mug.’”
Amid the ongoing Michael Brown protests of 2015, Chief of Police Sam Dotson attended the Veiled Prophet Ball. Public backlash against the Veiled Prophet was renewed after the Ferguson protests, and activists tried to take advantage. Veiled Prophet protestor Molly Gott told reporters, “Police don’t really have the power — the 1 percent does. . . . Most people realized that the movement was not just about police accountability; it was also about ending structural racism and economic inequality and creating a future in which Black Lives Matter.”
Busch Valentine’s Democratic competitor is an ex-military candidate who tacks to the center, Lucas Kunce. Their Democratic run for the US Senate is against some of the worst figures on Missouri’s Republican roster, from the gun-toting mansion lawyer Mark McCloskey to accused sex criminal ex-governor Eric Greitens.
Greitens was forced to resign from the Missouri Governorship on felony charges of “computer tampering” related to an affair he conducted, in which he restrained and took nude blackmail photographs of his mistress. Sheena Greitens, the candidate’s ex-wife, has since disclosed in an affidavit that her former husband had “physically abused both her and their young son.” Greitens is the favored candidate.
Missouri Democrats tack right in accordance with a playbook that has not yielded a win since Todd Akin gaffed himself out of the race in the pre–Donald Trump era. Claire McCaskill (D) then served as a Blue Dog in the Senate, and lost to Josh Hawley (R). Now McCaskill is worth $20 million and regularly appears on MSNBC to speak on behalf of average Missourians.
Even when Missouri Democrats win, working-class people lose — and they don’t win nearly as often as they might be expected to, considering that Missouri voters consistently reject “right to work” legislation, approve of minimum-wage increases, vote in favor of Medicare expansion, and so on.
Working-class Missourians have common concerns: work, health care, wages. But Missouri Democrats fail to run politicians who fight to realize their constituents’ values. A rare fighter, Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush said, “If you’re not willing to fight for the things that we need, stalling or stifling things because of all of this incrementalism and old ways of thinking, that is what is hurting this party.”
Today, all 6 million Missourians are owed action from the government — for the toll of the opioid crisis, the lack of health care access, and the state’s failure to deliver pandemic aid, racial justice reform, debt relief, and more.
But they’re unlikely to get what they’re owed for the time being. For now, voters in the upcoming Senate race are stuck choosing between Mark McCloskey’s salmon polo and AR-15 combo, Lucas Kunce’s AR-15 (which he promises not to fire), sex offender Eric Greitens’s minigun, and Trudy Busch Valentine, Queen of Love and Beauty ’77, family’s net worth of $17.6 billion, the sixteenth-largest family fortune in the nation.