Join the Crowd at the 1937 Veiled Prophet Ball

4, October 2017

When our team was trying to decide which panoramas to enlarge for our Panoramas of the City exhibit, we knew they had to be visually striking and contain a wealth of historical information about St. Louis. One such image was a panorama shot at the 1937 Veiled Prophet Ball, which was held in the Municipal Auditorium downtown. The setting creates an immediate visual impact: So far I’ve seen many visitors linger for quite a while as they try to take in all the details of the auditorium and the elaborate stage. Those historically significant details help pull us into the world of the image even further.

Black-and-white close-up of the stage at the 1937 Veiled Prophet BallPortion of a panorama taken at the 1937 Veiled Prophet Ball held in Municipal Auditorium. Photo by Taylor Photographers. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

For one, this panorama opens space for us to think about the history of the Veiled Prophet organization, a secret society made up of elite St. Louisans that dates back to 1878. Every year, this secret society chose one of its members to serve as the Veiled Prophet, a robed and hooded figure whose identity was supposed to remain a secret. The Veiled Prophet was in charge of leading a parade through the streets of St. Louis. The 1937 parade was held on October 5, and thousands of St. Louisans crowded the streets to see floats built around the theme of childhood memories.

Black-and-white photo of crowd watching a passing float at the 1937 Veiled Prophet paradeCrowd watching the Happy Birthday float at the 1937 Veiled Prophet parade. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

The next night, the Veiled Prophet organization hosted its other yearly event: a debutante ball. It was here that the Veiled Prophet himself crowned a Queen of Love and Beauty, typically the daughter of one of the members of the organization.

Sepia-toned photograph of the 1937 Queen of Love and Beauty, Nancy Lee MorrillVeiled Prophet queen Nancy Lee Morrill. Photo by Jules Pierlow, 1937. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

In 1937 the Queen of Love and Beauty was Nancy Lee Morrill, the daughter of a powerful St. Louis insurance broker. Because many Veiled Prophet queens donated their dresses to the Missouri Historical Society, we actually have Morrill’s dress in our collections, as well as the dress of the retiring queen in 1937, Susan Elizabeth Thompson. Both of these dresses will be displayed near the panorama throughout the run of the exhibit so you can get a sense of the kinds of gowns the young women seated on the stage would have been wearing.

One of the most prominent features in the panorama of the 1937 Veiled Prophet Ball is the line of men standing in front of the stage. These men, the Bengal Lancers, were part of the ceremony. The Lancers trace their roots back to 1922, when the Veiled Prophet organization created a Guard of Honor for the parade and crowning ceremony. At that time the group was made up of World War I veterans who dressed in swashbuckling costumes and performed drills for the crowd.

Black-and-white close-up of the Bengal Lancers at the 1937 Veiled Prophet BallClose-up of Bengal Lancers at the 1937 Veiled Prophet Ball. Photo by Taylor Photographers. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

In 1937, though, this group underwent a huge change. It adopted costumes modeled off of those worn by British troops stationed in India—troops known as Bengal Lancers, whose exploits had been popularized in films such as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1936) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1937). Today, the Guard of Honor for the Veiled Prophet Ball still dresses in the Bengal Lancer uniform, although its 21st-century role is more comedic than its predecessors.

To learn more about the 1937 Veiled Prophet Ball, as well as the controversial history of the Veiled Prophet organization, come visit Panoramas of the City, open through August 12, 2018.

—Adam Kloppe, Public Historian

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