Former The Office star Ellie Kemper surprisingly became a trending topic on Twitter Monday, but it had nothing to do with a new sitcom. Instead, her past came under scrutiny, specifically when she was named the queen of the 1999 Veiled Prophet Ball when she was 19. Kemper grew up in St. Louis, where the Veiled Prophet Organization has hosted a debutante ball since 1878.
The history of the ball and the organization that runs it is complex. It was created in 1878 after Charles Slayback, a Confederate cavalryman-turned-grain executive, called a meeting of business and civic leaders, according to The Atlantic. He wanted to establish a new secret society influenced by poet Thomas Moore and New Orleans Mardi Gras. The St. Louis elite created their own mythical character, the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a mystic traveler who chose the Missouri city as his base. Before the balls, the local elites picked someone to anonymously play the Veiled Prophet, who then chose a Queen of Love and Beauty from those at the ball. This is the title Kemper received at the ball in December 1999, according to reports from The St. Louis Dispatch at the time.
One reason for the ball’s creation was to help St. Louis compete for attention while Chicago continued growing. However, the Veiled Prophet was also a response to the racial issues growing in St. Louis at the time, specifically the growing cooperation between Black and white workers. Labor strife was also taking center stage after a railroad strike in 1877.
Historian Thomas Spencer, who wrote a book on the subject, wrote that the main goal for the Veiled Prophet Ball and its elaborate parade was to “reinforce” the elites’ values on the working class. An illustration of the first Veiled Prophet also makes him appear similar to a member of the Ku Klux Klan, an aspect not lost on many Twitter users today. (However, this essay points out that the KKK did not begin wearing white hoods and robes until 1915 after The Birth of a Nation was released.) The first Veiled Prophet, the only one the organization deliberately revealed, was St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, who played a key role in stopping the railroad strikes.
While the ball and parade became St. Louis traditions over time, they became controversial. In the 1970s, the group ACTION pushed for the VP organization to be disbanded. In 1979, the VP organization finally allowed Black members, but some members themselves were becoming embarrassed by it. In 1992, the name of the event was changed to Fair Saint Louis. However, the VP organization still holds a ball called the “Veiled Prophet Ball” to this day, although there was no ball in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kemper’s 1999 title at the ball came under scrutiny on Twitter Monday after a Twitter user published photos from the ball out of the blue. Another person responded to the tweet, with a link to The Atlantic article on the ball. Many also pointed out that Kemper is a member of one of Missouri’s wealthiest families. Her father is David Woods Kemper, the chairman, and CEO of Commerce Bancshares. Kemper’s great-great-grandfather was railroad magnate William Thornton Kemper Sr.