He was born in Alzey, then part of the German Confederation, and attended gymnasiums at Mainz and Darmstadt, and then the Universities of Giessen and Heidelberg. He graduated from Heidelberg as Doctor of Laws in 1848. He began the practice of law with considerable success, but in consequence of having participated in the revolutionary movements of 1848, he was obligated to leave Germany in 1850.
Preetorius arrived in St. Louis in 1854, and engaged for a while in mercantile pursuits. When the Civil War broke out, he devoted his time and means to organizing German regiments and sending them to the field. In 1862, he was elected to the Missouri state legislature on the radical emancipation ticket, and positioned himself as an “immediate emancipationist.” In 1864, he resumed business pursuits, became editor of the Westliche Post, and took an active part in the presidential campaign. In 1872 he identified himself with the Liberal Republicans. Preetorius was a crisp, clear writer, and a logical and convincing speaker. His lectures on aesthetics, philosophy and history attracted much attention, not only among Germans, but among speakers of English as well. His direction placed the Westliche Post in the front rank of American journalism.
When the Westliche Post merged with the Anzeiger des Westens in 1898, he and Carl Daenzer, the latter the editor of the Anzeiger, both retired. Preetorius died at his home at 2013 Park Avenue in St. Louis. The year before his death, influenced by his son, Edward L. Preetorius, he had refused a decoration from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. He had also refused decorations from the Kaiser in years past. He never went back to Germany saying that when he would have gone back he could not, and when he could have gone back, he would not.
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- J. Thomas Scharf, History of St. Louis etc. (2 vols.), Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts & Co., 1883, v. I, p. 942.
- "Preetorius, Emil". Dictionary of American Biography. VIII, Part 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1963. p. 185.
- Obituary from The New York Times
- Lawrence O. Christensen (1999). "Emil Preetorius". Dictionary of Missouri biography. University of Missouri Press. p. 624.