Robert Prager (February 28, 1888–April 5, 1918) was a German coal miner living in Collinsville, Illinois, who was lynched by a mob. Twelve men were tried for his murder but were subsequently acquitted. Prager was killed because of anti-German sentiment during the first World War and because he was accused of holding socialist beliefs.
Prager was born in Dresden, Germany, and had emigrated to the United States, in 1905, at the age of 19. A drifter, who had spent a year in an Indiana reformatory for theft, he was living in St. Louis when the US declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917.
Prager showed patriotic feelings for his adopted country; he took out his first citizenship papers after the declaration of war and tried to enlist in the US Navy. He also had a St. Louis baker arrested, after he objected to Prager displaying the American flag.
Prager was rejected from the Navy, due to medical reasons. Sometime later, he became a baker in the St. Louis area but was dismissed due to his, "stubborn, uncompromising personality." He applied for membership in the United Mine Workers union and went to work as a miner in a mine, at nearby Maryville, but he was denied UMW membership because: not only was he German, but he was also, "unmarried, stubbornly argumentative, given to Socialist doctrines, blind in one eye," and, "looked like a spy to the miners."
On April 4 1918, Prager was confronted by a group of miners and warned away from Maryville. UMW leaders Moses Johnson and James Fornero, who feared for Prager's safety, tried to get the Collinsville police to put him into protective custody, but they declined. The two men instead took Prager back to his home in Collinsville. The next day, Prager returned to Maryville where he prepared a document attacking Fornero. He posted copies of this document around the town and returned to Collinsville that evening.
Perhaps the most horrendous anti-German act was his lynching, who was accused of making "disloyal utterances." A mob took him from the basement of the Collinsville, Illinois jail, dragged him outside of town, and hanged him from a tree. Before the lynching, he was allowed to write a last note to his parents in Dresden, Germany:
Dear Parents: I must on this, the 4th day of April, 1918, die. Please pray for me, my dear parents. In the trial that followed, the defendants wore red, white, and blue ribbons, while a band in the court house played patriotic songs. It took the jury 25 minutes to return a not-guilty verdict. The German government lodged a protest and offered to pay Prager's funeral expenses.
Prager was rescued by a policeman, Fred Frost, who put him in the jail. The mayor, John H. Siegel, calmed the crowd for a time, and it was decided to close the town's saloons early. However, the officer who was sent to close the saloons brought the news that "a German spy" was being held in the jail.
A mob gained entrance to the jail and found Prager hiding in the basement. The police stood aside as the mob marched him to an area referred to as Mauer Heights. After allowing Prager to write a brief letter to his parents in Germany and pray, he was hanged in front of a crowd of two hundred people at 12:30 am on 5 April.
The hanging was widely condemned. A local newspaper, the Edwardsville Intelligencer, called it "unlawful and unjustifiable" but argued that a traitor would be dealt with just as harshly in Germany. The mayor dispatched a telegram to a senator in which he argued that Prager's death was due to the failure of Congress to pass effective laws against disloyalty. This was apparently a commonly held point of view, repeated endlessly in the newspapers.
On 25 April, the county's grand jury indicted twelve men for murder, and the trial commenced, on 13 May. The judge refused to let the defense try to demonstrate Prager's disloyalty, and the case for the defendants amounted to three claims: no one could say who did what, half the defendants claimed they had not even been there, and the rest claimed they had been bystanders, even Joe Riegel, who had confessed his part to newspaper reporters and a coroner's jury. In its concluding statement, the defense argued that Prager's lynching was justified by "unwritten law." When the defense was finished, the judge declared a recess. After deliberating for 45 min (some accounts say 25), the jury found the defendants innocent. One juryman reportedly shouted, "Well, I guess nobody can say we aren't loyal now".
A week after the trial, an editorial in the newspaper the Collinsville Herald, by editor and publisher J.O. Monroe, said that, "Outside a few persons who may still harbor Germanic inclinations, the whole city is glad that the eleven men indicted for the hanging of Robert P. Prager were acquitted." Monroe noted, "the community is well convinced that he was disloyal.... The city does not miss him. The lesson of his death has had a wholesome effect on the Germanists of Collinsville and the rest of the nation."
A New York Times editorial said, "A fouler wrong could hardly be done America," which would be "denounced as a nation of odious hypocrites," as a result. However, the Washington Post declared that, "In spite of excesses such as lynching, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior of the country."
- Hickey, Donald R. (Summer 1969). "The Prager Affair: A Study in Wartime Hysteria". Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society: pp. 126–127.
- Luebke, Frederick C. Bonds of Loyalty; German-Americans and World War I. Northern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-87580-514-0.
- Schaffer, Ronald (1991). America in the Great War. Oxford University Press US. p. 26. ISBN 0-19-504904-7.
- Peterson, H.C.; Gilbert C. Fite (1986). Opponents of War, 1917–1918. Greenwood Press Reprint. ISBN 0-313-25132-0.
- Schwartz, E.A. (Winter 2003). "The lynching of Robert Prager, the United Mine Workers, and the problems of patriotism in 1918". Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Retrieved 2008-07-09.
- Contemporary newspaper accounts
- Find A Grave