Robert Paul Prager (1888–1918) 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.
Robert Paul Prager was born in Dresden, Germany on February 28, 1888. He emigrated to the United States in 1905, at the age of 17. 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 April 6, 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. He was captured at his home by a mob, who paraded him around, however 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. 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. He was then hanged in front of a crowd of two hundred people at 12:30 am on April 4, 1918.
Trial and reaction
On April 25, the county's grand jury indicted eleven men for murder, and the trial commenced, on May 13. 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: 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.
- Donald R. Hickey, "The Prager Affair: A Study in Wartime Hysteria," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 62, no. 2 (Summer 1969), pp. 117-134. In JSTOR
- E.A. Schwartz, "The Lynching of Robert Prager, the United Mine Workers, and the Problems of Patriotism in 1918," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 95, no. 4 (Winter 2003), pp. 414-437. In JSTOR
- Carl R. Weinberg, Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.