The Lynching of Robert Prager: A World War I Hate Crime
John J. Dunphy
Lynching. The very word conjures up images of white-robed Klansmen murdering an African-American on a muggy Georgia night or, perhaps, Old West vigilantes taking the law into their own hands by stringing up a horse thief. But lynchings have also been committed in the Metro East.
At least one hundred African-Americans were lynched during the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. The following year a German immigrant named Robert Paul Prager was hanged by a mob, the victim of the anti-German hysteria on the home front during World War I.
Born in Dresden, Germany in 1888, Prager immigrated to the United States in 1905 for the better opportunities that he thought would be afforded him in this country. In 1918, the unmarried German was working the night shift in a Maryville coal mine when he sought membership in the United Mine Workers of America local, since it would have brought him a higher salary and possible career advancement.
Prager’s application was swiftly rejected, possibly because he was an active socialist who had promulgated that ideology to other miners in the area. The conservative leadership of the union local evidently decided to discredit this bothersome socialist agitator by denouncing him as a German spy, who had been sent to southwestern Illinois to disrupt America’s war effort by sabotaging its mines.
The charge was utterly ludicrous, of course. One of the men with whom Prager boarded later affirmed that, while he was indeed a radical socialist and not yet an American citizen, Prager had stated he was “all for the United States” when our nation declared war on Germany in 1917. It later came to light that Prager actually had a St. Louis baker arrested when he objected to the immigrant’s display of an American flag. The baker was jailed for 32 days.
Unfortunately, Prager had unwittingly given what appeared to be corroboration to the accusation of disloyalty. He had recently asked his co-workers about the effects of certain explosives as he sought to acquaint himself with the responsibilities of a mine manager. His innocent interest in such matters easily lent itself to distortion by the anti-German prejudice of that era.
Outraged by such vile accusations, Prager posted a number of handbills in the Maryville-Collinsville area that vehemently denied he was a spy and affirmed his loyalty to the United
States. But sufficient suspicion had been planted in the minds of many of Prager’s fellow miners, and they decided he merited some rough justice.
On the afternoon of April 4, Prager was seized by several miners who manhandled the diminutive German and formed him to kiss the flag. After a few anxious moments, Prager managed to break free from his assailants and fled to his residence. This incident was just a precursor of much worse things to come.
A company of miners gathered that evening in a tavern on Collinsville’s outskirts to discuss what should be done about the disloyal miner Prager, who advocated socialism while in the Kaiser’s pay. Like Prager, most of the miners were foreign-born. Unlike Prager, however, these miners spoke little English and probably found it difficult to understand precisely what Prager was alleged to have said and done. Based on faulty knowledge, they decided that Prager was disloyal to the United States and deserved to be punished.
Shortly after 9pm, these miners — now quite intoxicated — burst into Prager’s residence at 208 ½ Vandalia in Collinsville and dragged him into the street. They had no particular intention of murdering Prager at this time, however. He was merely forced to kiss the flag again and then walk barefoot through Collinsville while draped in Old Glory.
Much to the disgust of the crowd, which may have swelled to as many as 300 after a time, a motorcycle police officer rescued the disheveled German and took him to city jail for his own safety. Collinsville Mayor John H. Siegel ordered all the city’s taverns closed in the hope that tempers would subside. The police officer who was dispatched to close the saloons only made matters worse, however, by announcing in each tavern that a German spy was incarcerated in the city jail.
A mob soon gathered outside of the city jail. Now desperate, the embattled Siegel and his law enforcement officers decided to try to placate the hooligans by hiding Prager in the jail basement, informing the mob that he had been transferred to East St. Louis and then allowing Joseph Riegel, an army veteran and cobbler/miner who was one of the mob’s ringleaders, to search the jail as proof.
The ruse almost worked. Seeing Prager’s empty cell placated the mob that burst into the building with Riegel, and the men began to leave the building. Suddenly, some hooligans whose minds were not completely clouded from liquor realized that Prager couldn’t have possibly been transferred to another city while the jail was surrounded by several hundred people. The search for the German was abruptly resumed, and Prager was discovered hiding under some tiles in the basement.
The performance of Collinsville’s Finest in the face of this challenge to law and order almost defies belief. One police officer later testified at the inquest that he made no attempt to save Prager as the mob led him from the jail because the phone rang and he had to answer it. Another officer stated that he and some fellow officers had followed the gang from the jail only to ensure that the lynching was not performed in the city limits. If that indeed was the case, then the Collinsville Police Department was successful: Prager was brutally marched down St. Louis Road and out of town to a tree atop Bluff Road for his hanging.
There is some evidence to suggest that the mob originally had intended merely to tar and feather Prager. When Prager was captured at the Collinsville jail, an auto mechanic named Harry Lindemann arrived driving an automobile. Several mob members jumped aboard the car and ordered Lindemann to drive to a farm near Monk’s Mound, where they believed some tar and feathers could be obtained. It’s uncertain whether the farm couldn’t be located or simply lacked tar and feathers. The car and its passengers returned to Collinsville and met the mob, which still had Prager as its prisoner. The headlights of three automobiles illuminated the scene as Prager, held captive under captive under the tree from which he would shortly hang, was questioned for about 20 minutes. He continued to deny that he was a spy for Imperial Germany or had any intention of blowing up area mines. Then, according to Riegel, “someone tied the rope around his neck and a lot of boys from 12 to 16 years old pulled him up.”
Another account, however, has Riegel initially attempting to pull the rope solo. He then purported chided the others present as “slackers” and reminded them that they were all in this together. Riegel shortly had assistance from other mob members in pulling the rope.
But the murderers had overlooked a rather important detail: They had neglected to tie the poor wretch’s hands. “His hands were not tied, and he grabbed at the rope,” Riegel conceded. “They let him down.”
Thus granted this brief reprieve, Prager asked to kiss an American flag, uttered a quick prayer in German and wrote a short note of farewell to his parents in Germany. Written in his native tongue, the translated note reads:
“Dear Parents: Carl Heinrich Prager, Dresden, Germany:
I must die on April 4, 1918. Please pray for me, my
dear parents. This is my last letter and testament.
Your dear son and brother,
Robert Paul Prager”
Ironically, Prager’s letter was brought to the offices of the Collinsville Herald shortly after his lynching by none other than Joseph Riegel.
Upon completing this letter, Prager was asked again to reveal his partners in the spy ring to which he allegedly belonged. When he remained silent, someone in the crowd shouted, “Well, if he won’t tell, string him up!”
The courageous German was said to have replied, “All right, boys, go ahead and kill me, but wrap me in the flag when you bury me.”
The mob had learned its lesson. This time, Prager’s hands were tied with an old handkerchief. The rope was pulled, and Prager was lifted off the ground.
Testifying at the inquest, Prager recalled that the crowd had grown rather uneasy after watching Prager dangling in the air for a time, so it was decided to conclude the incident as quickly as possible. The rope, which had been secured to a telephone pole, was pulled, raising Prager to the highest branches of the tree. Then the rope was abruptly dropped three times — “One for the red! One for the white! One for the blue!” as someone in the crowd shouted with each plunge the German took.
Robert Paul Prager died of strangulation at approximately 12:30 am. His lifeless body was left to dangle a half hour before finally being lowered.
Prager’s courage and fortitude in the face of certain death made an impression on one of his killers. “Brother, that was the bravest guy I ever saw in my life,” Riegel admitted. “He never shed a tear, except when he kissed the flag, and did not once beg for mercy or ask us to turn him loose.”
But not everyone shared Riegel’s grudging admiration for the martyred German. The late Irving Dillard, a Collinsville resident and author who served as editor of the editorial page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was 13 at the time of this tragedy and remembered seeing Prager’s body in the Herr Undertaking Parlor the morning after his murder. Dillard recalled hearing someone in the line of curiosity-seekers waiting to see the German’s corpse joke that everyone should look at the rope marks on Prager’s neck that showed “in red, white and blue.”
Illinois public office-holders did not take so flippant a view of the lynching. U.S. Senator Lawrence Y. Sherman denounced Collinsville as well as East St. Louis, which had been torn by a race riot the previous year, as “the Sodom and Gomorrah of Illinois” and castigated Prager’s murderers as a “drunken mob masquerading in the garb of patriots.” Illinois Governor Frank Lowden was outraged by Prager’s murder and had the adjunct attorney-general alerted to declare martial law if necessary. The lynching was even brought to the attention of President Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet, who reportedly feared reprisals by the German government against Allied POWs for this cold-blooded murder of a German national on American soil.
Other political figures were openly sympathetic to the lynch mob. Idaho Senator William Borah cited Prager’s lynching as an example of what happens when the law is too lax regarding the suppression of alien subversives such as Prager. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, one of the giants of the senate, suggested that all domestic enemies should be tried and shot by military tribunals.
Newspaper reaction to the lynching was decidedly mixed and reflected varying American attitudes toward the anti-German hysteria that was gripping the nation. While respectable dailies such as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times vigorously condemned Prager’s murder, the Grand Rapids Herald postulated that the kind of mob violence Collinsville had demonstrated might be a necessary evil at a time when conventional American security forces could not safeguard the country from its internal enemies — such as Robert Prager. Astonishingly, the Washington Post actually praised the affair as “a healthful awakening in the interior of the country.”
Area newspapers viewed the lynching through the lens of bigotry and war hysteria. The Edwardsville Intelligencer characterized the lynching as “an unlawful and unjustifiable act” but seemed to assume that Prager was indeed a spy. The United States was at war with Germany, it noted, “and a traitor over there is dealt with summarily.” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat conveyed its opinion of the event by the headline: “German Enemy o f the U.S. Hanged By Mob.”
The Collinsville horror undoubtedly inspired an act of violence against an East Alton merchant of German descent. On April 6 — just one day after Prager’s lynching — a mob descended on the home of Morris Gotler, who fled to a nearby saloon. The mob pursued Gotler and apprehended him. He was taken to a schoolyard, where he was forced to kiss the flag and engage in similar indignities to prove his loyalty. The mob threatened Gotler with hanging but eventually set him free. Unlike Prager, Gotler was not accused of spying for the Kaiser. His only offense had been neglecting to honor a local merchants’ agreement to close his business during a demonstration promoting the sale of liberty bonds.
The Reverend J.D. Metzler, pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church in Edwardsville, had served his church for more than two decades — but the 63-year old priest was a German immigrant who had served as an officer in the Kaiser’s army. He had angered some of his parishioners by allegedly making pro-German comments and refusing to ring the Angelus according to the federal government’s mandated daylight-saving time. On the night following Prager’s murder, Metzler was visited by an “Americanization Committee.” The next day, the Angelus was rung at 6 pm rather than 7 pm. Metzler later took a leave of absence from his pulpit, purportedly to avoid a tar- and-feathering.
Repercussions from Prager’s lynching extended to the use of the German language. Public schools in Edwardsville, East St. Louis and even St. Louis eliminated instruction in German. The Vigilance Committee of Staunton posted signs throughout the neighborhoods of that town’s German community stating that use of the German language had become extremely distasteful to Americans and only English should be spoken in public. Staunton residents who could not speak English were advised to remain silent. Townspeople got the message and spoke only English.
Churches in the Metro East that had traditionally held German-language services switched to English after Prager’s lynching. Members of St. Peter’s German Lutheran Church in East St. Louis met on April 7 and agreed to drop the word “German” from the official name of their church. The German Methodist Church in Belleville suddenly became the Jackson Street Methodist Church. The official inquest into Prager’s murder was conducted by Roy Lowe, Madison County coroner, from April 8 to April 11 during which time some 33 witnesses were heard. Mob ringleader Joseph Riegel made a full confession and implicated four other men: Wesley Beaver; William Brockmeier; Richard Dukes, Jr.; and Enid Elmore. The findings of a grand jury led to formal charges of murder leveled at 12 men, one of whom — George Davis — could not be located. The six men who would stand trail with the original five implicated during the inquest were: Calvin Gilmore, John Hallsworth, Cecil Larremore and James de Matties.
The ensuing trial began on May 13. Prosecuting attorneys included Madison County State’s Attorney J.P. Streuber and two Illinois Assistant Attorney-Generals: W.E. Trautmann and C.W. Middlekauf. Thomas Williamson was defense attorney for the accused murderers.
By all accounts, the prosecution made a valiant effort during the three-week trial but to no avail. The almost surreal atmosphere in the courtroom was typified by Riegel’s complete repudiation of his earlier confession. He now claimed that he cautioned the crowd to remain clam, touched neither Prager nor the lynch rope and didn’t even see the actual lynching until Prager was dangling in the air!
Williamson, in his closing argument for the defense, blatantly stated that the war had developed a new unwritten law that gave patriots, such as the 11 defendants, the right to murder those deemed disloyal to the United States and a threat to national security. Irving Dillard, who attended the trial with his father, noted that a martial band outside the courthouse actually played patriotic tunes within hearing of the jury while Williamson made this impassioned — and frightening — closing statement.
Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the jury took only 45 minutes — another source claims just 25 minutes — to acquit all 11 defendants, a verdict greeted with wild cheers by the crowds within and outside the courtroom. The verdict was ostensibly based on some contradictory evidence and by the fact that Prager’s murder had occurred in the dark, thus making it impossible to establish the murderers’ identities beyond the shadow of a legal doubt. In all likelihood, Prager’s killers would have been acquitted even if the lynching had occurred in broad daylight in the presence of 10,000 witnesses. Just as Prager stood no chance of saving his life on that night of madness, the ringleaders of the mob that lynched him stood no chance of being convicted of his murder.
James O. Monroe, editor and publisher of the Collinsville Herald, denounced the trial as “a farcical patriotic orgy account,” according to one account. An editorial he wrote after the murderers’ acquittal, however, hardly corroborates such a sentiment. Except for “a few persons who may still harbor Germanic inclinations,” he stated, “the whole city is glad that the eleven men indicted for the hanging of Robert P. Prager were acquitted.” The Collinsville “community is well convinced that he [Prager] was disloyal” and “the city will not miss him.” Monroe chillingly suggested that Prager’s murder “has a wholesome effect on the Germanists of Collinsville and the rest of the nation.”
A member of the Odd Fellows, Prager was buried by that lodge with a small American flag pinned to his chest, just as he had requested, in St. Matthew’s Cemetery at Gravois and Bates in South St. Louis. In addition to his name and the dates and places of his birth and death, the tombstone notes that he was “the victim of a mob.” No more epitaph is really needed.
The government of Imperial Germany offered to pay Prager’s burial expenses, but Governor Lowden announced that the state of Illinois had a moral obligation to pay the bill. The pastor of an Evangelical church conducted the graveside services.
Carl Monroe succeeded his father, James O. Monroe, as publisher and editor of the Collinsville Herald. In a 1959 interview, the younger Monroe remarked that Riegel and the other defendants were insignificant figures in the community before the lynching, and most slipped back into obscurity after they were found not guilty. Cecil Larremore, just 15 at the time of Prager’s murder, became the owner of a leading restaurant in Collinsville. Richard (Dick) Dukes, Jr. ended up as the town drunk. Monroe also said that Wesley Beaver “didn’t do well” but didn’t elaborate. The tree from which he was hanged — either an elm or a hackberry, depending on which source one consults — was cut down in 1962 amid national media coverage about its infamous role in history. Several Metro East residents took small pieces of the tree as grim mementos of humanity’s periodic inhumanity.
Dunphy, John J. “The Lynching of Robert Prager,” Illinois Magazine (May-June 1984; Volume 23, Number 2)
— . “When Paranoia Turns Deadly,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 5, 1993.
— . “Murder at Midnight;” Springhouse Magazine (April 1995; Volume 12, Number 2).
— . “Hate crime during World War I shows government-induced hysteria,” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph, October 5, 2005.
Hickey, Donald. “The Prager Affair: A Study in Wartime Hysteria,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (Summer 1969).
Luebke, Frederick C. Bonds of Disloyalty: German Americans and World War I. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.
Schwartz, E.A. “The Lynching of Robert Prager, the United Mine Workers, and the Problem of Patriotism in 1918.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (Winter 2003).
http://web.viu.ca/davies/H324War/Prager.lynchinbg.1918.htm; accessed 11/9/08 at 11:24 am.
Author’s 1983 interview with Irving Dillard.
- John J. Dunphy is the author of From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois and Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois. His latest book, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, will be published in December by McFarland. He owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton.