The Lynching of Robert Prager
America’s entry into World War I brought about renewed sense of patriotism and nationalism among Americans. However along with it came a wave of suspicion, hatred, and paranoia that often boiled over into horrible violence. Despite being a large percentage of the American population, German immigrants found themselves the target of prejudice and harassment. Spies were perceived to be everywhere, and no German American was above suspicion. The teaching of German was often banned in schools. Americans renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage”, hamburgers were renamed “liberty sandwiches”, and dachshunds “liberty pups”. Even German named streets, buildings, and memorials were renamed. In this wave of nationalistic hysteria, terrible acts of violence also occurred such a tarring and featherings, vandalism of homes and businesses, and in one case, murder.
Robert Paul Prager was a German immigrant born in Dresden, Germany in 1888. In 1905 he emigrated to the United States, eventually settling down in Collinsville, Illinois where he worked as a baker. For the most part Prager was known to be a quiet man, however when he would get into disagreements he could be very hot headed. Prager was also known as a very patriotic man. When the US entered World War I, he attempted to enlist in the military, but was rejected since he was blind in one eye. When his landlord objected to him flying an American flag from his front window, he reported him to the police on suspicion of disloyalty. Needless to say, Prager himself was also partly complicit in stoking an atmosphere of suspicion in the US..
Prager applied for a job with the local United Mine Workers of America chapter but was rejected. Baking was a good life, but at the time the big money was in mining. Prager appealed by writing to local newspapers that he was being treated unfairly. At the time miners practically controlled the town, and feuding with the local miners union was considered as disloyal as questioning Uncle Sam himself. Miners began to harass Prager, threatening violence and ordering him to leave town. Rumors began to spread that Prager was a socialist, had at times criticized President Woodrow Wilson and the war effort, and was perhaps a German spy. Prager again appealed to the town by posting leaflets called “The Proclamation to Members of Union No. 1802,
“I have been a union man at all times and never once a scab and for this reason, I appeal to you. In regards to my loyalty, I will state that I am heart and soul for the good old U.S.A. and also declared my intention of U.S. citizenship, my second papers are due to be issued soon if I am granted. I am branded by your President (Union President) a German spy which he cannot prove.”
On the night of April 5th, 1918 a mob of 200-300 men assembled and dragged Prager from his home. He was stripped naked and beaten, then wrapped in an American flag and paraded down town while forced to sing patriotic songs and kiss the flag. As he walked children scattered crushed glass and thumb tacks at his feet. The town mayor John Siegel, attempted to calm and disburse the mob, but being of German descent himself was accused of being disloyal and a spy, and thus swept away. The mayor and a squad of police officers were able to save Prager by disbursing the mob, and attempted to guard him at the local jail. However the large mob reformed and was too large to be stopped. They stormed the jailhouse and recaptured Prager.
After another round of beatings, the mob had intended to tar and feather him. However a week early they had tarred and feathered four men, including a Catholic priest, on suspicion of disloyalty. Unable to find any tar, they settled on a rope. Prager was permitted to write his last words in a letter to his family,
“Dear Parents – I must this day, the 5th of April, 1918, die. Please pray for me, my dear parents. This is my last letter. Your dear son. ROBERT PAUL PRAGER.“
A noose was strung around Prager’s neck, and eleven men hoisted him into the air where he dangled and danced until he was dead.
After the lynching of Robert Prager the men who hoisted the rope were indicted for murder. The defense argued that Prager’s murder was justified by “an unwritten law of patriotism”. The defense worked as after only ten minutes of deliberation, the jury unanimously declared the men innocent of any crimes. One jurymen shouted, "Well, I guess nobody can say we aren’t loyal now”. The men were met outside the courthouse to the music of brass bands, crowds, and patriotic regalia. They posed on the courthouse steps for this picture.
A week after the trial, editor and publisher J.O. Monroe wrote an editorial in the Collinsville Herald, saying,
“Outside of 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.” And further, “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.”
On May 21, 1979—40 years ago this week—the White Night Riots erupted in San Francisco after a jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Dan White, who killed Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. A peaceful rally descended into vandalism and violence at City Hall and the SFPD retaliated by targeting LGBTQ protestors and patrons in the Castro district.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember the genocide of more than 11 million people—at least 6 million of them Jews—along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti (also called Gypsies), people of color, people with disabilities, political opponents, and homosexuals.
“Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” miniature crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee, mid-20th century.
(Via the Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Happy Hallow’s Eve!
Scenes from Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960.