"American or traitor": how anti-German sentiment led to the wartime lynching of Robert Prager

An immigrant and socialist, Prager was lynched by a mob of "patriots" in Illinois. They were all acquitted

August 09, 2017
Robert Prager was lynched, after a mob was apparently inflamed by anti-German, anti-socialist sentiments.
Robert Prager was lynched, after a mob was apparently inflamed by anti-German, anti-socialist sentiments.

Across the river from St. Louis is a region scarred by its past. The jagged scars of old strip mines tear across the land. Sealed underground mines, long abandoned, from time to time announce their forgotten existence by the collapse of their tunnels, and the breaking of any house or building above on the surface. But there is a deeper scar, nearly a century old, in this once-thriving coal country. In the anti-German hysteria during the Great War, whipped up by a national figure's Trumpian-like call to root out traitors, a mob in Collinsville, Illinois did just that—lynching a German immigrant named Robert Prager.

More than a century ago, both sides of the metro area had strong German communities. German was the first language of many. School lessons and church services were given in German, and newspapers written in the language. On the Illinois side of the river socialism—another German import—took root in the area’s small towns. One town, called O’Fallon, elected a socialist mayor and four other socialist municipal officers. A weekly socialist newspaper named the Belleville Alarm was widely read.

Then came the “War to End All Wars.” America, which had been neutral even after the sinking of the Lusitania, changed its stance almost overnight in 1917. Germany, and all things German, became the enemy. Streets in St. Louis were renamed; Dachshunds became “liberty hounds”; sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”; children stopped getting the German measles. In the towns of Illinois, German disappeared from the schools, churches and newspaper pages.

James Gerard, a former ambassador newly returned from a diplomatic post in pre-war Germany, would soon write a best-selling book, My Four Years in Germany, based on his experiences in Berlin, which was made into a popular silent film—the first success of the fledgeling Warner Brothers studio. Speaking before the Ladies Aid Society in November, 1917 the ambassador said that “the time has come when every citizen must declare himself American or traitor.” He conceded that most German-Americans were loyal, but said he told the Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow, who had warned that 500,000 Germans reservists would rise up in America if it entered the war, that “we had 500,001 lamp posts” and that they would be “hanging the day after they tried to rise.”

The anti-German fever quickly spread, with scattered reports of those suspected of disloyalty being physically assaulted—even tarred and feathered. German immigrants, so recently welcomed to the United States, were in particular danger.

Robert Prager was one of those immigrants. Born in Dresden, Prager came to America in 1905 when he was nineteen. Prager seemed to rub people the wrong way. After failing as a baker, he began working in a coal mine near Collinsville but was denied membership in the union. As many were at the time in the area, he was a socialist. (Collinsville had in fact elected one socialist to office.) At the start of the war, Prager applied for citizenship and tried to enlist in the Navy, but was rejected for medical reasons.

"Enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur." —A 1918 Washington Post editorial
In April, 1918 Prager was working in a nearby coal mine. An outspoken man, Prager posted copies of a written statement he had penned to protest of his exclusion from the union. Somehow, a rumour began in the town’s many saloons that Prager was attacking the war effort. Fuelled by alcohol and super patriotism, a mob sought Prager and draped him in an American flag, which he was ordered to repeatedly kiss. He was then dragged back to Collinsville, where police rescued him and hid him in the basement of the city hall.

According to newspaper accounts, the crowd of about 300  stormed the building and overpowered the four police officers standing guard. Prager was force marched out of town for about a mile, again draped in a flag and now wearing a noose around his neck. When the mob reached the hanging tree, Prager was allowed to pray and write a short note to his parents. As dozens pulled on the rope, Prager was lifted. The mob had forgotten to tie his hand—Prager held on to the rope. He was lowered, and the assailants tied his arms. Again, he was lifted and, after a struggle, died.

Eleven men were immediately arrested and stood trial in June. There was little doubt about the fact—one defendant had made a full, bragging confession to a reporter—but in less than an hour the jury, who deliberated within earshot of a band playing patriotic songs on the square,  acquitted all of the defendants. The victors posed for a group photo, holding miniature flags outside the courthouse.

The reaction to the hanging and acquittal was almost all positive. A Washington Post editorial said “in spite of excesses such as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country. Enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur.” Local newspapers had little sympathy for Prager, who was almost always called a German “enemy alien” on their pages. As he requested on the death march, Prager was buried wrapped in a flag. Seven months after his acquittal one of the ringleaders, Wesley Beaver, committed suicide.

Coal mining is long dead in the area but the lessons of history do not die. The spectacle of a president urging police officers “please don’t be too nice” when taking suspects into custody, or releasing crudely-made videos of his wrestling with an opponent with a CNN logo on his head, or, indeed, the many times he encouraged “roughing up” protestors—even offering to pay the legal fees of his supporters—is beginning to look eerily familiar. Already, there are reports of violence against immigrants acerbated by the Muslim ban. A Republican congressman allegedly “body slammed” a reporter from the Guardian. Whether or not people can learn from history remains, perhaps, the most vexing question of nations.