German immigrant in Collinsville was the first lynched on US soil during WWI
This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
Robert Prager was taken from his home in Collinsville by a drunken mob. He was abused and beaten, wrapped in the American flag and paraded down Main Street. They forced him to walk barefoot over tacks.
Then, the mob hanged him.
Prager was the first German immigrant lynched on U.S. soil, and the only one lynched in Illinois, during World War I.
The murderers accused Prager of pro-German sympathies.
In reality, a nationwide wave of anti-German sentiment, bullies from the local coal miners' union and booze from the Collinsville saloons led to the killing on an April night in 1918.
Four armed policemen and Collinsville city leaders failed to protect Prager from the crowd. They were not penalized or held responsible for his death.
In the brief court case that followed the lynching, the 11 leaders of the mob claimed they hanged Prager because they were doing their patriotic duty. The men proudly displayed American flags as they posed outside the county courthouse in Edwardsville.
The jury found the men not guilty.
All of the men and women who participated in the mob are dead. Eyewitness testimony of Prager's lynching is only available through second-hand stories.
The dangers of rabid nationalism and bigotry, as well as a community's shame, remain.
Anti-German sentiment in Southern Illinois
Pete Stehman, who is a Collinsville Historical Museum board member, has made an extensive study of the Prager lynching. His book, "Patriotic Murder: A World War I Hate Crime for Uncle Sam," is slated to be available in September from Potomac Press.
"The Prager thing has always been a train wreck I couldn’t take my eyes off of," Stehman said. Now 60 years old and retired, he was the Collinsville fire chief and served as a firefighter for 28 years.
Stehman said, "You’d like to think we’d do a lot better than that nowadays, but you can draw an analogy to today’s life and this political dialogue that’s going on. It's decidedly heated and also unfairly targets certain people."
At that time, in Southern Illinois and across the country, the Committee on Public Information, an independent agency of the U.S. government, was promoting a campaign of anti-German propaganda to boost support for World War I.
Posters and war propaganda painted Germany as a war-hungry enemy who would mindlessly kill women and children while trampling the blood of Americans beneath its eagle-topped boots.
There was a huge German immigrant influence in Southern Illinois near the turn of the century.
Some newspapers were printed in German, children were educated in German at school and sermons were delivered in German from the pulpit.
When the United States and its allies went to war with Germany in World War I, Southern Illinois pushed away its German heritage because Germans were seen as the enemy.
In February 1918, Christian Knebelkamp, a German immigrant who discovered he didn't have naturalization papers, was kicked off of Belleville City Council. He had served Belleville for over two decades and lived in Southern Illinois for the majority of his life.
The Belleville Township High School Boys' Chorus refused to practice an operetta because the young men believed it had "an alleged pro-German character."
The lyrics were: "Hurrah, hurrah, for that German regiment. Oh we are proud that we could shout, 'mit' joy, also 'mit' glee. For we are a gallant regiment, as you can plainly see."
A New Athens-based group, the "Verein Vorwaertis," officially changed its name to "The New Athens Singing Society." It also pledged to sing entirely in English.
Prior to the pledge, the group had sung and recorded its meeting minutes in German.
In Willisville, a small town about 50 miles south of Belleville, the townspeople forbade the German language.
They hung signs that read, "If you must talk the German lingo, go to Germany. We don't allow it spoken here. We are for Uncle Sam, and we insist on your speaking the English language — now and always."
Steeleville passed an ordinance forbidding the speaking of German "on the street cars or in any public place."
Then, a "vigilance committee" marched to a German Lutheran Church near Steeleville and demanded the pastor preach in English.
Not only did the unnamed pastor deliver his sermon in English the following Sunday, the BND reported he "took an American flag into the pulpit with him."
Prager was born in Dresden, Germany, and immigrated to the United States at the age of 17. He was a baker by trade.
After some misadventures, including time spent in jail for allegedly stealing a suit, Prager made his way to Southern Illinois and worked at the Bruno Bakery.
Lorenzo Bruno, the owner of the bakery, told the BND in 1918, "The man had many peculiarities, including a violent temper which was often roused over trifles."
Stehman said, "I think there’s enough out there to establish that he was hardheaded or argumentative, which might have been part of the reason why the local miners had a problem with him. You shouldn’t have to pay with your life for being hardheaded or argumentative."
At that time, coal mining was one of the most lucrative jobs available. Prager wanted the higher wage, but he had to join the union first.
Union president Jim Farnaro would not allow Prager to join.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Prager wrote a statement pleading his case and posted copies of it in Collinsville saloons and mine entrances.
Prager's statement, which the BND later printed, said Farnaro had called him "a liar and German spy" and "advised him to leave the region permanently if he knew what was good for his health."
Prager wrote, "I have been a union man at all times and never once a scab in all my life, and for this reason I appeal to you. In regard to my loyalty, I will state that I am heart and soul for the good old USA and of German birth, which accident I cannot help, and also have declared my intention of U.S. citizenship."
Stehman, the Collinsville Historical Museum board member, said, "Basically, Prager was argumentative to the extent that he wasn’t going to let these untruths be his undoing. But he was naïve."
"They weren’t used to anybody challenging what they had to say so they took umbrage to that," Stehman said. "We call it out today for what it is — bullying."
During World War I, accusations of disloyalty were quite common.
Rather than wait for a potentially lengthy arrest and trial, local residents made the accused kiss the flag, sing patriotic songs or suffer the pain of tar and feathering.
The general idea was to shame the victim into compliance or silence.
Stehman said, "The lion’s share of these people who were accused of things were no more guilty than the man on the moon. This lynching, and mob activity over all, became a way to get back at your enemy."
In April 1918, James Meyer, a 42-year-old blacksmith from Dupo, was required to kiss the flag for saying, "If it was cloudy April 7 the Kaiser would win the war, and if it was a clear day the United States would win."
Morris Gotler, a merchant of East Alton who was from Russia, was made to kiss the flag because he kept his store open while other stores in town closed for a patriotic gathering.
The BND reported, "A crowd found Gotler and threatened him with remarks such as: 'Does he want to send any word to his wife?' and 'Where is the rope?'"
In Benton, a community about 85 miles to the southeast of Belleville, William Hausman and George Cameron were given only 30 days in jail and a fine of $100 for leading a mob during a tar and feathering of four men.
Stehman said: "We don’t want to get into political arguments every time we go out, but at what point do you have a responsibility as a citizen and as a caring, moral person to say, 'I’m not going to allow that racist, crazy nationalism or xenophobia. No, I’m not going to allow that.'"
The parade and lynching
After reading the notices Prager had posted around town in an effort to join the coal miner's union, a drunken mob went to Prager's Collinsville residence.
They wrapped Prager in the American flag, removed his shoes and forced him to walk barefooted over sharp objects in a "patriotic parade."
"They made him take off his shoes," Stehman said. "They made him walk through the tacks. The little boys would walk behind him, pick up the tacks and they’d make him walk through it again."
The Collinsville police broke into the parade and spirited Prager to the City Hall in an effort to protect him.
Collinsville Mayor J.H. Siegel ordered the 40 local saloons to close in an effort to disperse the mob.
Siegel then addressed the crowd and asked them to go home. While the mayor had the group's attention, the police tried to hide Prager.
Stehman said: "There’s a bad plan to get him out of city hall, I guess you could say. They hide him in a sewer pipe rather than keeping him in a jail cell."
The mob disbanded only to reassemble later that evening and storm the jail. Prager was discovered and dragged out.
The BND reported, "The man begged for mercy, saying he was a loyal citizen."
Stehman said, "We have every reason to believe that this was going to be a tar and feather, but it was that simple, they could not find tar."
Instead, they found a rope.
According to the BND, as the mob led Prager to the hanging tree, they asked if he had anything he would like to say.
"Yes," he said in broken English, "I would like to pray." He spoke his prayers in German.
Then, Prager was allowed to pen a last letter to his family.
"Without another word the self-appointed executioners placed the noose above the doomed man's neck and he was drawn 10 feet into the air, a hundred or more hands pulling on the rope," the BND reported.
Attorney General Edward J. Brundage issued a report stating Collinsville authorities refused to issue warrants for the mob leaders because they feared mob vengeance.
Illinois Gov. Frank Orren Lowden threatened Collinsville with martial law if the community didn't cooperate with federal investigators.
Collinsville Mayor Siegel sent a telegram to the chairman of the U.S. Judiciary Committee about the failure of the U.S. government to hold people accountable for disloyalty. He suggested that was why the Prager lynching occurred.
Siegel wrote, "The lynching of Robert Prager was the direct result of a widespread feeling in this community that the government will not punish disloyalty, and, although I deprecate the existence of this feeling, it is nevertheless not without some foundation. This spirit is not confined to Collinsville, but is universal in this section."
District Attorney Charles A. Karch responded, in a statement printed in the BND, "I am confident that the Department of Justice has at all times, since the beginning of the war, conducted a most aggressive survelliance over disloyalty and the operation of alien enemies, followed by prompt, vigorous and effective prosecutions in every deserving case."
Karch added, "It is my observation that genuinely loyal and patriotic citizens do not engage in these violent demonstrations reported from various sections of this state, in which, in many instances, innocent persons have been the unfortunate victims."
Fred Kern's editorials
Fred Kern, editor and publisher of the Belleville News-Democrat in 1918, wrote more than half a dozen editorials excoriating the mob for its actions and local authorities for their inaction.
Kern wrote, "The foul crime cries to high heaven for mercy. It is a disgrace to Collinsville, a disgrace to Madison County, a disgrace to Illinois, and a disgrace to America, a disgrace to us all."
Stehman estimated about 50 percent of the working men in Collinsville at that time were involved in coal mining, which gave the local miners' unions power.
"Belleville was a more diverse community. It wasn’t as beholden to coal mining," Stehman said.
Because of this relative freedom, Kern was able to write candid editorials about the lynching that the Collinsville-based publications could not, for fear of reprisals.
Kern wrote, "To the men who in the holy name of patriotism butchered Robert Paul Prager, we say, you are a band of cowardly murderers; the brand of Cain is on your guilty brows; look at your hands, they are red with the innocent blood of your pleading and praying victim, of your fellow man, of your coworker, of your brother, and justice demands an eye for an eye, a tooth for's tooth."
Stehman said, "In President Wilson's World War I war speech, Wilson talks about saving the world for democracy. The critics like Fred Kern and others are saying, 'Well, democracy has a trial system in place. People get a fair trial and their place in court.'"
Kern wrote, "In our country, every accused man is entitled to a fair and orderly trial in an open court. He is entitled to every chance to make a defense. That includes men accused of disloyalty and it includes men accused of murder by lynching."
The BND printed a confession given to an unnamed reporter before the coroner's jury by Joseph Riegel, one of the men accused of leading the mob.
"I can remember what took place, but I was drunk during the whole time," Riegel said. "If I had not been drunk, I would not have done what I did. Many of the other men in the mob to my knowledge were drunk too."
Riegel said, "The police could have stopped us if they would have wanted to."
The 11 men who were put on trial for Prager's lynching were Cecil Larremore, James DeMatties, Frank Flannery, Charles Cranmer, John Hallsworth, Calvin Gilmore, Joseph Riegel, Wesley Beaver, Richard Dukes Jr., Enid Elmore and William Brockmeier.
All the men lived in Collinsville and were all acquitted.
When the not guilty verdict was announced, "congratulations were showered on the accused men by many of those present," the BND reported.
According to Stehman, one of the jurors said, “I guess nobody can say we aren’t loyal now.”
In a photo taken by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, all of the accused and their guard stand holding American flags outside of the Edwardsville courthouse.
Kern wrote, "The lynchers were given a clean bill of health at Edwardsville and may now go and lynch some more."
A community's shame
Floyd Sperino, of Collinsville, was interviewed about Prager's lynching by BND reporter Teri Maddox in 2005. Sperino died in 2011.
Sperino said his mother, as a child, had peeked out a Collinsville window and watched Prager paraded down Main Street.
"Prager was wrapped in an American flag, and his shoes were hanging around his neck," Sperino said. His mother also recalled the mob forcing Prager to walk barefoot over broken beer bottles.
"It was always the consensus of the community that it was a Collinsville sin, something that people didn't want to talk about," said Sperino in 2005.
Stehman agreed Collinsville residents refused to speak about the lynching for years.
"I think for two generations there’s shame, not just from the people charged but from the policemen and the policemen’s family," Stehman said. "If you were in the mob or watching on Main Street while Prager was here, it’s not your proudest moment."
"You’d think, 'Wow, that guy was innocent, and I stood there and didn’t do anything,'" he said.