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Prologue: Against the Wall
On the night of April 4, 1918, nearly a year to the day after the United States entered World War I, a harrowing spectacle was unfolding on the streets of Collinsville, Illinois, a small market center and coalmining community of four thousand, located twelve miles across the river from St. Louis. Trailed by a roused and swelling crowd, a forlorn, barefoot figure wrapped in an American flag hobbled along in the cold night air. An occasional catcall rang out in the dark, and the threat of festive violence loomed heavily. The man at the head of the discordant parade stumbled frequently as the march made its way up the main street of Collinsville toward city hall.
The unfortunate leading this unsettling procession was Robert Paul Prager, a thirty-year-old German immigrant and, by some accounts, a radical Socialist. Born in Dresden, Prager had immigrated to the United States in 1905, at the age of seventeen. He bounced around the Midwest for several years, working as a baker, serving fourteen months for theft in 1913–14, and eventually finding his way, in 1915, to the St. Louis area, with its sizable, well-established German-American population. He worked for a time in a coal mine in Gillespie, about forty miles northeast of St. Louis, then headed to Collinsville in the fall of 1917, where he took a job in Lorenzo Bruno’s bakery.
According to Mrs. Bruno, Prager was extremely intelligent and an outstanding worker, but “a certain peculiarity in his makeup . . . made him quarrelsome with people who did not agree with his ideas on ways of doing things.” Despite his ready inclination to apologize once his temper had cooled, Prager’s argumentativeness led to his being fired early in 1918.
Turning to the only other work he knew, Prager got a job on the night shift at the No. 2 mine owned by the Donk Brothers Coal and Coke Company in Maryville, four miles from Collinsville. The leadership of United Mine Workers of America Local 1802 accepted him conditionally until his application for UMWA membership could be reviewed.
It was here that things started to go seriously wrong for Prager. Looking to improve his lot, he thought to become a mine manager. In late March, he approached the mine examiner John Lobenad and, informing Lobenad of his desire to advance, questioned him about a manager’s responsibilities. One of the areas he asked about was mine explosions, and exactly how an explosion could cause the greatest damage. Lobenad’s suspicions were aroused, and when rumors—utterly unsubstantiated—suddenly began circulating about a supply of blasting powder vanishing from the mine, some of the six hundred miners at Donk No. 2, including the Local 1802 president, Joe Fornero, concluded that Prager was a German agent bent on sabotage.
In the hypercharged winter and spring of 1918, the mere suspicion of harboring pro-German sentiments, let alone actively working for Germany, was enough to invite the attention of federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies, as well as a myriad of quasilegal vigilante organizations. Since entering the war, the federal government had whipped the American public into a froth with a calculated program of propaganda issued by the Committee on Public Information.
Headed by the newspaperman George Creel, the CPI utilized every available medium to sell the war to an initially skeptical citizenry. The committee’s job, as Creel wrote, was “to drive home to the people the causes behind this war, the great fundamental necessities that compelled a peace-loving nation to take up arms to protect free institutions and preserve our liberties,” and “to weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination.” As the New York World’s editor Frank Cobb later wrote, “Government conscripted public opinion as they conscripted men and money and materials.”
Creel and his associates—including some three thousand historians recruited for pamphlet writing—did their job only too well, cultivating a hatred for everything associated with Germans and Germany. The press enthusiastically took up the chant. As one New York newspaper would put it, “Scrutinized historically, and presented baldly, the German cannot be but recognized as a distinctly separate and pathological human species. He is not human in the sense that other men are human.” Promoting anti-Germanism and love of country, the CPI infected the American public with a virulent strain of patriotism tinged with a streak of potent xenophobia. All dissenting voices on the war were, by implication, disloyal and therefore pro-German: pacifists, Wobblies, Socialists, anarchists, Mennonites, Irish-Americans, and above all, German aliens and German-Americans were some, but not all, of the tainted and suspect.
Throughout the country, scores of Germans came under attack. On December 22, 1917, Charles H. Feige, who had been taking photographs near the border in El Paso, tried to cross into Mexico and was shot and killed by a soldier, who assumed he was a spy. Six days later, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor, the Reverend W. A. Starck, and another man barely escaped being hanged in the public square of Audubon, Iowa, before deputy sheriffs intervened.
On January 5, 1918, one Maximilian Von Hoegen was beaten, suffered a broken nose, and was forced to kiss the American flag in Hartford, Connecticut. The following week, Philadelphia police rescued a man named Paul Beilfuss from a lynch mob.
By the spring of 1918, the nation was in a patriotic frenzy. Reports of German spy networks and espionage filled the newspapers, with wildly exaggerated numbers of German agents supposedly operating in the country. On March 1, citing the Department of Justice as his source, the international president of the Rotary Club informed a Chicago audience that at least 110,000 German agents were operating in the United States. The number was never confirmed.
The next day, a Denver “squad of loyal Americans” tied Fred Sietz, by a rope around his neck, to a truck and paraded him through the streets. They delivered Sietz, who had refused to kiss the flag, to the office of The Denver Post, where he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital in serious condition.
On March 3, the senator and future president Warren G. Harding, speaking at a large patriotic meeting sponsored by the Maryland Council of Defense, offered his opinion that the only place for Germany’s “miserable spies . . . is against the wall.”
The violence escalated into the first week of April. On the second, in La Salle, Illinois, 150 miles from Collinsville, Dr. J. C. Bienneman was dunked in a canal, made to kiss the flag, and ordered to leave town. The same day, Rudolph Schwopke was tarred and feathered in Emerson, Nebraska, for allegedly refusing to contribute to the Red Cross. Two days later, a group of men waiting to be called for the draft shaved the head of seventy-two-year-old H. C. Capers in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
Such was the climate in which Robert Prager’s fellow miners deduced that he was a German agent intent on blowing up the Maryville mine, and union officials denied his application for membership. On April 3, a group of miners seized Prager and, employing the ritual widely practiced on anyone suspected of disloyalty, compelled him to kiss the flag. They accused him of being a German spy, led him to the outskirts of town, and harshly warned him not to come back. The Local 1802 president, Fornero, and another union official, Moses Johnson, escorted Prager back to Collinsville, where they asked the police to place him in protective custody; without charges being filed against him, however, the police declined. The union leaders then took Prager to his rooming house and asked him to meet them the following day at the sheriff’s office in Edwardsville, the county seat.
Instead, Prager composed a one-page document titled “Proclamation to Members of Local Union No. 1802” and, ignoring the miners’ admonition, returned the next day to Maryville, where he posted a dozen carbon copies of his handbill around town. “I have been a union man at all times and never once a scab,” wrote Prager, “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 [Fornero] . . . a German spy which he cannot prove.”
In fact, if Fornero and the others had taken the trouble to investigate, they would have discovered that Prager’s loyalty could hardly be questioned. In the previous year, he had registered, as required, both for the newly established draft and as an “alien enemy” (any noncitizen from a country at war with the United States), and had even volunteered for the Navy but been turned down on account of his glass eye. Moreover, he had indeed, as he noted in his flyer, applied for citizenship and was awaiting his second papers.
Prager’s “proclamation” had the opposite effect from what he intended. The miners who had turned against him were further infuriated by his attack on the well-liked Fornero.
That evening, a group of miners left a Collinsville bar shortly after nine and walked to Prager’s rooming house, where they ordered him to leave town immediately. He agreed, but then the crowd demanded that he come out into the street.
“All right, brothers,” Prager said, “I’ll go if you don’t hurt me.” One of the men promised not to harm him.
Once he was outside, Prager’s shoes, socks, and outer clothing were forcibly removed. He was wrapped in the Stars and Stripes and instructed to start walking and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
When the crowd got near the center of town, Collinsville’s mayor, Dr. John H. Siegel, was just leaving a Liberty Loan meeting at the Opera House. He saw the approaching parade, but made no attempt to intervene, reckoning that “the crowd was orderly and there was no disturbance.” Siegel crossed the street and let himself into his medical office, from which point he kept an eye on events.
The crowd now numbered several hundred. The Collinsville police officer Fred Frost, patrolling the downtown area, grew apprehensive about the direction in which things were moving, so he waded into the crowd, wrested the terrified Prager away from his captors, and shepherded him into city hall.
In the meantime, the Collinsville bars were ordered closed in hopes of cutting down on the likelihood of violence. At each watering hole, the officer charged with making the rounds explained that a German spy had been arrested and was being held at city hall, so the patrons naturally made for downtown, further increasing the size of the throng. Among the new recruits was Joseph Riegel, an Army veteran and a former miner, who joined up with a small group on its way to the scene. A saloon worker named Wesley Beaver produced an American flag, and “the crowd fell in behind it.”
Watching the growing assembly, Mayor Siegel could tell that “things were taking such a turn as to become menacing.” Leaving his medical office, he climbed the steps of city hall and tried to calm the crowd. He pleaded with them to disband, telling them that Prager had been taken away and promising that he would be handed over to the federal authorities. But the mob refused to disperse. Joseph Riegel, who later admitted to being drunk, assumed the mantle of leader and pushed his way to the front. He waved his discharge papers, claiming them as proof of loyalty, and demanded to make a search of the jail. The mayor agreed to admit Riegel alone, but when the doors were opened, the crowd surged forward and swarmed into the building.
The police had removed Prager from his cell and hidden him in the basement of the building. It took Riegel and Beaver some time, but they eventually found him and marched him back out into the street, where his terrible ordeal resumed.
Turning south on the St. Louis road, the parade proceeded toward the outskirts of Collinsville, with Prager all the while being forced to kiss the flag and sing patriotic songs. Without warning, the latent violence suddenly erupted as somebody punched Prager, knocking him to the ground. A couple of men helped him to his feet, and the march continued.
By the time they reached the city limits, the crowd had thinned considerably, and the police, who had been following at a safe distance, turned back, their jurisdiction ended. When they reached the crest of a hill about half a mile outside of town, fewer than fifty men were left. They stopped under a good-sized hackberry tree and decided upon a coat of tar and feathers, but no supplies could be found. However, when somebody discovered a towing rope in one of the vehicles that had accompanied the march, Prager’s fate was sealed.
A noose was fashioned, and the rope was looped over a large branch of the hackberry. The noose was slipped over Prager’s head and tightened around his neck. The remaining crowd members fired questions at him, demanding to know the details of his alleged bomb plot, including why he stole the explosives and who his accomplices were. Exhausted from his tribulation, Prager shook his head and fell silent.
Riegel then pulled on the rope in an attempt to hoist Prager up, but he lacked the strength. “Come on, fellows, we’re all in on this,” he said to the others, “let’s not have any slackers here.” Several others took hold of the rope, including some boys as young as twelve years old, and Prager was lifted off the ground. The lynch mob had forgotten to tie his hands, however, and he grabbed the rope to prevent himself from choking.
They let him back down, and Prager asked permission to compose a farewell note to his parents. Someone furnished a pencil and paper, and he was led to one of the automobiles. “Dear Parents,” he wrote. “Today, April 4, 1918, I must die. Please pray for me, my beloved parents. This is the last letter or testimony from me. Your loving son and brother, Robt. Paul.” Prager handed the letter over, then asked to pray. Kneeling, he begged forgiveness for his sins and declared himself innocent of disloyalty. When he finished, he walked calmly back to the tree.
Someone tied Prager’s hands with a handkerchief, and the noose was once again placed around his neck. The crowd again harangued him with questions, telling him they would kill him if he didn’t make a complete confession, but Prager said nothing.
“Well, if he won’t come in with anything, string him up,” called one of the mob.
Before they could, Prager said, “All right, boys! Go ahead and kill me, but wrap me in the flag when you bury me.”
Once more, they raised his body off the ground. This time, they were successful.
Less than two months later, eleven defendants—six of whom had apparently left the mob before the lynching—were tried for Prager’s murder. One reporter later called the trial “a farcical patriotic orgy.” The jury deliberated for forty-five minutes before acquitting all the defendants.