Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Lynching of Robert Prager, the United Mine Workers, and the Problems of Patriotism in 1918

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Lynching of Robert Prager, the United Mine Workers, and the Problems of Patriotism in 1918

Article excerpt

There is no mystery about how Robert Paul Prager died in the spring of 1918, and not much doubt about who was responsible. Prager was hanged from a tree, and a man named Joe Riegel confessed that he led the mob that did it, although he later retracted his confession. He and another ten men were tried for killing Prager, but acquitted. The motivation for the lynching was set in large type when a local newspaper topped its first story about the lynching with the headline, "Anti-German Mob Hangs Man Here."1

Academic historians have put this case forward as the most extreme example of the results of ethnic (or political) polarization during World War I, and interpreted the response of certain politicians and journalists as a significant reflection of insensitivity to civil liberties. Local historians have understood the lynching as a natural disaster, growing out of drunkenness and other eternal verities of human nature, which might have happened anywhere under the circumstances.

While each of these interpretations has at least some merit, consideration of the deeper context of the Prager case suggests a different meaning. Prager unquestionably died at the hands of drunken, hysterical men because he was German. But when they killed Prager, they were also killing their own fears of being accused of disloyalty, fears rooted in a bitter and divisive labor struggle. The events that put the lynching in motion, as well as the attitude of the community afterward, were rooted in a successful struggle by United Mine Workers (UMW) leaders to balance the demands of a militant rank-and-file with the need to demonstrate patriotism.

The lynching took place in Collinsville, a southern Illinois coalmining town near St. Louis. Historian Frederick C. Luebke has provided an account of the lynching that can scarcely be improved upon. He began his 1974 book, Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I, with an entire chapter about the lynching, entitled "Death in Collinsville." Relying mainly on newspaper accounts, Luebke wrote that Prager had been born in Dresden, Germany, and had come to the United States in 1905 at the age of nineteen. He was a drifter who spent a year in an Indiana reformatory for theft. He was living in St. Louis when the U.S. declared war on Germany one year before his death.

Prager showed patriotic feeling for his adopted country; he took out his first citizenship papers after the declaration of war and tried to enlist in the navy. He was rejected for medical reasons. Sometime afterward, he became a baker in the Collinsville vicinity, but he was fired because of what Luebke called his "stubborn, uncompromising personality." He applied for membership in the UMW union and went to work in a mine at Maryville, near Collinsville, but he was denied union membership because, according to Luebke, he was not only a German but was "unmarried, stubbornly argumentative, given to Socialist doctrines, blind in one eye" and "looked like a spy to the miners." He was seized by a group of miners on the evening of 3 April and warned away from Maryville.

United Mine Workers leaders Moses Johnson and James Fornero, fearing for Prager's safety, tried to get the Collinsville police to put him under protective custody, but they declined. The two men took Prager to his home in Collinsville. The next day, Prager went back to Maryville and prepared a document attacking Fornero.2 He posted carbon copies of this document around the town and stayed out of sight until that evening, when he went back to Collinsville.

Some of the miners who had gone after him in Maryville were in Collinsville drinking that night. They decided to go after Prager again at his home. He agreed to leave town but that was not enough for them; they dragged him into the street, stripped him of his shoes and outer clothing and draped him with a flag. Luebke wrote, "Bareheaded, barefooted, and half blind, the pathetic figure stumbled along, leading the mob down the main street toward the center of town. …

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