9. DANCE OR BE HANGED - THE PRAGER CASE
As a result of the unprecedented hatred of foreigners which developed after the United States entered World War 1, Robert P. Prager, a German immigrant, was lynched in Collinsville on the night of April 5, 1918. He was the first German to be lynched in the nation and the only one in Illinois. Why did it happen in a place so heavily and so favorably influenced by German immigrants for so long?
Germans had entered South Central Illinois in large numbers between the 1830s and the 1870s, and virtually every community boasted a Verein (singing society); a Turnverein (physical fitness club); a Germania Bund (cultural society); and German Lutheran, Catholic, and Methodist churches. German characteristics in home construction, farming, and beer drinking were widely evident; and German parochial schools were well established by the time free public education took root. When war came, more than one fourth of all Americans had German ancestry; but the percentage in South Central Illinois was much higher.
By 1917, however, ethnic characteristics once held in high esteem were scorned, and most communities began programs of Americanization which too frequently led to violence and intimidation. The federal government set the tone by passing three laws whose titles described the types of disloyalty of most concern: the Espionage Act, the Sabotage Act, and the Sedition Act.
By federal Executive Order local authorities were requested tofurnish registration cards for all aliens, and a parolee system was instituted in Belleville requiring all unnaturalized persons to have one "loyal citizen" vouch for them and to accompany them outside the city. Restricted areas were established. Propaganda issued by the national Committee on Public Information encouraged the people to attack everything which might weaken the country's war effort or threaten its security. Suddenly, every German soldier became a beast and every German-American citizen a spy. Mob action and incidents of tarring and feathering increased.
Under pressure, the German language disappeared from schools, churches, and newspapers. The Belleville Turnverein became the Belleville Turners. Mobs attacked German carnival bands; in Staunton a school superintendent called secret service agents to investigate a family whose son failed to salute the American flag during a school ceremony. By decree of the Committee on Public Information sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage." The editor of the Collinsville Herald on Feb. 28, 1917, wrote, "The mass public sentiment in Collinsville at present is in no humor to listen calmly to light or insinuating remarks about America or the war.
It was this atmosphere which Robert Paul Prager - a squat, 33-year-old, unnaturalized German with a handlebar mustache and one glass eye - was forced to combat. Prager had come to Collinsville to work in the mines and had an obsession to become an American. When he attempted to join the United Mine Workers, he was rejected by the president of the local union for being a socialist.
Prager attacked the official in an open letter to the miners; in response, on April 4, a group visited him, took his shoes, and paraded him through the streets draped in a flag. When he was taken into "protective custody" in Collinsville, rumor reached the taverns that a German spy had been captured; and a drunken mob formed. The mob entered the jail past the mayor of the city; bound the four jailers; removed Prager from the jail; and prodded him barefoot through the streets, forcing him to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" and to give three cheers for the red, white, and blue. Two miles south of the city a rope was thrown over the limb of a tree, and Prager was hanged.
Governor Lowden expressed official concern over the incident. "I think I can say for the Attorney General's Office and my own," he said, "that every power with which we are vested will be used to the limit to punish those reponsible for the violence in Collinsville." Eleven members of the mob were indicted for lynching.
At the trial the defense attorney pleaded "patriotic murder," arguing that as a German spy, Prager was not "within the peace of the people" and that since the officers of the law were not doing their duty, the people became the law. Most of the miners believed Prager was a spy in spite of the facts that he wished to become an American, at no time made a disloyal statement, never attacked an American patriotic activity, and was never formally charged with being a spy.
The jury found the members of the mob to be not guilty although the four police officers who were "overpowered" were tried for dereliction of duty and suspended. A farmer seemed to speak for the people of the area when he said, "Well, I guess nobody can say we're not loyal now."
Prager was lynched because he Personified hatred for a national enemy, a hatred consciously created by all levels of government, which the people could not express through parades, bond drives, and rallies. The wonder is that Prager alone was hanged.