EDWARDSVILLE • Bernhardt Mueller, a barber, testified he saw Joseph Riegel lead the lynching. Riegel grabbed the rope first, Mueller said, and shouted to his cohorts, "Let's not have any slackers here."
Defense lawyers asked Mueller why he was "pro-German."
Riegel was accused of being the ringleader in the murder of Robert Paul Prager, a coal miner and native of Germany. A mob hanged Prager, 30, from a hackberry tree west of Collinsville on the false and flimsy tale that he was a spy for the Kaiser during World War I.
Riegel, a cobbler and former soldier, and 10 other men went on trial in the Madison County Courthouse on May 28, 1918, seven weeks after the lynching. It had taken the lawyers two weeks to seat a jury.
Many of their questions were about loyalty to America, or the supposed lack of it.
"When the present laws were made, we were not at war," said defense lawyer Thomas Williamson. "Things are different now."
World War I brought big changes to a heavily German population.
The U.S. had declared war against Germany one year before, and public sentiment turned hard against German-Americans. Prager tried to join the U.S. Navy and dutifully reported his legal status as an "enemy alien." It wasn't loyalty enough.
A rumor flashed through Collinsville that he was a saboteur. On April 4, he posted a proclamation declaring himself "heart and soul for the good old USA." Collinsville police hid him in the City Hall basement, but Riegel and Wesley Beaver, a saloon porter, brushed past the guard and dragged Prager into the street.
With Beaver carrying an American flag, a mob of as many as 300 people pushed Prager west on St. Louis Road. Witnesses testified that Riegel let Prager jot a note to his parents in Germany, then led a group in pulling on the rope. Prager died at 12:30 a.m. on April 5, 1918.
A few hours later, Riegel gave Prager's note to the Collinsville Herald. He bragged about his role to Post-Dispatch reporter Paul Y. Anderson.
In court, Riegel denied everything. Beaver testified he went home before the lynching.
Shortly before closing arguments began on June 1, a Navy band played patriotic tunes in the courthouse lobby. Madison County States Attorney Joseph Streuber sought to turn the defense strategy, saying, "The man who justifies mob rule is a disloyalist." But chief defense lawyer James Bandy said "the men who hung Prager were good, loyal citizens."
The jury acquitted everyone in 45 minutes. Charges against four police officers for failing to intervene were dropped.
Seven months later, the guilt-ridden Beaver fatally shot himself. The "hangin' tree," at the current entrance of St. John's Cemetery in Collinsville, was cut down in 1962.