Had a drunken mob found some tar and feathers, the fate of Robert Prager might have been no worse than for other Germans bullied across the U.S. by patriotic zealots during World War I. Unfortunately, what the crowd did find was a rope.
The hanging of Prager in Collinsville, 100 years ago next week, was the nation’s only murder among rampant episodes of tarring and beating and humiliating people regarded by vigilantes to be unpatriotic — or even enemy spies.
I had lunch a few days ago with the greatest living expert on what happened, my close friend Peter Stehman. His account, “Patriotic Murder,” to be released by the publisher Potomac later this year, is the first full book written about the event, even though it was a big national story in its day.
We fittingly met at Sloan’s Pub House, overlooking a downtown section of Main Street where Prager was paraded twice on the way to his doom. Some buildings of the day remain, including the little-changed former State Bank.
Peter, who retired as Collinsville fire chief in 2011, is a former journalist whose late parents, Lucille and Milton Stehman, helped inspire a lifelong love of history and community.
He wrote on Prager for an eighth-grade history project, and from that point figured, “It wasn’t whether I’d write a book about him, but when.” Four years of deep research into public records and newspaper archives produced an authoritative look at not just the incident but also its backdrop: a nation rocked by rabid nationalism.
“It fits many of today’s problems,” he explained. “For people not well informed, there always has to be a scapegoat. Democracy needs an informed electorate, not propaganda and fear-mongering.”
The worst case was the hanging murder of Robert Paul Prager in Collinsville. Many German-Americans served in the American army during the Great War.
Prager came to American from Germany in 1905, at age 17. He was a baker who had lived in St. Louis and at some point moved to a shack at the northeastern edge of downtown Collinsville. He took the first steps toward citizenship, but had a lonely existence, with few friends and an unfulfilled hope of luring a mail-order bride.
He coveted the high wages paid to miners in what was then a coal town, but it required membership in a union that spurned him. Peter said the reasons weren’t really clear, despite lore that Prager, 30, was falsely suspected of spying for the Kaiser.
On April 3, 1918, Prager was rejected at a union meeting in Maryville and mockingly paraded down a street there. After he posted a letter the next day, complaining of unfair treatment, miners walked a few steps from a Collinsville bar to force him from his home. He may have been wrapped in a U.S. flag, taunted and perhaps beaten as he was marched down Main to Seminary Street.
There, police took him into protective custody, locking him for a while in a jail cell in the basement of what is still the City Hall. A crowd of perhaps 300 people ignored entreaties from the mayor and an alderman to leave. Instead, angry men scoured the building and found Prager, by then hiding among stored sewer pipes.
They forced him to walk about 1.7 miles west along Main Street and St. Louis Road, beating him along the way. Police followed, ostensibly to see that the morbid procession left the city limits. Men sent by automobile to obtain tar from a streetcar depot near Monk’s Mound failed to find any.
Shortly after midnight April 5, about where the sign now sits at St. John Cemetery, Prager was strung up by a rope put over a branch of a large hackberry tree. His hands still free, he grasped the line to save himself.
So he was lowered, allowed to write a good-bye note to his parents, and then hanged, with his hands tied this time. He was lifted three times to someone’s chant of “One for the red! One for the white! One for the blue!”
Vincent Herr, a prominent undertaker, later collected the body. The pocket knife he used to cut the rope is part of a Prager exhibit at the Collinsville Historical Museum. Thousands viewed the corpse, on display at the funeral home, before an Odd Fellows lodge in St. Louis arranged burial and a tombstone with the terse explanation: “The victim of a mob.”
Something that surprised Peter in his research was the high level of tacit intimidation of potential witnesses over the next few days. Only one of perhaps 100 people who watched the hanging came forward.
Of a dozen men indicted on murder charges, one was never found for trial. The 11 others were acquitted by a jury not quite two months later despite admissions — later recanted — by alleged ringleader Joe Riegel to a coroner’s jury and a Post-Dispatch reporter.
Peter, a loyal supporter of his hometown, figured that the century mark was a logical point to examine what happened, and to remember its lessons about mob mentality and letting emotion overrule morality.
“Every community has something in its past,” he said. “The healthy thing is to deal with it.” His recommendation is to build memorials at the key sites: City Hall and the cemetery, where that hanging tree was removed in 1962.