With WWI came a fear of Germans, the largest non-English immigrant group in the country. Superpatriotism soon reached ridiculous levels. The names of German food were purged from restaurant menus; sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, hamburger became liberty steak. Even German measles was renamed liberty measles by a Massachusetts physician.
Superpatriots felt the need to protect the American public from contamination via disloyal music by pushing to eliminate classic German composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart from the programs of community orchestras. Some states banned the teaching of the German language in private and public schools alike. In July 1918, South Dakota prohibited the use of German over the telephone, and in public assemblies of three or more persons. (See my January 29 post about Indianapolis Public schools banning the teaching of German.)
Prager had been in the country since 1905 but WWI prompted him to apply for citizenship and to try to join the Navy. A rumor was circulating that German agents planned to blow up the local mine and several local German citizens were rounded up and forced to declare their loyalty and kiss the U.S. flag.
Prager was told to leave town but some citizens still demanded he kiss the flag, which he did. He was stripped down to his underwear, wrapped in the flag and forced to stumble thru the city’s streets. The mob then demanded he sing the National Anthem. he didn’t know the words but willingly sang another patriotic tune.
At some point, a brave soul decided to call the police who tried hiding Prager in a basement for his protection but the mob, which had grown to a few hundred persons, found him and dragged him back outside. They stopped passing cars and forced him to sing patriotic songs to the cars’ occupants. As the parade of degradation continued, the mob eventually reached the city limits, at which point the police simply stopped following the crowd. Prager was now on his own with the crowd.
Someone suggested he be tarred and feathered but when the materials could not be found, three cars were turned to light up a large tree. A noose was made from a rope and one man, who could not hoist Prager on his own, called out for help. Fifteen men grabbed the rope and pulled but when that failed to kill him, they let him fall to the ground with the offer to be allowed to say something.
He was granted permission to write a goodbye letter to his mother and to pray. He then walked unassisted back to the tree and the ropes, telling the crowd of over 200, “All right boys, go ahead and kill me, but wrap me in the flag when you bury me.” Prager was yanked back into the air and hanged.
Prager’s last request was honored and he was buried wrapped in the American flag.
Twelve persons were charged with murder. The trial took three days. The defense presented its case in six hours, and concluded with the argument that Prager was a suspected German spy and that the lynching was justifiable under “unwritten law” and referred to it as “patriotic murder.” After forty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury found all of the defendants “not guilty.”
Sources for this story include www.authentichistory.com and http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/
|Photo from http://www.ioof-stl.org/Stlouis$5/robert_prager_tombstone_dedication.htm|