Saturday, January 14, 2006

Author talks about his book that covers lynching in Collinsville

Author talks about his book that covers lynching in Collinsville

BY ELIZABETH DONALD
News-Democrat

Carl Weinberg said he knew he might be stirring up a hornet's nest by talking about the lynching of Robert Prager.

Weinberg spoke Tuesday at the Collinsville Public Library about his book, "Labor, Loyalty & Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I." In it, he talks extensively about the lynching of Robert Prager, a German national who was hung from a tree by Collinsville residents in 1918.

Once known only as "Collinsville's sin," the Prager lynching was the dirty secret that was never taught in schools or spoken of in polite company.

"We didn't even know about it, the story wasn't told," said long-time resident Lois Metzger, who attended Weinberg's speech.

But in spite of the once-secret nature of "Collinsville's sin," every seat in the library meeting room was filled Tuesday.

Many stopped afterward to tell Weinberg their own stories about family and neighbors who had been witnesses to that time period.

Doris Crowell told him about her grandfather, who was a police officer on duty that night and tried to help protect Prager by hiding him in the jail cells at City Hall.

But Weinberg said his research went beyond the reasons a mob dragged Prager out of town and hanged him, to see how the pro-war movement put immense pressure on striking mine workers, calling them unpatriotic to strike during "the war for democracy."

The miners were accused of being pro-German, he said, and that may have contributed to the mindset that allowed the lynching to happen. And Collinsville, he said, was one of the most strike-prone towns in Southern Illinois.

"Many workers were constantly being accused of being disloyal, and that may have put intense pressure on them to prove how loyal they were," Weinberg said.

Weinberg said the Prager lynching, which came after Prager tried and failed to join the miners' union, was in a way a "perverse tribute" to the high level of union solidarity in Collinsville, and showed the divided nature of American support for World War I.

"Throughout the nation, working people were suspicious of the claim that America was fighting a war for democracy," he read from his book. "Many refused to put their class battles on hold over here while the government exhorted them to fight the enemy over there... Collinsville should be proud of its heritage of collective struggle for a better world, not ashamed of the fact that it was not one big, happy, patriotic family."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 345-7822, ext. 21.

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