On August 17, 1915, Jewish-American engineer Leo Frank was dragged from his jail cell and lynched, putting a cap on an infamous murder case that had inflamed the state of Georgia and captivated the entire country.
Frank had been convicted two years earlier of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was factory superintendent. Phagan was discovered lying bloody on the floor of the factory basement, and her gruesome death brought issues of class, race, and religion to the forefront of Southern society, as the Atlanta public seemingly latched on to Frank’s Judaism to justify his presumed guilt.
A 29-year-old Northern-born, Ivy League educated engineer who married into a wealthy upper-class Jewish family who had deep roots in Atlanta, Frank was likely viewed as an outsider by the majority of Georgia society at the time.
Here’s how journalist Steve Oney describes him in an authoritative article on the case written for Esquire in 1985: “A nervous, circumspect Brooklyn Jew whose bulging eyes and wiry build lent him an unfortunate resemblance to a praying mantis.”
As the last person to admit to seeing Phagan alive, Frank was an obvious suspect in the murder investigation. But, after his arrest, he became more than just an ordinary suspect, according to a contemporaneous essay on Frank cited by Oney.
“When the police arrested a Jew, and a Yankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against the Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime,” the pastor of Phagan’s church writes.
Who killed Mary Phagan?
A hundred years after his death, Frank’s innocence is as established as it will likely ever be.
There had been high-level doubts about the outcome of the case from the onset. In December 1914, The New York Times noted that local residents were asking the governor to pardon Frank or commute his sentence.
“The possibility of the law’s inflicting the death penalty on an innocent man is so monstrous that it has shocked the public,” The Times wrote, citing an item from the Kansas City Times. “Technicalities have repeatedly been invoked to save guilty men. It is curious that no way has been found to give a new trial to a man whose guilt is in reasonable doubt.”
Then-Georgia governor John Slaton ended up commuting Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment during his last days in office. Judge Leonard Roan, who oversaw Frank’s trial, wrote, even as he rejected a request for a retrial, according to Oney, “With all the thought I have put on this case, I am not thoroughly convinced that Frank is guilty or innocent.”
These doubts seemed to be confirmed roughly 70 years after the trial. In 1983, Alonzo Mann — a former worker at the National Pencil Company — revealed that he had seen a man carrying the body of a girl that night Phagan was killed, Oney reports. That man was Jim Conley, an African-American janitor at the factory whose testimony was the main evidence of Frank’s guilt, according to Mann, who was in his 80s when the revelation came out.
While plenty of evidence given at trial seemed to point to Conley, the janitor argued that Frank had actually killed Phagan and just told him to dispose of the body. His involvement adds another element to this case, as Conley became the first African-American to testify against a white man in the South, according to various reports. He was certainly the first whose testimony was accepted over a white man’s.
“Historical research has all but proved that Frank was innocent of the Phagan murder and that the killer was Conley,” Oney writes in a recent essay for The New Republic. “He had the motive (robbery) and the opportunity: Drunk and in debt, he was lurking in the lobby of the National Pencil Company on the afternoon of the crime when the girl exited Frank’s office with her pay: $US1.20.”
Frank was sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Mary Phagan, but his sentence was eventually commuted the night before he was due to be killed. This enraged Georgians, many of whom argued they should take the law into their own hands.
“Our grand old Empire State HAS BEEN RAPED! … Hereafter, let no man reproach the South with Lynch law: let him remember the provocation; and let him say whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all,” wrote Tom Watson, a populist newspaper editor, according to Oney.
Watson’s call was answered, and less than two months after Frank’s sentance was revised to life in prison, a group of men from Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia, took action and broke into his prison.
“With military precision the men began their work, cutting telephone lines, overpowering guards, handcuffing the warden, and finally moving directly to Frank’s dormitory, where the prisoner was roused from his sleep and quickly hustled outside,” Oney writes in his 1985 article on Frank. “They were Marietta’s leading citizens, and they acted premeditatedly and without passion.”
After driving over 100 miles toward Marietta, Frank’s captors hung him from a tree and left him to die. Oney reports that thousands of people eventually came to stare at his hanging body before somone removed it. For decades, reportedly, photos of the lynching were common sights in the South.
A wide impact
Historically, the Frank case has had reverberations throughout the past century. The only high-profile lynching of an American Jew, Frank’s death could be felt in the North and South, and in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
Notably, two significant groups latched on to the Frank case to expand their reach nationally.
“A short time after the lynching of Leo Frank, 33 members of the group that called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan gathered on a mountaintop near Atlanta and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia,” University of Missouri — Kansas City School of Law professor Douglas O. Linder writes in a 2008 overview of the Frank case. “Meanwhile, members of an outraged Jewish community met to create the Anti-Defamation League to combat anti-Semitism.”
Frank’s trial and lynching also had a profound effect on American Jews throughout the country.
“What it did to Southern Jews can’t be discounted,” Oney told Forward in 2009. “It drove them into a state of denial about their Judaism. They became even more assimilated, anti-Israel, Episcopalian. The Temple did away with chupahs at weddings — anything that would draw attention.”
The lynching also had an impact on Jews in the North, who retreated from the case after Frank’s death, concerned that their advocacy for his innocence may have inflamed Southern tensions.
In 1986, the state of Georgia finally pardoned Frank. The state said that it was pardoning him because it failed to protect him from being lynched and because it never prosecuted his killers.
At the time, The New York Times quoted Gerald H. Cohen, then-president of the Atlanta Jewish Federation, as saying the pardon removed ”a tragic stigma from the great state of Georgia, indeed from the collective conscience of our nation.”
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