The case of Leo Frank and his lynching a century later
By ARLENE S. WIEDER, Exclusive to the CCJN
It will be 100 years next month that in his final days as governor of the State of Georgia, John Slaton commuted Leo Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment for the killing of Mary Phagan. This one act set into motion events that would eventually result in Frank’s lynching two months later. It is today the only known lynching of a Jew in America.
Ironically, the hate associated with this case may have not only have helped to strengthen the newly formed Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith, but may well have fueled the 20th century resurgence of the racist Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. These two organizations still exist today, but are, obviously, at odds with each other. There are numerous sites online – especially that of the U.S. Library of Congress – which contain digitized primary newspaper accounts or other sources for anyone to access. Here are the facts about this infamous case.
Frank was born in Texas, but raised for the majority of his life in Brooklyn. He graduated from Cornell University as an engineer, but after a few jobs as a draftsman, his wealthy Uncle Moses, sent Frank to Germany as an apprentice to learn the pencil business. After some nine months abroad, he was sent to Atlanta, where he was given the position of superintendent in the National Pencil Company.
Once he had moved to Atlanta, Frank was encouraged to settle down. find a wife and start a family. Frank accepted an invitation to meet Lucille Selig, who was the youngest of three girls born to an extremely prominent and wealthy Jewish family in Atanta. Several ancestors of the Selig family had helped found the first synagogue two generations earlier. In many ways this was an arranged marriage for both individuals. Frank was attracted to the Selig family’s elevated status in Atlanta’s Jewish community. She was his ticket for immediate acceptance into the upper echelon of Jewish society, which was important to him. For Selig, she desired a Jewish marriage and Frank fit the bill of being both well-educated and extremely presentable.
Married in November 1910, the Franks immediately took up residence in the Selig’s stately manor. Most accounts suggest the young couple was satisfied with the arrangement, although no children ever came out of the union. At the time of his arrest, Leo Frank was 28 and seemed rather comfortable in his new position and lifestyle. He also was the newly elected president of the Atlanta Lodge of B’nai B’rith.
Frank was convicted of the April 26, 1913 murder of Phagan, a 13-year-old factory worker. Frank’s conviction stemmed from a confession by a black custodian in the building, Jim Conley. Conley, who was also arrested in connection with the murder, claimed he assisted Frank in moving the dead body and removing any trace evidence.
In New Orleans, evidence suggests this case was very much of a concern to the Jewish community. Although Jews had existed peacefully in the South for a few generations without any notable anti-Semitism, many of the newly arrived East European Jews, possessing thick accents and wearing foreign, strange appearing garb, experienced rampant prejudice. Having left countries with active pogroms being waged against them, many of these immigrants questioned their decision to move to the United States—particularly the South. The prejudice and bigotry was exaggerated because of three key conflicts—rich versus poor, Jew versus Christian and “outsider” (Yankee) versus Southerner. Within the Jewish community of Atlanta, the established, mostly German Jews, viewed these non-assimilated immigrants with uneasiness and misgiving.
Conversely, Phagan was from a lower class white family, a child laborer forced to work in a factory to help support her family. She was portrayed in the press as a “good” Christian child, who was a tragic victim of a heinous crime.
Frank’s character was taken to task, much to the disgust of his young wife. During the course of the trial it was revealed that he had apparently had carnal relations with young female factory workers in a back room on a regular basis. Four women came forward to testify against him.
The people of Atlanta railed for justice. Whipped into a dither by the sensationalized aspects of the trial, thousands of citizens rallied outside the courthouse during the course of the trial. The attorneys that appealed Leo Frank’s conviction claimed the case was biased by the sensationalized and “yellow journalism” that helped rally, provoke and prejudice the local population. The most sensational of these papers was Tom Watson’s inflammatory paper, The Jeffersonian, as well as his own Watson’s Magazine. But even the Hearst-owned Atlanta newspaper, The Georgian, also ran many unsubstantiated stories with boldface headlines on one day, which would be recanted in smaller print the next day. The case became a cause célèbre when national publications like The New York Times provided daily, mostly pro-Frank national coverage.
Questioned after the decision, many of the jury’s members stated they felt that anything short of a conviction of first-degree murder might put their own lives at risk. This is especially compelling when it was learned that three jurors were themselves Jewish. When the judge was asked to review the testimony on appeal, he stated honestly that, after reviewing all the testimony, he could not say for certain if Frank was innocent or guilty. However, as he explained wrongly, it wasn’t the defense team’s place to convince the judge, but the jury’s.
After the defense team exhausted all avenues for appeal, the lawyers approached outgoing Governor Slaton to review the case. Slaton’s law partner was involved with Franks’ defense team, which may have also inflamed protestors. Nevertheless, one day before Frank was sentenced to die by hanging and four days before his term of office was set to expire, the governor commuted Frank’s sentence to that of life imprisonment.
Slaton reasoned that the Frank verdict fell in the territory of “beyond a reasonable doubt and absolute certainty,” for which the law allows commuting an execution to life imprisonment. This case has been marked by doubt at all levels of review. Aside from the trial judge doubting Frank’s guilt, two justices of the Georgia Supreme Court and two U.S. Supreme Court Justices also indicated their reluctance to find Frank guilty.
In the late hours of August 16, 1915, Leo Frank was successfully taken from his prison cell in Milledgeville, Georgia. His abductors executed a well-planned breakout by cutting the telephone wires, emptying the gas tanks of all prison vehicles and handcuffing the warden. They drove in their eight cars on back roads for more than seven hours until they arrived at Frey’s Gin, two miles east of Marietta, which was Phagan’s home town. There the lynchers tied a piece of brown canvas around Frank’s waist over his nightshirt and undershirt. They bound and tied his legs and arms and secured a knot around his neck, hanging him from a tree branch. A table was strategically placed beneath him. Facing him toward the direction of Phagan’s house, they kicked out the table from beneath his legs at 7:00 a.m. on August 17.
Unlike a hanging, where the weight of a body immediately snaps the neck of the victim, a lynching slowly chokes off the flow of air. A lynching victim can flail beneath the rope from which he is suspended for many minutes, gasping for breath as his body’s weight prevents his lungs from filling with air.
Additionally, no one would ever testify nor was anyone indicted for the lynching. It would take an additional 85 years before they would be named. It turns out the group that called themselves “the Knights of Mary Phagan” was not composed of hoodlums or thugs, but some of Georgia’s finest members, including a former governor, two former mayors of Marietta, several elected state officials, lawyers, bankers and many members of the Cobb County Sheriff’s Department. The list discovered in 1957 was eventually posted online by Phagan’s great-niece in the interest of transparency.
Also, due to the perseverance of members of the ADL, Frank was pardoned on March 11, 1986 only because Georgia failed to protect him and failed to bring his killers to trial. The state will never again address the question of Frank’s guilt or innocence.
Were the case to be tried today, it is likely that evidence – not rampant speculation and conjured testimony – would be presented in an impartial, non-biased manner. However, with the current rise in anti-Semitism around the world and a spike in reports of such occurrences in our own country, there is a lingering question about whether Frank could receive a fair and non-sensationalized trial today.