The Lynching of Leo Frank: A Jewish Community’s Sense of Security Takes a Jolt

To many Atlantans, the 1913 case represented a way of fighting back against socioeconomic change, regardless of the businessman’s apparent innocence

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Businessman Leo Frank, who was lynched in Marietta, Georgia on August 17, 1915.
Businessman Leo Frank, who was lynched in Marietta, Georgia on August 17, 1915. Credit: Bain News Service

This week marks the 103rd anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish industrialist who was falsely accused of a terrible crime and whose violent murder shook American Jews’ sense of security in their new home.

Frank was born in Paris, Texas, but his family moved to Brooklyn, where he grew up. He eventually joined the family business working for the National Pencil Company. In 1907 Frank moved from New York to Georgia after he was promoted to co-owner and superintendent of the company’s factory in Atlanta.

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At the turn of the 20th century, Atlanta was home to the largest Jewish community in the southern United States. Atlanta’s Jews were eager to integrate into the economic, social and political life of the city, but also established a number of Jewish institutions.

Although anti-Semitism was not a major issue, there was an awareness that the local Jewish community was somewhat separate from mainstream Atlanta society. But overall, the Jews of Atlanta felt secure in the city, enjoying a sense of confidence about their place in society.

Frank became active in Atlanta’s Jewish community shortly after his arrival. In 1910 he married Lucille Selig, the daughter of wealthy Jewish industrialists. He also joined the Temple, the oldest Jewish institution in Atlanta, and was elected president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith in 1912.

The lynching of Leo Frank, Marietta, Georgia, August 17, 1915. Credit: Kenneth G. Rogers Collection

For Frank, this was a time of promise. But for many in Atlanta, this period was one filled with economic uncertainty and social insecurity. For Atlanta, this was a time of transition, when the economy was shifting from one based on agriculture to industry.

Because of this change, many people abandoned their traditional work as farmers and moved to Atlanta, often toiling long hours in factories for little pay. The new economic reality also caused a social shift; men were no longer able to be the sole providers for their families, and women and children were increasingly entering the workforce. This new situation left men feeling emasculated and worried about the moral corruption that might take place in factories with men and women working together.

Teenage girl murdered

The social, economic and religious tensions under the surface would explode after April 26, 1913. That day, 13-year-old Mary Phagan, the daughter of tenant farmers who had moved to Atlanta to take advantage of the city’s economic opportunities, stopped by the factory to pick up a check for the work she had done that week. According to Frank, he paid Phagan and she left. Then, in the middle of the night, Phagan’s body was found by the night watchman in the factory basement.

Though the watchman initially fell under suspicion, Frank quickly became a person of interest in the case. The police noted that he seemed nervous when they took him to the factory to see the body. Frank had also called the night watchman at least once the night of the murder, something he had never done before. Additionally, several of the factory’s employees began telling investigators that Frank “indulged in familiarities with the women in his employ.”

Also, the police were also under pressure to find and convict the killer quickly. A number of murders had taken place in the city during the previous months. Atlantans were on edge and frustrated with the police, who seemed unable to catch the killer. As a result, the police had a vested interest in moving quickly to put together whatever clues they could to prove that Frank was the killer. The prosecutor in the case, Hugh Dorsey, was also convinced of Frank’s guilt — and had political aspirations that motivated him to aggressively push for a conviction (in 1916 he would be elected governor of Georgia).

Mary Phagan as shown in an Atlanta newspaper, April 28, 1913. Credit: Atlanta Georgian

Dorsey’s case revolved around the testimony of the factory’s janitor, Jim Conley. Conley had signed four different affidavits, each telling a different story about what happened the day of the murder. Conley was extensively coached by Dorsey so that he would stick to one story; he testified that Frank called him to his office, confessed to the murder, paid him to dispose of the body and dictated a murder note.

The trial began on July 28, 1913. Emotions ran high and the atmosphere was one of anger and intimidation. Large and angry mobs inside the courtroom and standing outside chanted “Hang the Jew!” To many, Frank represented a way of fighting back against the changes taking place in Atlanta. In their eyes, Frank was a northerner, an industrialist and a Jew who was imposing a new way of life on the south and preying on good southern Gentile girls.

As one editorial put it: “When are the Northern Jews going to Let Up on Their Insane Attempt to Bulldoze the State of Georgia? WOMANHOOD MUST BE, AND SHALL BE PROTECTED; and we mean to have that understood by lascivious young Jews.” After less than four hours of debate, the jury found Frank guilty, and he was sentenced to death.

Frank’s execution was postponed as he and his lawyers worked on an appeal of his conviction. During this time, many of the witnesses who claimed that Frank had acted inappropriately with the factory’s women recanted their testimony. Evidence increasingly pointed to Conley as the killer, and during the appeals process Conley’s lawyer told the trial judge that Conley had even confessed to the murder.

Commuted to life imprisonment

Frank’s final appeal was to Governor John Slaton, who for nearly two weeks painstakingly went over the evidence. Eventually, on June 21, 1915, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment, stating “had I done otherwise, I would have felt like an assassin. As it was, I went six nights without sleep, but I would rather lose a few nights’ sleep than go 40 years – if I live that long – with the blood of that man on my hands.”

The rededicated plaque remembering Leo Frank, who was lynched in Marietta, Georgia in 1913. Credit: Jrryjude / Wikimedia Commons

This proved to be a deeply unpopular decision. Riots broke out and mobs vandalized Jewish homes and stores. Slaton received death threats; his term ended shortly thereafter, and he and his wife left the state for 10 years. An inmate in the prison where Frank was being held slit Frank’s throat.

On the night of August 16, 1915, a group of 25 men drove to the prison where Frank was recovering from the attack. They overpowered the guards, cut the phone lines, drained the gas from the police cars, and abducted Frank. Throughout the ride to Marietta, Georgia, Phagan’s hometown, the men tried to get Frank to confess.

Instead, he simply requested that his wedding ring be sent back to his wife. At dawn the vigilantes hanged Frank, pointing him toward Phagan’s house. Although the locals knew who had carried out the lynching, none of those responsible were ever prosecuted. They began referring to themselves as the Knights of Mary Phagan, and a month after the lynching gathered on Stone Mountain and revived the Ku Klux Klan.

The murder of Leo Frank deeply shook the Jews of Atlanta, and American Jews as a whole. Southern Jews began retreating from public life. The sense of security that Jewish Americans felt – that they were no longer in a country where they had to worry about pogroms – was shattered. Frank’s lynching was the catalyst for the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.

Most historians agree that Frank was innocent. In 1982, 83-year-old Alonzo Mann testified that as a boy, when he was working in Frank’s factory, he witnessed Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the factory’s basement, but he did not say anything at the time because Conley threatened to kill him if he told anyone what he had seen.

In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued Frank a pardon. It was not an exoneration, but it did acknowledge the state’s failure to protect Frank, thereby denying him the possibility of continuing with his appeal. It also conceded the state’s failure to bring Frank’s killers to justice.

On Thursday, Georgia rededicated the plaque commemorating Leo Frank’s hanging. Justice may not have been served, but Leo Frank and the meaning of his trial and murder for American Jewry have not been forgotten by those fighting anti-Semitism, racism and hatred.

The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot blog tells the story and makes accessible materials from the history of the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, from its distant past until our times in the modern State of Israel. Culture, people, curiosities, new angles on phenomena and well-known cases, or turning the spotlight on those we have never known about.

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