Lynched at Midnight: How anti-Semitism Doomed Leo Frank, Even if the Facts Didn't

Even the prosecutor didn't think Leo Frank had killed 13-year old Mary Phagan, but the 'Jewish industrialist' couldn't get a fair trial in Georgia 100 years ago.

AP

Exactly a hundred years ago, a mob showed up at the Milledgeville State Penitentiary in Georgia in middle of the night. Without firing a shot, they managed to leave with the most controversial criminal in America at the time. They drove him to a faraway oak grove and hung him from a tree.

The lynch was the end of a sordid trial tainted by racism, following which even the original prosecutor in the case of Mary Phagan's murder thought Leo Frank was innocent.

The start of his story was very different. Leo Frank had been the living embodiment of the American dream.

Born in 1884 to German Jewish immigrants, he was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and studied engineering in Cornell University. He then moved to Atlanta to run a pencil factory. Shortly after his arrival, he met Lucile Selig, who came from a rich Jewish family. They married, and Frank became very involved in the Jewish community life of Atlanta, then home to the biggest Jewish community in the American south.

All that would change on April 27, 1913, with the body of Mary Phagan was discovered in the pencil factory's basement. The 13-year old factory worker had been brutally murdered, and notes written by the killer were found near her body.

In a world where modern forensic science was only beginning, the detectives had little to rely on but their instincts - and prejudices.

Leo Frank
Wikimedia Commons

The janitor did it?

The investigation focused on three people who were also at the factory that night: Leo Frank, the manager, the factory's black janitor Jim Conley, and the night watchman Newt Lee, who had discovered the body and called the police.

Lee had an alibi, thanks to Frank's meticulousness : he had installed a punch card system that proved Lee couldn't have been at the basement for long enough to commit the murder. But Frank had no alibi. He had been in his office alone.

Conley, who had no alibi either, admitted to writing the notes, but claimed they were dictated to him by Frank. Conley claimed Frank had murdered Phagan and forced him to help move the body.

Actually, this was only one of several versions Conley gave the police. But this was the only one the detectives chose to believe.

Frank was arrested for murder and Conley became the State's witness. 

Tons of cocaine

In little time the trial became a media circus, attracting the attention of the national media. Local Georgia newspapers, and especially the new form of tabloids, covered the story like a serial thriller.

Frank, cast as the villain, was repeatedly described in very different terms than the local average white Southerner: a northern Yankee, an industrialist, a Jew.

The grave of Mary Phagan in Marietta, Georgia.
AP

The local Jewish community kept a low profile but racism played a major role in the trial. It was conjured up by all sides, often in seemingly surprising ways.

For example, the prosecution ignored contradictions in Conley's testimony and even the fact that he had knowledge of evidence he wasn't supposed to know. The prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, deemed all that irrelevant, because the killer had written notes with proper grammar: Conley was black and therefore incapable of writing them. The Jewish Yankee, on the other hand, was university-educated.

During the trial, as angry mobs howled outside the courthouse, one of the defense attorneys, Reuben Arnold, argued that racism was actually key to the case: His client stood trial because he “comes from a race of people that have made money. If Frank hadn’t been a Jew he never would have been prosecuted," Arnold argued.

Luther Rosser, the lead defense attorney and a prominent lawyer to Atlanta's wealthy families, chose a very different set of racist sentiments to undermine the main witness: "Conley is a plain, beastly, drunken, filthy, lying nigger with a spreading nose through which probably tons of cocaine have probably been sniffed."

Prosecutor Dorsey, rebutting, made fun of that accusation, to a laughing and cheering crowd. "Gentlemen, do you think that I or these detectives are actuated by prejudice? Would we as sworn officers of the law have sought to hang Leo Frank on account of his race and religion and passed up Jim Conley? A negro!" said the prosecutor and added his assessment of Jews: "This great people rises to heights sublime, but they can sink to the depths of degradation too".

Celebrating in the streets

 The verdict was a foregone conclusion to the courtroom audience and with the mob outside too. And indeed, Frank was found guilty for the murder of Mary Phagan and was sentenced to hang. Churches across Atlanta rang their bells, while many local residents celebrated in the streets. 

Frank filed 13 different appeals. All were rejected. In his dissent, Supreem Court Justice Olive Wendell Holmes wrote that Frank had not received due process of law, "because of the trial taking place in the presence of a hostile demonstration and seemingly dangerous crowd."

While Frank was exhausting his appeals, pressure began mounting in the press, chiefly in the New York Times, to void the verdict or, at the very least, to commute his sentence. The popular Georgia daily The Jeffersonian replied in its headline: "When are the northern Jews going to let up their insane attempt to bulldoze the state of Georgia?"

"I know the people of Georgia The outcries of the mob against the defendant were not against Frank - it was a cry against the Jews," Dr. Madison C. Peters, from the North Baptist Church, told the New York Times before Frank's final appeal.

A shoe left at the site of Leo Frank's lynching.
AP

During the appeals process, even the original prosecutor Dorsey joined the campaign, saying he had reexamined the evidence and determined that Frank was innocent. That didn't help, but it did make Dorsey the target of death threats.

'Hang the pervert Jew'

It came down to the Georgia governor, John Slaton, who was taking arrows from the opposing sides. Slaton decided to conduct his own investigation and examine the evidence.

He concluded there was enough reasonable doubt to commute Frank's sentence from death to life imprisonment. The decision sparked an outcry with Slaton at its center. Threats were common and so were angry protests who demanded to hang "the pervert Jew".

Slaton, whose political career ended because of this decision, said: "I would rather be plowing in a field than to feel that I had that blood on my hands."

In the end, the outraged citizens went the way of tradition. The most famous convict in the country was taken from his cell in the dead of night. Not a single official there is recorded as having objected as Leo Frank was led away to his death, on August 17, 1915.

This was not some angry mob with pitchforks. These were the well-to-do of Atlanta, civilized people who drove up to the jail in their cars, at a time when few people in the city had cars. The lynch party consisted of upstanding members of the community, including a former county sheriff and a judge. The latter read Frank his original death sentence before he was hanged.

The murder of Leo Frank is now long forgotten, and for reason.

During the trial, the lynch and its aftermath, American Jews were torn about an appropriate reaction to one of the ugliest cases of anti-Semitism in American history. Was it just a harbinger of much worse to come, as some of them had experienced in Europe? Or was it an anomaly, best forgotten? They chose the latter.