This Day in Jewish History / August 17

On this day in 1915, Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory was lynched.

On this day in 1915, Leo Frank, the 31-year-old Jewish manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta, was taken by force from his prison cell and hung by a lynch mob. Frank had moved from his home in New York to Atlanta in 1908 at the invitation of an uncle who had invested in the National Pencil Factory there. (A trained engineer, Frank had spent nine months at the Eberhard pencil factory in Germany learning the business.)

Frank had been convicted of the April 13, 1913, murder of Mary Phagan. Phagan, a 12-year-old white girl, worked until shortly before her death at the National Pencil Company, where she inserted rubber erasers into the ends of the pencils and where her body was found. Although suspicion initially fell on a night watchman, and then on a janitor, the police were convinced that Frank was the killer. He was tried, and he was convicted on August 25, 1913, and sentenced to death. The case inflamed public emotions, and competing newspapers took sides for and against Frank, who as a Northern Jew and an “industrialist,” was the object of significant prejudice in Atlanta.

Frank's appeals – which went as high as the United States Supreme Court – were denied. But on June 21, 1915 – the day before Frank was to be hanged – the outgoing governor of Georgia commuted his sentence to life in prison. On August 17, a well-organized group of 28 men calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, which included the girl’s uncle and a former governor of Georgia, broke into the state prison where Frank was being held and abducted him. They then drove 280 kilometers to Phagan's small hometown near Marietta, Georgia and lynched him.

Historical opinion has concluded that Mary Phagan was actually killed by the factory’s janitor, Jim Conley, but Leo Frank received only a posthumous pardon (rather than exoneration) from the state in 1986. More than half of Georgia’s 3,000 Jews left the state after Frank’s killing, a crime for which no one was ever charged.