The Fate Of Leo Frank

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ON DECEMBER 23, 1983, THE LEAD EDITORIAL IN THE ATLANTA Constitution began, “Leo Frank has been lynched a second time.” The first lynching had occurred almost seventy years earlier, when Leo Frank, convicted murderer of a thirteen-year-old girl, had been taken from prison by a band of vigilantes and hanged from a tree in the girl’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia. The lynching was perhaps unique, for Frank was not black but a Jew. Frank also is widely considered to have been innocent of his crime. Thus the second “lynching” was the refusal of Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to exonerate him posthumously.

 

Frank’s trial, in July and August 1913, has been called “one of the most shocking frame-ups ever perpetrated by American law-and-order officials.” The case became, at the time, a cause célèbre in which the injustices created by industrialism, urban growth in Atlanta, and fervent anti-Semitism all seemed to conspire to wreck one man.

Until the discovery of Mary Phagan’s body in the basement of Atlanta’s National Pencil Company factory, Leo Frank led a relatively serene life. Born in Cuero, Texas, in 1884, he was soon taken by his parents to Brooklyn, New York. He attended the local public schools, the Pratt Institute, and Cornell University. After graduation he accepted the offer of an uncle, Moses Frank, to help establish a pencil factory in Atlanta and become both co-owner and manager of the plant. He married Lucille Selig, a native Atlantan, in 1910, and in 1912 he was elected president of the local chapter of the national Jewish fraternity B’nai B’rith. Then, on the afternoon of April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan, an employee, stopped by Frank’s factory to collect her week’s wages on her way to see the Confederate Memorial Day parade and was murdered.

 

A night watchman discovered the girl’s body in the factory basement early the next morning. Sawdust and grime so covered her that when the police came they could not tell whether she was white or black. Her eyes were bruised, her cheeks cut. An autopsy would reveal that her murderer had choked her with a piece of her own underdrawers and broken her skull. The watchman, Newt Lee, summoned the police; they suspected that he might have committed the murder, and they arrested him. After inspecting the scene, the officers went to Frank’s home and took him to the morgue to see the body. The sight of the corpse unsettled him, and he appeared nervous. He remembered having paid the girl her wages the previous day but could not confirm that she had then left the factory. The police would find no one who would admit to having seen her alive any later.

Hugh Dorsey built a case around Frank’s alleged perversions. Four weeks after the murder the grand jury granted the indictment he sought.

A NUMBER OF UNSOLVED MURDERS HAD taken place in Atlanta during the previous eighteen months, and the police were under pressure to find the culprit. Early newspaper reports erroneously suggested that Mary Phagan had been raped, and crowds of people were soon milling about the police station, anxious to get their hands on whoever had committed the crime. Frank’s uneasy behavior and the public’s hunger for justice made him a prime suspect. He was arrested two days later.

Shortly thereafter some factory employees told a coroner’s jury, convened to determine the cause of death and suggest possible suspects for investigation, that Frank had “indulged in familiarities with the women in his employ.” And the proprietress of a “rooming house” signed an affidavit swearing that on the day of the murder Frank had telephoned her repeatedly, seeking a room for himself and a young girl. Both these charges were later proved false (many witnesses recanted their accusations later), but newspapers headlined them, fueling talk of Jewish men seeking Gentile girls for their pleasure. The solicitor general, Hugh Dorsey, built a case for the prosecution around Frank’s alleged perversions. Four weeks after the murder the grand jury granted the indictment Dorsey sought.

Unknown to the members of the grand jury, however, another suspect had also been arrested. He was Jim Conley, a black janitor at the factory who had been seen washing blood off a shirt there. He admitted having written two notes found near the body. They read: “Mam that negro hire down here did this i went to make water and he push me down that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it was long sleam tall negro i wright while play with me” and “he said he wood love me land dab n play like the night witch did it but that long tall black negro did buy his slef.”

At first almost all investigators assumed that the author of these items had committed the crime. But Conley claimed to have written them as Frank dictated the words, first the day before the murder occurred, then, according to Conley’s second affidavit, on the day of the crime.