The Fate Of Leo Frank

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Although mOSt of Marietta knew who the killers were, a coroner’s jury concluded that Frank had been lynched by persons unknown.

Many of Frank’s friends and later defenders attributed the hanging to unbridled mob passions, but the explanation cannot suffice. “The very best people,” a local judge opined at the time, had allowed the Frank case to go through all the courts, letting the judicial process take its course. Then, after every request for a new trial had been turned down, the governor had outrageously stepped in. “I believe in law and order,” the judge said. “I would not help lynch anybody. But I believe Frank has had his just deserts.”

OBVIOUSLY, MUCH MORE THAN JUST A wish to carry out the court’s decision motivated Frank’s killers. The man symbolized all that Georgians resented. He was the Northerner in the South, the urban industrialist who had come to transform an agrarian society, a Jew whose ancestors had killed the Savior and whose coreligionists rejected the truth of Christianity. Thus, despite the fact that the state used a black man as its key witness, something that would have been unthinkable had the accused been a Southern white Christian, Atlantans could easily believe the worst about this particular defendant.

Over the years scores of people have wondered why many Georgians were loath to suspect that a black man might have committed the murder. The answer may have come from the pastor of the Baptist church that Mary Phagan’s family attended. In 1942 the Reverend L. O. Bricker wrote: “My own feelings, upon the arrest of the old negro night-watchman, were to the effect that this one old negro would be poor atonement for the life of this little girl. But, when on the next day, the police arrested a Jew, and a Yankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against the Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime.”

As time passed, people no longer remembered the specific facts of the case, but they told the story of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank to their children and grandchildren. As with all folktales, some details were embellished, others were dropped; however, as the first three verses of “The Ballad of Mary Phagan” unfold, no listener can have any difficulty knowing what happened:

Little Mary Phagan She left her home one day; She went to the pencil-factory To see the big parade. She left her home at eleven, She kissed her mother good-by; Not one time did the poor child think That she was a-going to die. Leo Frank he met her With a brutish heart, we know; He smiled and said, “Little Mary, You won’t go home no more.”

People have argued the Frank case again and again, but usually without specific knowledge, falling back on hearsay to support their positions. However, in 1982 a dramatic incident put the case back in the public spotlight. Alonzo Mann, who had been a fourteen-year-old office boy in the Atlanta pencil factory in 1913, swore that he had come into the building on the day of the murder and witnessed Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan’s body toward the steps leading to the basement. The janitor had warned him, “If you ever mention this, I’ll kill you.” Lonnie Mann ran home and told his mother what he had seen and she advised him to “not get involved.” He obeyed her but eventually began telling his tale to friends. Finally, in 1982, two enterprising reporters filed the story in the Nashville Tennessean .

Mann’s revelations stimulated a renewed effort to achieve a posthumous pardon for Leo Frank. Newspapers editorialized on the need to clear his name, public-opinion polls showed a majority in Georgia willing to support a pardon, and the governor of the state announced in December 1983 that he believed in Frank’s innocence. But three days before Christmas the Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the request. It asserted that Mann’s affidavit had provided “no new evidence to the case,” that it did not matter whether Conley had carried the body to the basement or taken it via the elevator, and that “there are [so] many inconsistencies” in the various accounts of what had happened that “it is impossible to decide conclusively the guilt or innocence of Leo M. Frank.”

Once again a storm broke as editorials and individuals excoriated the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The Tenuesscan said that “the board turned its back on the chance to right an egregious wrong.”