History Revisited: The Jew as scapegoat: The lynching of Leo Frank

by Bill Simons

Georgia observed Confederate Memorial Day on Saturday, April 26, 1913. At Atlanta’s Confederate Memorial Day observance, approximately 200 surviving veterans of the Confederate army marched by the reviewing stand to pay respects to Mary Anna Jackson, the widow of General Stonewall Jackson and the designated “Widow of the Confederacy.” As Atlanta honored the Confederate legacy on April 26, 1913, a 13-year-old white girl, Mary Phagan, was murdered – a rope and a strip of her underdrawers encircling her neck. Three days later, on April 29, Mary Phagan’s Jewish employer, Leo Frank, was arrested for her murder. The trajectory that would culminate in perhaps the single most significant episode of American antisemitism had commenced.

Frank would appear an unlikely murder suspect. A Brooklyn transplant who was 29 years old in 1913, Frank had come to Atlanta as the request of his uncle to become part-owner and supervisor of the National Pencil Factory. A graduate of Pratt Institute, married into one of Atlanta’s established German-Jewish families and president of his local B’nai B’rith lodge, Frank was arrested and ultimately convicted based on limited direct evidence. Prior to her anticipated participation in April 26 Confederate Memorial Day activities, Mary Phagan had come to Frank’s office to collect her pay, making Frank the last documented person to see the girl alive. Frank appeared nervous to police, and Jim Conley, a sweeper at the factory, claimed that he had encountered Frank with the limp body of the girl and that Frank stated that, while he fondled Mary, she had hit her head during their struggle. According to Conley, Frank directed and paid the sweeper to assist in the transport of the body by elevator to the basement of the building.

Most historians conclude that Jim Conley was the actual murderer. His past included prior infractions and arrests. Two convoluted notes, improbably purporting to be written by Mary Phagan as she struggled for her life, possessed the syntax and writing style of prior letters composed by Conley. Conley’s contradictory sworn statements included the claim that he had defecated at the bottom of the elevator shaft in the morning prior to the murder, but, when police first viewed Phagan’s corpse, Conley’s feces at the bottom of the elevator shaft was still fully formed, undermining his alleged chronology of events. Leonard Roan, the judge who sentenced Frank to death, subsequently expressed doubts about Frank’s guilt, as did Conley’s own attorney. Subsequently, Alonzo Mann, 14 years old in 1913, claimed he had encountered Conley carrying an unconscious, but still alive, Mary Phagan, but Conley threatened him with death if he reported what he saw and Mann long remained silent. At age 83, with his own death approaching, Mann confessed his long-held secret, consenting to, and passing, a lie detector test and psychological stress evaluation examination.

Given the coercive and violent racism that the South then employed to suppress Blacks – encompassing Jim Crown segregation, denial of legal rights, disenfranchisement, economic exploitation and lynching – why did the police, solicitor general and Georgia public demonize the Jewish Leo Frank, rather than the African-American Jim Conley, for the murder of Mary Phagan?

Within this specific context, Frank embodied the frustrations and resentments of white Georgians. Atlanta prided itself the capital of the New South, but it was a city that remembered its 1863 conquest, destruction and subjugation by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. A legacy of defeat and poverty long resonated in a South that viewed itself as the vassal of rapacious Northern business interests. Rural depression brought many Southern farmers into the city, forcing their wives and daughters into 12-hour work days in Dickensian mills. An attack on a white female constituted an assault on the South itself. As an industrialist employing women, a Northerner, a Jew and, thus, an outsider, Frank, symbolized alien forces tormenting indigent white Southerners. With Frank’s arrest, the minister of the Baptist church attended by Mary Phagan, proclaimed, “[A]ll of the inborn prejudice against Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime.”

Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death, and, by April 1915, his attorneys had exhausted all legal appeals. However, despite threats to his own life, Georgia Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Slaton privately confided that he expected the publicizing of additional evidence and a less heated public environment would ultimately allow a full pardon for Frank.

Slaton’s commutation of Frank’s sentence convinced many white Georgians that conspiratorial Jewish money power had corrupted justice. Frank’s sizeable legal and private investigator fees, sympathetic newspaper articles outside the South, massive petition drives and Northern state legislature resolutions condemning the verdict convinced harassed Southerners that a Jewish cabal was intent on overthrowing Georgia sovereignty. Canards asserting Jewish sexual depravity circulated widely. Exploiting antisemitism, the populist newspaper publisher and politician Tom Watson rode the Frank case to new heights of popularity and power. From the press and the podium, Watson’s populist demagoguery inflamed the insecurities and resentments of white Southerners with vile words of incitement: “[S]ee a vivid picture of that little Georgia girl, decoyed to the metal room by this satyr-faced New York Jew… see her face purpling as the cruel cord chokes her to death.” After Governor Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence, Watson cried, “Hereafter let no man reproach the South with lynch law: let him remember the unendurable provocation.”
On April 16, 1915, 25 gentlemen of property and standing, including a minister, merchants, planters and two former magistrates from Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, entered the Milledgeville prison, met no resistance and kidnapped Leo Frank. They drove to the outskirts of Marietta. A rope, tossed over the branch of an oak tree, was knotted around Frank’s neck, his hands and feet secured, and the body placed upon a table, which was then kicked away. The vigilante lynching of Leo Frank was conducted with efficiency. Although Frank’s corpse was knocked to the ground, its flesh repeatedly stomped and triumphant souvenir hunters took pieces of the victim’s clothing and strands of the hanging rope, The Marietta Journal and Courier editorialized, “We are proud, indeed, to say that the body hanged for more than two hours amid a vast throng and no violence was done. Cobb County people are civilized.”

The identities of Frank’s murderers were well known; indeed, they granted newspaper interviews, but none were ever arrested. Relatives claimed that several of the vigilantes on their own deathbeds expressed contrition. In life, the murderers of Frank formed the nucleus for a revived Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

Created in the year of Frank’s arrest, the Anti-Defamation League, originally affiliated with B’nai B’rith, evolved from its initial mission to combat antisemitism to a more universal commitment “to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” The ADL survives, but so do antisemitism and other forms of bigotry. It is not just Jewish-American history’s signature events that mark domestic antisemitism. Certainly, the June 1964 Mississippi Ku Klux Klan murders of three civil rights workers – James Chaney, an African American, and Jewish colleagues Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner – as well the October 27, 2018, Sabbath massacre of 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue are grim reminders. Continuing, indeed resurgent, assaults, threats, defacements, vandalism and bile, however, mar our own day. The legacy of the Frank case instructs us to remain vigilant, preserve history and oppose irrational scapegoating of any group. 

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.