Opinion: The continued relevance of Leo Frank’s story


Published: 02-19-2024 6:30 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Last March there was a Broadway revival of the musical Parade. It starred Ben Platt, who played the role of Leo Frank, the only Jewish person ever lynched in the United States. That happened back in 1915. Weirdly, the opening of the show provoked a protest by neo-Nazis outside the theater. They handed out flyers that accused Frank of being a pedophile and child murderer.

I didn’t think much about it until recently when, out of curiosity, I looked into Leo Frank’s story. What is shocking is the volume of online hate directed against Leo Frank, even now. There is an active cottage industry among neo-Nazis dedicated to implicating Leo Frank in the murder of a 13-year-old white girl, Mary Phagan.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center has said, “The Leo Frank case is interesting in that you’re never going to meet a Nazi who doesn’t know about it.”

Frank’s story is well told in a book, “The Silent and the Damned” by Robert Seitz Frey and Nancy C. Thompson. Frank was the superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta where the murder occurred. He consistently maintained his innocence. The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of Jim Conley, the factory janitor.

Conley claimed that Frank forced him to participate in the crime. He maintained that Frank made him write two notes found near Mary Phagan’s body. Conley had an extensive police record including crimes of violence against women and his description of events on the day of the murder was full of contradictions. From the time of his arrest, his story changed repeatedly.

At trial, Frank testified that he knew nothing about Phagan’s death. Frank had 200 character witnesses testify on his behalf but rumors circulated in the public that Phagan had been sexually assaulted. The effect was inflammatory.

The overall view of historians is that Frank didn’t murder Phagan. Antisemitism permeated the proceeding. The historian Leonard Dinnerstein reported that one juror had been overheard to say before his selection for the jury, “I am glad they indicted the goddamn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him. And if I get on that jury, I’ll hang that Jew for sure.”

Steve Oney, author of the book “And the Dead Shall Rise” described the public mood in Atlanta during the trial: “The atmosphere of the courtroom was poisonous. Frank really had four strikes against him - he was an industrialist, he was a Yankee, he was a Jew and while he was indicted for the murder of Mary Phagan, he was simultaneously in the public eye, on trial as a sexual predator.”

The Court convicted Frank and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging. Appeals at both the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court failed. Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes dissented. They argued that the trial took place in the midst of a mob atmosphere where neither the defendant nor counsel were safe from the rage of the crowd.

Over two years after the trial and before any execution, Georgia Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison. The next day Slaton left office. His decision provoked martial law in Georgia. For safety reasons, Gov. Slaton had to leave the state. Demonstrators marched outside the governor’s mansion saying, “We want John M. Slaton, King of the Jews and traitor Governor of Georgia.”

Much of the hatred against Frank was whipped up by racist political leader Tom Watson. Watson used his popular magazine the Jeffersonian to attack Frank as a “Jew pervert, a degenerate, and a Sodomite.” Watson argued for lynching.

The prison authorities moved Frank to a prison farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Several weeks after the move, another inmate attacked Frank while he slept. Frank barely survived as the other inmate badly slashed his throat with a butcher knife. The quick actions of a surgeon who was also a prisoner saved Frank’s life.

On the night of August 16, 1915, seven vehicles carrying 25 men from Marietta, Mary Phagan’s hometown, drove into Milledgeville. They abducted Frank from the prison hospital and drove him 100 miles back to Marietta and then they proceeded to lynch him.

The lynch mob was made up of Marietta’s leading citizens. They never tried to hide their identity. They had colluded with the prison staff and the parole board to kidnap Frank. No shots were fired in the abduction. The mob members called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan. The next morning Frank was still hanging from an oak tree. Onlookers found Frank was still alive but no one cut him down.

An estimated 15,000 people came to view Frank’s body. Pictures of his body were sold for 25 cents apiece.

As happened with the thousands of lynchings of African Americans, no one was ever charged or stood trial for the lynching. In 1982, new evidence emerged. A former worker in the pencil factory, Alonzo Mann, 83, came forward and said he saw Jim Conley carrying Phagan’s body in circumstances that contradicted Conley’s testimony. In 1986, the state of Georgia granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon.

The Jewish community in the South was traumatized by these events and, out of fear, people chose to lay low for a very long time. Jew haters played on the same myth used against Black men that lascivious men (this time Jewish) were intent on deflowering Southern womanhood.

Conspiracy theories about Jews were epidemic then and now. The MAGA movement, which is anti-intellectual at its core, has given permission for all manner of hate to thrive including against immigrants, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews. Since Trump’s presidency, anti-Jewish hate crimes have spiked.

Leo Frank’s story stands as an example of where hate leads. Neo-Nazis see Jews as a distinct race of people who have fixed traits that make them inferior to white Christians. Americans must stand against all hateful stereotypes. Hate in America remains very much alive.