American Pravda: The Leo Frank Case and the Origins of the ADL

by Ron Unz

About a week ago both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal devoted considerable space to the coverage of “Parade,” the revival of a 1998 Broadway musical on the 1915 killing of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta, Georgia, arguably the most famous lynching in American history.

Frank had been convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a young girl in his employ and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded in an effort to save his life. After numerous legal appeals failed, the state’s governor eventually commuted Frank’s sentence and a group of outraged citizens responded by hanging Frank. The incident was portrayed in both the musical and the associated media coverage as a particularly horrifying example of American anti-Semitism.

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt in “Parade” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.

However, the actual facts of that case were quite different than that and in 2018 I’d discussed them at considerable length as part of a longer article. Given the recently renewed spotlight on the issue and the fascinating implications of the true story, I’ve decided to extract and republish my analysis in hopes of bringing it to wider current attention.

Although I had long recognized the power and influence of the ADL, a leading Jewish-activist organization whose officials were so regularly quoted in my newspapers, until rather recently I had only the vaguest notions of its origins. I’m sure I’d heard the story mentioned at some point, but the account had never stuck in my mind.

Then perhaps a year or two ago, I happened to come across some discussion of the ADL’s 2013 centenary celebration, in which the leadership reaffirmed the principles of its 1913 founding. The initial impetus had been the vain national effort to save the life of Leo Frank, a young Southern Jew unjustly accused of murder and eventually lynched. In the past, Frank’s name and story would have been equally vague in my mind, only half-remembered from my introductory history textbooks as one of the most notable early KKK victims in the fiercely anti-Semitic Deep South of the early twentieth century. However, not long before seeing that piece on the ADL I’d read Albert Lindemann’s highly-regarded study The Jew Accused, and his short chapter on the notorious Frank case had completely exploded all my preconceptions.

Anonymous works published by heavily-demonized religious-political movements naturally engender considerable caution, but once I began reading the 500 pages of The Leo Frank Case: The Lynching of a Guilty Man I was tremendously impressed by the quality of the historical analysis. I think I have only very rarely encountered a research monograph on a controversial historical event that provided such an enormous wealth of carefully-argued analysis backed by such copious evidence. The authors seemed to display complete mastery of the major secondary literature of the last one hundred years while drawing very heavily upon the various primary sources, including court records, personal correspondence, and contemporaneous publications, with the overwhelming majority of the 1200 footnotes referencing newspaper and magazine articles of that era. The case they made for Frank’s guilt seemed absolutely overwhelming.

The basic outline of events is not disputed. In 1913 Georgia, a 13-year-old pencil company worker named Mary Phagan was last seen alive visiting the office of factory manager Leo Frank on a Saturday morning to collect her weekly paycheck, while her raped and murdered body was found in the basement early the next morning and Frank eventually arrested for the crime. As the wealthy young president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith, Frank ranked as one of the most prominent Jewish men in the South, and great resources were deployed in his legal defense, but after the longest and most expensive trial in state history, he was quickly convicted and sentenced to death.

The facts of the case against Frank eventually became a remarkable tangle of complex and often conflicting evidence and eyewitness testimony, with sworn statements regularly being retracted and then counter-retracted. But the crucial point that the NOI authors emphasize for properly deciphering this confusing situation is the enormous scale of the financial resources that were deployed on Frank’s behalf, both prior to the trial and afterward, with virtually all of the funds coming from Jewish sources. Currency conversions are hardly precise, but relative to the American family incomes of the time, the total expenditures by Frank supporters may have been as high as $25 million in present-day dollars, quite possibly more than any other homicide defense in American history before or after, and an almost unimaginable sum for the impoverished Deep South of that period. Years later, a leading donor privately admitted that much of this money was spent on perjury and similar falsifications, something which is very readily apparent to anyone who closely studies the case. When we consider this vast ocean of pro-Frank funding and the sordid means for which it was often deployed, the details of the case become far less mysterious. There exists a mountain of demonstrably fabricated evidence and false testimony in favor of Frank, and no sign of anything similar on the other side.

The police initially suspected the black night watchman who found the girl’s body, and he was quickly arrested and harshly interrogated. Soon afterward, a bloody shirt was found at his home, and Frank made several statements that seemed to implicate his employee in the crime. At one point, this black suspect may have come close to being summarily lynched by a mob, which would have closed the case. But he stuck to his story of innocence with remarkable composure, in sharp contrast to Frank’s extremely nervous and suspicious behavior, and the police soon shifted their scrutiny toward the latter, culminating in his arrest. All researchers now recognize that the night watchman was entirely innocent, and the evidence against him planted.

The case against Frank steadily mounted. He was the last man known to have seen the young victim and he repeatedly changed important aspects of his story. Numerous former female employees reported his long history of sexually aggressive behavior toward them, especially directed towards the murdered girl herself. At the time of the murder, Frank claimed to have been working alone in his office, but a witness who went there reported he had been nowhere to be found. A vast amount of circumstantial evidence implicated Frank.

A black Frank family servant soon came forward with sworn testimony that Frank had confessed the murder to his wife on the morning after the killing, and this claim seemed supported by the latter’s strange refusal to visit her husband in jail for the first two weeks after the day of his arrest.

Two separate firms of experienced private detectives were hired by Frank’s lavishly-funded partisans, and the agents of both eventually came to the reluctant conclusion that Frank was guilty as charged.

As the investigation moved forward, a major break occurred as a certain Jim Conley, Frank’s black janitor, came forward and confessed to having been Frank’s accomplice in concealing the crime. At the trial he testified that Frank had regularly enlisted him as a lookout during his numerous sexual liaisons with his female employees, and after murdering Phagan, Frank had then offered him a huge sum of money to help remove and hide the body in the basement so that the crime could be pinned upon someone else. But with the legal noose tightening around Frank, Conley had begun to fear that he might be made the new scapegoat, and went to the authorities in order to save his own neck. Despite Conley’s damning accusations, Frank repeatedly refused to confront him in the presence of the police, which was widely seen as further proof of Frank’s guilt.

By the time of the trial itself, all sides were agreed that the murderer was either Frank, the wealthy Jewish businessman, or Conley, the semi-literate black janitor with a first-grade education and a long history of public drunkenness and petty crime. Frank’s lawyers exploited this comparison to the fullest, emphasizing Frank’s Jewish background as evidence for his innocence and indulging in the crudest sort of racial invective against his black accuser, whom they claimed was obviously the true rapist and murderer due to his bestial nature.

Those attorneys were the best that money could buy and the lead counsel was known as the one of the most skilled courtroom interrogators in the South. But although he subjected Conley to a grueling sixteen hours of intense cross-examination over three days, the latter never wavered in the major details of his extremely vivid story, which deeply impressed the local media and the jury. Meanwhile, Frank refused to take the stand at his own trial, thereby avoiding any public cross-examination of his often changing account.

Two notes written in crude black English had been discovered alongside Phagan’s body, and everyone soon agreed that these were written by the murderer in hopes of misdirecting suspicion. So they were either written by a semi-literate black such as Conley or by an educated white attempting to imitate that style, and to my mind, the spelling and choice of words strongly suggests the latter, thereby implicating Frank.

Taking a broader overview, the theory advanced by Frank’s legion of posthumous advocates seems to defy rationality. These journalists and scholars uniformly argue that Conley, a semi-literate black menial, had brutally raped and murdered a young white girl, and the legal authorities soon became aware of this fact, but conspired to set him free by supporting a complex and risky scheme to instead frame an innocent white businessman. Can we really believe that the police officials and prosecutors of a city in the Old South would have violated their oath of office in order to knowingly protect a black rapist and killer from legal punishment and thereby turn him loose upon their city streets, presumably to prey on future young white girls? This implausible reconstruction is particularly bizarre in that nearly all its advocates across the decades have been the staunchest of Jewish liberals, who have endlessly condemned the horrific racism of the Southern authorities of that era, but then unaccountably chose to make a special exception in this one particular case.

In many respects, the more important part of the Frank case began after his conviction and death sentence when many of America’s wealthiest and most influential Jewish leaders began mobilizing to save him from the hangman. They soon established the ADL as a new vehicle for that purpose and succeeded in making the Frank murder case one of the most famous in American history to that date.

Although his role was largely concealed at the time, the most important new backer whom Frank attracted was Albert Lasker of Chicago, the unchallenged monarch of American consumer advertising, which constituted the life’s blood of all of our mainstream newspapers and magazines. Not only did he ultimately provide the lion’s share of the funds for Frank’s defense, but he focused his energies upon shaping the media coverage surrounding the case. Given his dominant business influence in that sector, we should not be surprised that a huge wave of unremitting pro-Frank propaganda soon began appearing across the country in both local and national publications, extending to most of America’s most popular and highly-regarded media outlets, with scarcely a single word told on the other side of the story. This even included all of Atlanta’s own leading newspapers, which suddenly reversed their previous positions and became convinced of Frank’s innocence.

Lasker also enlisted other powerful Jewish figures in the Frank cause, including New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, American Jewish Committee president Louis Marshall, and leading Wall Street financier Jacob Schiff. The Times, in particular, began devoting enormous coverage to this previously-obscure Georgia murder case, and many of its articles were widely republished elsewhere. The NOI authors highlight this extraordinary national media attention: “The Black janitor whose testimony became central to Leo Frank’s conviction became the most quoted Black person in American history up to that time. More of his words appeared in print in the New York Times than those of W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Booker T. Washington—combined.

Back a century ago just as today, our media creates our reality, and with Frank’s innocence being proclaimed nationwide in near-unanimous fashion, a long list of prominent public figures were soon persuaded to demand a new trial for the convicted murderer, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Jane Addams.

Ironically enough, Lasker himself plunged into this crusade despite apparently having very mixed personal feelings about the man whose cause he was championing. His later biography reveals that upon his first personal meeting with Frank, he perceived him as “a pervert” and a “disgusting” individual, so much so that he even hoped that after he managed to free Frank, the latter would quickly perish in some accident. Furthermore, in his private correspondence he freely admitted that a large fraction of the massive funding that he and numerous other wealthy Jews from across the country were providing had been spent on perjured testimony and there are also strong hints that he explored bribing various judges. Given these facts, Lasker and Frank’s other major backers were clearly guilty of serious felonies, and could have received lengthy prison terms for their illegal conduct.

With the New York Times and the rest of the liberal Northern media now providing such heavy coverage of the case, Frank’s defense team was forced to abandon the racially-inflammatory rhetoric aimed at his black accuser which had previously been the centerpiece of their trial strategy. Instead, they began concocting a tale of rampant local anti-Semitism, previously unnoticed by all observers, and adopted it as a major grounds for their appeal of the verdict.

The unprincipled legal methods pursued by Frank’s backers is illustrated by a single example. Georgia law normally required that a defendant be present in court to hear the reading of the verdict, but given the popular emotions in the case, the judge suggested that this provision be waived, and the prosecution assented only if the defense lawyers promised not to use this small irregularity as grounds for appeal. But after Frank was convicted, AJC President Marshall and his other backers orchestrated numerous unsuccessful state and federal appeals on exactly this minor technicality, merely hiring other lawyers to file the motions.

For almost two years, the nearly limitless funds deployed by Frank’s supporters covered the costs of thirteen separate appeals on the state and federal levels, including to the U.S. Supreme Court, while the national media was used to endlessly vilify Georgia’s system of justice in the harshest possible terms. Naturally, this soon generated a local reaction, and during this period outraged Georgians began denouncing the wealthy Jews who were spending such enormous sums to subvert the local criminal justice system.

One of the very few journalists willing to oppose Frank’s position was Georgia publisher Tom Watson, a populist firebrand, and in an editorial he reasonably declared “We cannot have…one law for the Jew, and another for the Gentile” while he also later lamented that “It is a bad state of affairs when the idea gets abroad that the law is too weak to punish a man who has plenty of money.” A former Georgia governor indignantly inquired “Are we to understand that anybody except a Jew can be punished for a crime.” The clear facts indicate that there was indeed a massive miscarriage of justice in Frank’s case, but virtually all of it occurred in Frank’s favor.

All appeals were ultimately rejected and Frank’s execution date for the rape and murder of the young girl finally drew near. But just days before he was scheduled to leave office, Georgia’s outgoing governor commuted Frank’s sentence, provoking an enormous storm of popular protest, especially since he was the business partner of Frank’s chief defense lawyer, an obvious conflict of interest. Given the enormous funds that Frank’s national supporters had been deploying on his behalf and the widespread past admissions of bribery in the case, there are obviously dark suspicions about what had prompted such a remarkably unpopular decision, which soon forced the former governor to exile himself from the state. A few weeks later, a group of Georgia citizens stormed Frank’s prison farm, abducting and hanging him, with Frank becoming the first and only Jew lynched in American history.

Naturally, Frank’s killing was roundly denounced in the national media that had long promoted his cause. But even in those quarters, there may have been a significant difference between public and private sentiments. No newspaper in the country had more strongly championed Frank’s innocence than the New York Times of Adolph Ochs. Yet according to the personal diary of one of the Times editors, Ochs privately despised Frank, and perhaps even greeted his lynching with a sense of relief. No effort was ever made by Frank’s wealthy supporters to bring any of the lynching party to justice.

Although I have now come to regard the NOI volume as the most persuasive and definitive text on the Frank case, I naturally considered conflicting works before reaching this conclusion.

For nearly a half-century, the leading scholarly account of the incident had probably been Leonard Dinnerstein’s book The Leo Frank Case, first published in 1966, and Dinnerstein, a University of Arizona professor specializing in Jewish history, entirely supported Frank’s innocence. But although the work won a national award, carries glowing blurbs from several prestigious publications, and has surely graced the reading lists of endless college courses, I was not at all impressed. Among other things, the book appears to be the original source of some of the most lurid examples of alleged anti-Semitic public outbursts that apparently have no basis in reality and seem to have been simply fabricated by the author given his lack of any citations; the NOI authors note these stories have been quietly abandoned by all recent researchers. Even leaving aside such likely falsifications, which were widely cited by later writers and heavily contaminated the historical record, I found the short Dinnerstein work rather paltry and even pitiful when compared to that of its NOI counterpart.

A far longer and more substantial recent work was Steve Oney’s 2003 And the Dead Shall Rise, which runs nearly 750 pages and won the National Jewish Book Award, the Southern Book Critics Circle Prize, and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel, probably establishing itself as today’s canonical text on the historical incident. Oney had been a longtime Atlanta journalist and I was favorably impressed by his narrative skill, along with the numerous fascinating vignettes he provided to illustrate the Southern history of that general era. He also seemed a cautious researcher, drawing heavily upon the primary sources and avoiding much of the falsified history of the last century, while not entirely suppressing the massive evidence of bribery and perjury employed by the Frank forces.

But although Oney does mention much of this information, he strangely fails to connect the dots. For example, although he occasionally mentions some of the funds spent on Frank’s behalf, he never attempts to convert them into present-day equivalents, leaving a naive reader to assume that such trivial amounts could not possibly have been used to pervert the course of justice. Furthermore, his entire book is written in chronological narrative form, with no footnotes provided in the text, and a large portion of the content being entirely extraneous to any attempt to determine Frank’s guilt or innocence, contrasting very sharply with the more scholarly style of the NOI authors.

To my mind, a central element of the Frank case was the massive financial temptations being offered by Frank’s Jewish backers, and the huge number of Atlanta citizens, both high and low, who apparently shifted their positions on Frank’s guilt in eager hopes of capturing some of that largess. But although this important theme was heavily emphasized in the NOI book, Oney seems to mostly avoid this obvious factor, perhaps even for personal reasons. Print publications have suffered massive cutbacks in recent years and I noticed on the book flap that although Oney is described as a longtime Atlanta journalist, he had subsequently relocated to Los Angeles. Once I checked, I immediately discovered that Oney’s book had became the basis for an independent film entitled The People v. Leo Frank, and I wonder whether his hopes of capturing a sliver of Hollywood’s vast lucre may not have encouraged him to so strongly suggest Frank’s innocence. Would an account of Leo Frank as rapist and murderer ever be likely to reach the silver screen? The quiet influence of financial considerations is no different today than it was a century ago, and this factor must be taken into account when evaluating historical events.

The NOI authors devote nearly all of their lengthy book to a careful analysis of the Frank case provided in suitably dispassionate form, but a sense of their justifiable outrage does occasionally poke through. In the years prior to Frank’s killing, many thousands of black men throughout the South had been lynched, often based on a slender thread of suspicion, with few of these incidents receiving more than a few sentences of coverage in a local newspaper, and large numbers of whites had also perished under similar circumstances. Meanwhile, Frank had received benefit of the longest trial in modern Southern history, backed by the finest trial lawyers that money could buy, and based on overwhelming evidence had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a young girl. But when Frank’s legal verdict was carried out by extra-judicial means, he immediately became the most famous lynching victim in American history, perhaps even attracting more media attention than all those thousands of other cases combined. Jewish money and Jewish media established him as a Jewish martyr who thereby effectively usurped the victimhood of the enormous number of innocent blacks who were killed both before and after him, none of whom were ever even recognized as individuals.

As Prof. Shahak has effectively demonstrated, traditional Talmudic Judaism regarded all non-Jews as being sub-human, with their lives possessing no value. Given that Frank’s backers were followers of Reform Judaism, it seems quite unlikely that they accepted this doctrine or were even aware of its existence. But religious traditions of a thousand years standing can easily become embedded within a culture, and such unrecognized cultural sentiments may have easily shaped their reaction to Frank’s legal predicament.

Influential historical accounts of the Frank case and its aftermath have contained lurid tales of the rampant public anti-Semitism visited upon Atlanta’s Jewish community in the wake of the trial, even claiming that a substantial portion of the population was forced to flee as a consequence. However, a careful examination of the primary source evidence, including the contemporaneous newspaper coverage, provides absolutely no evidence of this, and it appears to be entirely fictional.

The NOI authors note that prior to Frank’s trial American history had been virtually devoid of any evidence of significant anti-Semitism, with the previous most notable incident being the case of an extremely wealthy Jewish financier who was refused service at a fancy resort hotel. But by totally distorting the Frank case and focusing such massive national media coverage on his plight, Jewish leaders around the country succeeded in fabricating a powerful ideological narrative despite its lack of reality, perhaps intending the story to serve as a bonding experience to foster Jewish community cohesion.

As a further example of the widely promoted but apparently fraudulent history, the Jewish writers who have overwhelmingly dominated accounts of the Frank case have frequently claimed that it sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan soon afterward, with the group of citizens responsible for Frank’s 1915 lynching supposedly serving as the inspiration for William Simmons’ reestablishment of that organization a couple of years later. But there seems no evidence for this. Indeed, Simmons strongly emphasized the philo-Semitic nature of his new organization, which attracted considerable Jewish membership.

The primary factor behind the rebirth of the KKK was almost certainly the 1917 release of D.W. Griffith’s overwhelmingly popular landmark film Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Klan of the Reconstruction Era. Given that the American film industry was so overwhelmingly Jewish at the time and the film’s financial backers and leading Southern distributors came from that same background, it could be plausibly argued that the Jewish contribution to the creation of the 1920s Klan was a very crucial one, while the revenue from the film’s distribution throughout the South actually financed Samuel Goldwyn’s creation of MGM, Hollywood’s leading studio.

In their introduction, the NOI authors make the fascinating point that the larger historical meaning of the Frank case in American racial history has been entirely lost. Prior to that trial, it was unprecedented for Southern courts to allow black testimony against a white man, let alone against a wealthy man being tried on serious charges; but the horrific nature of the crime and Conley’s role as the sole witness required a break from that longstanding tradition. Thus, the authors not unreasonably argued that the Frank case may have been as important to the history of black progress in America as such landmark legal verdicts as Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board. But since almost the entire historical narrative has been produced by fervent Jewish advocates, these facts have been completely obscured and the case entirely misrepresented as an example of anti-Semitic persecution and public murder.

Let us summarize what seems to be the solidly established factual history of the Frank case, quite different than the traditional narrative. There is not the slightest evidence that Frank’s Jewish background was a factor behind his arrest and conviction, nor the death sentence he received. The case set a remarkable precedent in Southern courtroom history with the testimony of a black man playing a central role in a white man’s conviction. From the earliest stages of the murder investigation, Frank and his allies continually attempted to implicate a series of different innocent blacks by planting false evidence and using bribes to solicit perjured testimony, while the exceptionally harsh racial rhetoric that Frank and his attorneys directed towards those blacks was presumably intended to provoke their public lynching. Yet despite all these attempts by the Frank forces to play upon the notorious racial sentiments of the white Southerners of that era, the latter saw through these schemes and Frank was the one sentenced to hang for his rape and murder of that young girl.

Now suppose that all the facts of this famous case were exactly unchanged except that Frank had been a white Gentile. Surely the trial would be ranked as one of the greatest racial turning points in American history, perhaps even overshadowing Brown v. Board because of the extent of popular sentiment, and it would have been given a central place in all our modern textbooks. Meanwhile, Frank, his lawyers, and his heavy financial backers would probably be cast as among the vilest racial villains in all of American history for their repeated attempts to foment the lynching of various innocent blacks so that a wealthy white rapist and murderer could walk free. But because Frank was Jewish rather than Christian, this remarkable history has been completely inverted for over one hundred years by our Jewish-dominated media and historiography.

These are the important consequences that derive from control of the narrative and the flow of information, which allows murderers to be transmuted into martyrs and villains into heroes. The ADL was founded just over a century ago with the central goal of preventing a Jewish rapist and killer from being held legally accountable for his crimes, and over the decades, it eventually metastasized into a secret political police force not entirely dissimilar from the widely despised East German Stasi, but with its central goal seeming to be the maintenance of overwhelming Jewish control in a society that is 98% non-Jewish.

We should ask ourselves whether it is appropriate for an organization with such origins and such recent history to be granted enormous influence over the distribution of information across our Internet.

The lengthy 2018 article I’d published attracted considerable readership and more than 750 comments. Perhaps partly as a consequence, a few months later Amazon purged the scholarly book on the Leo Frank case that had so impressed me, ironically doing so during Black History Month. However, it’s still available for sale on the NOI website.