Dr. John E. White Writes on the Phagan Case

Dr John E White on Phagan Case

Dr. John E. White

Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.

Atlanta Georgian

Sunday, May 4th, 1913

Draws a Lesson From the Shocking Occurrence of a Week Ago, and Urges Confidence in the Courage of the Law.


Pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Atlanta.

The proper study of mankind is man, but the conditions for this study are only occasionally favorable. Dressed up in his everyday clothes, thinking his ordinary thoughts, and his human impulses suppressed to the requirements of conventional life, a man throws very little light on the problem of humanity. The individual exhibits mankind neither at its best nor at its worst, and never at its deepest. The interesting things about folks are not the things that individualize and separate them in one mass. Therefore to obtain insight into humanity you must catch it off its guard and in the sway of some profound spirit of unity.

Whenever something occurs to startle, alarm or even amuse a whole community at a stroke, there is the opportunity to study and understand human nature. The artist with his picture, the poet with his poem and the author with his book are each in his way striving to express emotions and awaken sentiments which belonged to all men—the chord of human nature that sounds a universal note. It often happens that a shocking event, a disaster or a horrible murder, affords the supremely favorable situation for understanding one’s self and others, and for realizing the problems presented to society.

The Interest in a Murder.

Consider the extraordinary intensity of public attention upon the horrible occurrence of the past week. A hundred thousand eyes looking at one thing, a hundred thousand ears listening at one point, a hundred thousand tongues questioning upon one issue—there is a spectacle worth considering.

It is the murderer who dominates the stage in this drama. Somewhere in this community there is a man who did this deed. Upon the retina of every eye and on the film slate of every imagination there is drawn the figure of one single human being, toward which a hundred thousand questions are hurled and upon whom a hundred thousand accusations are concentrated. Our interest in him is his shape like ours, his human likeness to us, and, therefore, by him all of us degraded. His crime dehumanizes humanity and disgraces the universe. This is the exquisite woe of a murderer and the secret of the unvoiced consciousness of all souls poised at him.

There is a feeling that the mystery of every murder is bound to be uncovered. We reckon that all the light of the world—light of stars and moons and suns are conspired against it. The very existence of God seems to demand that for the honor of the universe the murderer must be exposed.

We feel that the murderer himself must find it impossible to support the guilty secret. Thus Victor Hugo portrays Cain, the first murderer, unable to elude the great blazing eye that glares upon him everywhere; thus Lady Macbeth, rubbing her red fingers, echoes the cry of her guilty husband; thus Eugene Aram finds no leaves to cover the dead body, and every stream in which he places it dries up; thus Edgar Allen Poe conceives the murderer hearing the heartthrobs of his victim beneath the floor; thus the ancients imagined that a dead body would bleed in the presence of the murderer. Upon him wherever and whoever it may be forever falls an insupportable weight of doom. Whatever society may do by law to punish the murderer it is nothing compared with the cosmic wretchedness fixed and fastened upon him. Detected or undetected by men, the murderer never escapes.

The Mutilation of Life.

It is a somber but true thought that the extreme guiltiness of every murderer indicates the confraternity of all men who are engaged in the mutilation of human life. In an age to come—and now coming rapidly—society will not so sharply discriminate between the moral responsibility of those defined as murderers under the law and those who in more subtle fashion have the moral responsibility for sapping the vital energy of men and women. This murder in Atlanta is associated with circumstances and suggestions calculated to emphasize the increasing movement of civilization to make a direful issue between itself and those who despoil innocence or press degradation upon womanhood in any fashion. Once, twice, and then again and again we will witness a tearing at the public heart by the tragedies of lust and greed, until one day the social cup will be full and the resolution which now dimly shows its protest will be resolved into social conscience, and then into social courage, and then into social conquest the untamed beasts that prowl for their prey. The lesser beasts who ply trades and occupations that destroy the bodies and the souls of men and then send flowers to their funerals are to be socially segregated, placarded and proclaimed. Every murderer furiously tears the veil startling crime is pointing its finger at the sources of crime. The murderer furiously tears the veil aside for society to see suddenly its needs and problem of redemption. It is not a hundred years from the Coroner’s jury and the court house, and the jury and the judgment of a civilization that will focus stern eyes on all the murderous forces at work within it.

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The statement has been made that there are ten million white people in the South who are to be described as “unsafely civilized.” It was made by a Southern man “to the manner born” and apparently approved in the intelligence of a large Southern audience entirely devoted to the South. Edmund Burke said that he did not know how to draw an indictment against a whole people. Since there are only twenty million white people in the South, the statement sounds like an impossible indictment. To be “unsafely civilized,” however, is not the same as being uncivilized. The point of attention is that there are vast numbers of white people who do not sufficiently appreciate the necessity of personal restraint and social confidence in respect of law and order to be depended on under all circumstances to support the orderly processes of government. The Southern people must increase their balance on the side of safety in civilization as rapidly as possible.

Name Your Man.

Who are the “unsafely civilized?” “Name your man.” He is the man we meet on the street and sometimes at the church, who is willing to say, without any sense of saying anything wrong, that under certain circumstances he is ready to join a thousand others and batter down the jail to lynch a prisoner awaiting a trial before a jury in the court house. He is the man who expresses a frank readiness to justify the mob that has already wrecked its fury in this fashion. He is the man who can not see that the grossness of the crime committed is the greater reason why no one, or a few, but all the citizenship should have a share in its punishment. He is the man who can not understand that the successful vengeance of a mob is the disdain and therefore the dishonor of the State.

He is the Southern man who does not appreciate the standards of civilization, by which Southern people, as well as others, are estimated in the judgment of the world. When he is told that in the four years from 1908 to 1912 all but 14 out of the 398 lynchings in the United States were committed in the South, it makes no difference to him. There is nothing evasive about the attitude of this man. He is frankly unconcerned about the consequence of peril to society, including himself and his own children, which follows the flouting of the law. He does not think that far. He is civilized, but not “safely.”

The Fear of the Mob.

The presence of such large numbers of men in Southern communities of this inflammable type and of large numbers who assert no stubborn defense of law and order when trouble is brewing has a powerful influence upon public sentiment and creates a spirit of uncertainty and of dread in the whole people. The great majority of the safely civilized is not available in any outspoken way to assert the power of society to protect itself in support of its institutions.

In several of the Southern States this fear of the mob is rapidly decreasing. In one of them only three lynchings have been allowed in four years and scores have been prevented. The State of Georgia will begin to make a better record when the citizens of Georgia get a little closer together in their thinking on the evils of lawlessness. The peril of the mob decreases in any community in proportion as the people get redder in the face instead of paler whenever the rumor starts that one is forming. A little righteous wrath at the right time would save many vain regrets after the mob has done its work.

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Atlanta Georgian, May 4th 1913, “Dr. John E. White Writes on the Phagan Case,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)