by Scott Aaronson
IT MAY WELL BE the greatest murder mystery of all time. Some assert that the Mary Phagan murder case is solved, but those who so assert are of two different and mutually exclusive camps. And those two camps still stand diametrically opposed to this day, four generations later.
The case aroused the outrage and ire and vengeance of two great communities. One, the Jewish community, feel overwhelmingly today, and felt to a lesser but still substantial extent in 1913, that Leo Frank was tried and condemned simply because he was a Jew. They believe that Leo Frank is so obviously innocent that he never would have been tried had it not been for endemic anti-Semitism in 1913 Atlanta. And they have been remarkably effective in making Southern anti-Semitism the leitmotif of virtually all drama, documentary, and other remembrance of this case for the last half century. The other, the largely Christian Southern gentile community, believed overwhelmingly in 1913 — and to an unknown but doubtlessly large degree still believes today — that justice was done when all the jurors, and every appeals court in the land including the Supreme Court of the United States, after a monumental and impressively-funded defense, agreed that Leo Frank was fairly tried and convicted for the murder of Mary Phagan. And it must rankle Southerners almost beyond words to be accused of anti-Semitism, when no Christian community anywhere on earth has so respected and welcomed Jews, has so openly acknowledged its spiritual roots in Judaism, or has so enthusiastically supported the Jewish state of Israel.
It all begins with Mary Phagan, a sweet and lovely 13-year-old girl on the threshold of womanhood. She was loved and treasured by those who knew her well. When her all-too-real tragedy began, she had just played the part of Sleeping Beauty in a church play (and, her family tells us, was unable to stop giggling during the rehearsals of the kissing scene). Barely a teenager, she was nevertheless providing support to her family – at the wage rate of seven and a half cents an hour (see Gannt testimony, coroner’s inquest) – working as a child laborer in the sweatshop of Atlanta’s National Pencil Company.
Late on Saturday morning, April 26, 1913, brightly dressed for the parade and festivities that were to take place that afternoon to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, Mary Phagan went to pick up her pay of $1.20 from factory superintendent and part-owner Leo Frank. Frank was a businessman who was so well-respected in Atlanta’s very successful Jewish community that, at the age of 29, he had become the president of the local chapter of B’nai B’rith.
Mary Phagan never made it to the parade. Her bloody body was found at three o’clock the next morning in the factory basement, brutally used, beaten, and strangled to death. The sudden end of Mary Phagan’s brief life shocked Atlanta, then the entire South, and ultimately the entire nation.
Her death became the center of intense public outrage and interest, and Frank was charged with her murder. Jewish businessmen, publishers, and organizations from all over the country made Frank’s defense a cause célèbre, and the large sums donated enabled Frank to procure the most respected lawyers in the state and even to appeal his case to the highest court in the land. But to little avail – ultimately Leo Frank was found guilty of the unspeakable killing of little Mary, and his appeals were rejected by every court that heard them.
Frank was sentenced to hang, to much public satisfaction. But in 1915 John Slaton, the state’s outgoing governor, under tremendous pressure from both sides, made the decision during the last moments of his administration to commute Frank’s sentence to life in prison – despite the fact the he, Slaton, was a senior partner in the law firm that defended Frank.
Outraged by what they saw as corruption and a miscarriage of justice, a group comprising some of the region’s leading citizens laid careful plans to abduct Frank from his prison cell and carry out the jury’s original sentence of hanging – and they did so, lynching him not far from Mary Phagan’s home.
It is this second horrific death by strangulation – Leo Frank’s – that occupies the public mind today. Frank, not Mary Phagan, is the locus of tragedy, of moral lessons, of outrage and mourning. Mary Phagan’s life, and the horrors she endured in her last moments, are almost forgotten except as a backdrop for Frank’s persecution and death at the hands of alleged anti-Semites. Her tragedy, and her family’s grief and outcry for justice, have been turned into little more than footnotes.
I said there were three strangling deaths. The third is the strangling to death of the truth. Much of the real history of this case, and the actual, primary evidence that was brought to light at the time, is almost unknown today – at least to that vast majority who consume the academic works, popular dramatizations, articles, and books that have addressed the subject of Leo Frank in recent decades. Instead of real history, investigated and recounted with a deep commitment to objectivity, we are given a simplistic, moralistic narrative of an obviously innocent Leo Frank victimized by bigoted anti-Semites who subjected him to a sham trial and an horrific lynching – with the added fillip that the undoubted killer was an African-American, Jim Conley, who was never prosecuted because anti-Semitic fervor demanded Frank’s blood. This narrative is such an imposture that not even the honorable supporters of Leo Frank in 1913, were they alive today, would recognize or endorse it. It is a farrago of emotional blackmail, half-truths, omissions, and outright hoaxes. I write so that the readers and students of today can at long last see that, whatever prejudices there may have been in 1913 Atlanta, those that prevail in the mediasphere of the early 21st century are far worse.
This sham history will collapse, sooner or later, as new generations of investigators rediscover the evidence that has been brushed under the rug in recent years. Young historians, some of them not yet born, will make their reputations and earn their doctorates exposing the hoaxes that now seem to buttress (but will ultimately undermine) the false narrative.
Will this rediscovery of the truth cause a backlash of real anti-Semitism against Southern Jews or Jews in general? I think not. Just because a few soi-disant leaders, cranks, haters, and self-promoters palmed off their paranoiac vision of the Frank case on a generation is no reason for a real vendetta. I intend to show that a middle path that respects truth above ethnic and religious loyalty is needed, and Jewish voices should, I hope, be prominent in leading the way if we are to avoid another swing of the knife-edged pendulum of hate.
One of the most remarkable things I discovered when writing about this case was that many of the original articles about this case – even major ones – and affidavits, sworn statements, and utterances of great import from the central participants in the case, were not available online, not searchable, not findable, not even readable. That is, until a courageous man named Mark Cohen, almost 100 years after the fact, scanned in and uploaded nearly all the relevant contemporary newspapers, magazines, and surviving trial materials to his Web site, leofrank.org. I deeply appreciate Mr. Cohen’s efforts in doing this service for us, for our posterity, and for history. (I do not, however, endorse all of Mr. Cohen’s theories of, or conclusions about, this case.) It was a monumental effort that must have taken years. Even then, though, the material was largely not searchable because most of the fragile, faded papers from which the uploaded PDF files had been made were not of good enough quality to allow them to be turned into text using OCR technology. So, to provide the most important evidence to you, the reader, I found myself retyping – and, as I typed, reliving – the events of 100 years ago exactly as they were reported at the time. In recent years, another independent Leo Frank archive, located at leofrank.info, took on the task of transcribing all the relevant contemporary articles on this case, a monumental project that is still ongoing.
All that was available to the researcher — until very recently — about the Frank case, and to the reader and student, was practically all derivative writing, mostly decades or a century removed from the events, and with minuscule exceptions all slavishly devoted to the received narrative of Frank’s absolute innocence and pervasive Southern anti-Semitism.
For many, the evidence against Leo Frank could not pass the test of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I am not sure that I could have authorized the opening of the trap door beneath him myself. But, to the jury which tried him, it did pass that test. The judge rightly charged the jury to throw aside all preconceptions and prejudices and judge the case on the evidence alone. We should do the same.
If we cannot open our eyes to see what the people of that time and place saw, if we dare not examine the evidence for ourselves and throw aside the distorting lens of the media’s current depiction of the case, then we are indulging ourselves in feel-good (or, for many, feel-bad) fiction. If we do that in the Frank case – a case in which the received narrative is one of blood libel against the people of the South, against an entire people and culture – we have abandoned responsibility for our children’s future and any shred of honor we might once have possessed.
I have spent most of my life in the South, and learned much from its people. All of us, Jew and Gentile, black and white, deserve better. We should respect the truth above all. Lying to right a perceived wrong is compounding the wrong, prolonging and augmenting the hate we claim to oppose.
* * *
The Crime: Mary Phagan’s Death by Strangling
ON SATURDAY morning at 11:30AM, April 26, 1913 Mary Phagan ate a poor girl’s lunch of bread and boiled cabbage and said goodbye to her mother for the last time. Dressed for parade-watching (for this was Confederate Memorial Day) in a lavender dress, ribbon-bedecked hat, and parasol, she left her home in hardscrabble working-class Bellwood at 11:45, and caught the streetcar for downtown Atlanta.
Before the festivities, though, she stopped to see Superintendent Leo M. Frank at the National Pencil Company and pick up from him her $1.20 pay for the one day she had worked there during the previous week.
She had been laid off for most of that week because the material needed for the tipping department in the metal room, where she worked, had been late in arriving.
She entered the grim and massive four-story Victorian building a few minutes after noon, and proceeded up the stairs to the second floor, where both Leo Frank’s office and – more than a hundred feet further back – her own department were located. By all accounts, she did not know that Jim Conley, the company’s African-American sweeper, was sitting in the shadows on the first floor behind the staircase, near the elevator and the “scuttle hole” ladder that led to the basement. Strangely, even though it was his day off, and even though the factory superintendent was around, Conley was there, partly hidden by darkness but not stealthily concealed, doing no work – drawing no pay – and apparently doing nothing but watching.
As Conley watched, a few moments later, at 12:05, one of the factory’s other working girls, 14-year-old Monteen Stover, arrived to collect her pay. She also walked up those same steps, also failed to notice Jim Conley, and also entered Leo Frank’s office. Mary had not left. But Monteen found no one there. Frank’s office was in two sections, an outer office and an inner office. Looking for him, Monteen saw that the outer office was empty, so she went into the inner office, and saw that it was empty too.
She looked down the hall toward the rows of factory machinery. There was nothing but motionless silence. So she decided to wait. She waited a full five minutes, according to the office clock. She saw and heard no one. Shortly after 12:10 she left by the same route she came, again encountering not a single person. (The exact timing of Mary Phagan’s visit was disputed later, with some Frank partisans insisting that Monteen arrived before Mary. Frank himself stated on April 28 of Mary that “She came in between 12:05 and 12:10, maybe 12:07, to get her pay envelope, her salary.” Clocks and watches in 1913 could easily be off by several minutes. Nevertheless, it appears clear that Monteen Stover failed to find Frank, or anyone, in his office at around the time that Mary was there. Frank told detectives that he never left his office from noon to 12:45.)
After one o’clock, Leo Frank left to go home for lunch. His wife and mother-in-law were waiting in their best finery, ready to go to Atlanta’s opulent opera house, where New York’s Metropolitan Opera was on tour, presenting a matinee performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. After eating, Frank returned to the factory while not far away the somber, intoxicating strains of Donizetti’s prelude wafted over the wealthy Atlantans in their temple of culture, and while the common folk readied themselves to salute the aging heroes in grey who were marching together, perhaps for the last time in their lives.
Almost no one knew it at the time, but by one o’clock one young life was already over. For her there would never again be parades, or music, or kisses, or flowers, or children, or love. Mary Phagan never left the National Pencil Company alive. Abused, beaten, and strangled by a rough cord pulled so tightly that it had embedded itself deeply in her girlish neck and made her tongue protrude more than an inch from her mouth, Mary Phagan lay dead, dumped in the dirt and shavings of the pencil company basement, her once-bright eyes now sightless and still as she lay before the gaping maw of the furnace where the factory trash was burned.
* * *
ON FRIDAY, the day before the murder, Leo Frank had told the factory’s African-American night watchman, Newt Lee, to come to work Saturday afternoon at four, as Frank wanted to leave around four so he could attend a baseball game with his brother-in-law Mr. Ursenbach. But upon arriving at four, Lee said that Frank appeared extremely nervous and insisted that Lee leave the factory and “have a good time” somewhere else and return at six. When Lee suggested he might instead just sleep for a couple of hours on the premises, Frank rejected the suggestion, repeating that Lee should depart for two hours.
Frank again seemed very nervous when Lee returned at six, and even visibly jumped back when he noticed that a former employee named Gantt had arrived about the same time as Lee. Frank was to claim that this was because Gantt was a large man and had in fact been fired by Frank not long before. Frank would also later state, however, that he believed that Gantt was close to Mary Phagan and so his visit might have been interpreted as being to inquire about her whereabouts.
Newt Lee made his rounds as usual that night, but he didn’t go all the way into the basement until around three in the morning. There he discovered the lifeless body of Mary Phagan. He tried and failed to reach Leo Frank by telephone. He then called the police.
Lee described the events of that afternoon and night to detectives, beginning with his first arrival at the factory:
The front door was not locked. I pushed it open, went on in and got to the double door there… The front door had always been unlocked on previous Saturday afternoons. After you go inside and come up about middle ways of the steps, there are some double doors there. It was locked on Saturday when I got there. Have never found it that way before. I took my key and unlocked it. When I went upstairs I had a sack of bananas and I stood to the left of that desk like I do every Saturday. I says like I always do “Alright Mr. Frank” and he come bustling out of his office. He had never done that before. He always called me when he wanted to tell me anything and said, “Step here a minute, Newt.” This time he came up rubbing his hands and says, “Newt, I am sorry that I had you come so soon, you could have been at home sleeping, I tell you what you do, you go out in town and have a good time.” He had never let me off before that. I could have laid down in the shipping room and gone to sleep, and I told him that. He says, “You needs to have a good time. You go downtown, stay an hour and a half, and come back your usual time at six o’clock.” I then went out the door and stayed [out] until about four minutes to six. When I came back the doors were unlocked just as I left them and I went and says, “Alright, Mr. Frank,” and he says, “What time is it?” and I says, “It lacks two minutes of six.” He says, “Don’t punch yet [a reference to the company’s time clock – Ed.], there is a few worked today and I want to change the slip.” It took him twice as long this time than it did the other times I saw him fix it. He fumbled putting it in, while I held the lever for him and I think he made some remark about he was not used to putting it in. When Mr. Frank put the tape in I punched and I went downstairs.
While I was down there Mr. Gantt came from across the street from the beer saloon and says, “Newt, I got a pair of old shoes that I want to get upstairs to have fixed.” I says, “I ain’t allowed to let anybody in here after six o’clock.” About that time Mr. Frank come bustling out of the door and run into Gantt unexpected and he jumped back frightened. Gantt says, “I got a pair of old shoes upstairs, have you any objection to my getting them?” Frank says, “I don’t think they are up there; I think I saw the boy sweep some up in the trash the other day.” Mr. Gantt asked him what sort they were and Mr. Frank says “tans.” Gantt says, “Well, I had a pair of black ones too.” Frank says, “Well, I don’t know,” and he dropped his head down just so. Then he raised his head and says, “Newt, go with him and stay with him and help him find them,” and I went up there with Mr. Gantt and found them in the shipping room, two pair, the tans and the black ones.
Not long after, Frank did something that, according to Lee, he had never done before:
Mr. Frank phoned me that night about an hour after he left, it was sometime after seven o’clock. He says, “How is everything?” and I says, “Everything is all right so far as I know,” and he says “Goodbye.”
…There is a light in the basement down there at the foot of the ladder. He told me to keep that burning all the time. It has two little chains to it to turn on and turn off the gas. When I got there on making my rounds at seven o’clock on the 26th of April, it was burning just as low as you could turn it, like a lightning bug. I left it Saturday morning burning bright. I made my rounds regularly every half hour Saturday night. I punched on the hour and punched on the half and I made all my punches. The elevator doors on the street floor and office floor were closed when I got there on Saturday. They were fastened down just like we fasten them down every other night. When three o’clock came I went down the basement and when I went down and got ready to come back I discovered the body there. I went down to the toilet and when I got through I looked at the dust bin back to the door to see how the door was and it being dark I picked up my lantern and went there and I saw something laying there which I thought some of the boys had put there to scare me, then I got out of there. I got up the ladder and called up the police station. It was after three o’clock… I tried to get Mr. Frank on the telephone and was still trying …I guess I was trying about eight minutes.
Eventually Newt Lee gave up on Frank and called the police. When the officers arrived and were directed down the ladder to the basement by Lee, they discovered the mysterious handwritten “death notes” in the sawdust near the body. These notes purported to be written by Mary Phagan herself, but were later proven not to be so. They seemed the work of someone barely literate, and the language used was similar to Southern African-American dialect. They read:
Mam that negro hire down here did this i went to make water and he push me doun that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it was long sleam tall negro i wright while play with me.
he said he wood love me and land doun play like night witch did it but that long tall black negro did buy his slef.
When the notes were read out loud in the presence of Lee, he exclaimed “that’s me, boss” (or words to that effect; the exact phrase was disputed) when the words “night witch” were reached, Lee obviously assuming that “night watch” – as in “night watchman,” as we would say – was what was really meant. Added to the facts that Lee was a “long slim tall negro” and dark complected (“negro black”), the notes said such a person did the deed “by his self.” It did appear that the writer of the notes was trying to implicate Lee.
Detectives also found a bloody handkerchief ten feet away, one shoe, and some sheets of paper and pencils. Oddly, Mary’s hat and parasol had apparently been tossed in the bottom of the elevator shaft. Along with a quantity of miscellaneous trash, some human excrement was also found in the shaft, which was crushed and caused a stench when the detectives rode the car down later in the day. There were marks indicating Mary’s body had been dragged across the basement floor, and her bloody, bruised face was smeared with dirt and cinders. The dragging marks began at the elevator shaft.
Lee was an obvious suspect and was immediately arrested — but was later shown to be completely innocent — and suspicion of him grew when someone, likely someone associated with Frank, planted a fake bloody shirt at his home, and when Frank himself changed his statement and claimed that punches were missing from Lee’s time card.
* * *
Christianity, Anti-Semitism, and the American South: Background to the Leo Frank Case
GEORGIA, as a part of the South, is a place where, though freethinkers are certainly not unknown, the vast majority of the population is deeply committed to Christianity — largely Protestant, fundamentalist Christianity. One’s personal “walk with Jesus” is taken very seriously here, and the religion informs almost every aspect of private, family, and public life. The fundamentalist worldview is dominant, as it is throughout the South, which, along with a few border states, is not called the “Bible Belt” for nothing. This was doubly true in 1913.
One of the core beliefs of fundamentalism is literalism, a belief that every word of the scriptures was directly inspired by God and is literally true. The position of the average Georgian on the Bible is expressed in the saying, common in the South, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The history in the Bible is, therefore, accurate, including God’s special preference for the Jews as His people, an especially holy people. The prophetic visions of the Bible are, therefore, infallible, including the centrality of Israel and its people to God’s plan for heaven and earth. The law set down in scripture is, therefore, to be obeyed absolutely, including its commands to honor and bless God’s Chosen. The Old Testament — the entirety of which is by, about, and for Jews — is not glossed over or minimized by fundamentalists, as it is by some Christian denominations. It is God’s word; it is absolute truth no less than the New Testament. And Jehovah, the Jewish God of the Old Testament, is to fundamentalists the one and only God.
Most important of all to fundamentalist Christians, Jesus was born a Jew, spoke in the synagogues, and was in fact the prophesied Jewish Messiah. The Jewish faith, the Jewish prophets, and the Jewish people themselves were the sources from which Christ came and without which Christ could never have existed.
It is the South that is the center of Christian Zionism. Many a sermon and many a ministry in the South have as their basis Genesis 12:3, in which God says of the Jews: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.”
In 1909, four years before Mary Phagan’s murder, the first edition of the Scofield Reference Bible was published by Cyrus Scofield. It was innovative in that explanations of, and details about, the Biblical texts were printed in a column alongside the actual verses. Scofield’s Bible was tremendously popular and influential in fundamentalist circles and remains so to this day. Scofield wrote in his note to Genesis 12:3:
It has invariably fared ill with the people who have persecuted the Jew – well with those who have protected him. The future will still more remarkably prove this principle.
In subsequent editions Scofield’s followers expanded the note, adding “For a nation to commit the sin of anti-Semitism brings inevitable judgment.”
Harry Golden reported in the American Jewish Committee’s magazine Commentary that, shortly after the establishment of the Jewish state, “Bonds for Israel” salesmen in the South would purposely seek out Christians, since they were almost all enthusiastically pro-Zionist. If asked about their reasons for supporting Zionism, a typical fundamentalist Christian response was “It’s in the book!” — meaning, of course, the Bible. Such was the dominant Southern Christian position, and this attitude toward Jews cannot have materialized suddenly in 1948, nor even in the one generation or so from Leo Frank’s trial to that date. If anything, Christian-Jewish relations were better at the inception of the Frank case than afterward, as the case left scars that are yet to be fully healed.
Those who posit a pervasive anti-Semitism in Georgia a century ago can point to a few obscure pamphlets and some of Tom Watson’s populist diatribes (though Watson himself disclaimed anti-Semitism and a few years later attacked Henry Ford for his racial condemnation of Jews). But it seems quite unlikely that any major Southern publication could match the New York Tribune editorial of 1882, which stated of Jews, “There must be some other cause than their religion which makes these people dreaded as permanent inhabitants by every country to which they come.” One is entitled to doubt that any distinguished Southern journal would have dared to reprint the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette editorial of 1879 which remarked about Jews that “It is strange that a nation which boasts so many good traits should be so obnoxious.” Additionally, as far as is known, Atlanta never had the “honor” of having a branch of the “American Anti-Semitic Association” within its borders, as Brooklyn, New York did in 1896.
In the 1890s, it was not in Marietta, Georgia, but in Saratoga Springs, New York where hoteliers famously posted signs reading “No Jews or Dogs Admitted Here.” In that crucible of Southern identity, the Civil War, Southerners made a Jew their Secretary of the Treasury in the person of Judah P. Benjamin, while the North in the person of Ulysses S. Grant physically expelled all Jews from all areas under his control, which included large parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee, cruelly demanding in a time of war and in an age of slow transportation that they be gone from this huge territory “within 24 hours.”
After the prolonged political battle of many New York Jews against Tammany Hall in New York City, in 1901 the city’s corrupt police force retaliated by attacking a Jewish funeral procession, billy clubs flailing. Nothing even remotely similar has been reported about the Atlanta of that era; in fact, knowing what we know about Southern-Jewish relations, it seems utterly inconceivable.
John Higham, in his “Social Discrmination Against Jews 1830 – 1930,” a work commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, called the South “historically the section least inclined to ostracize Jews,” and drew attention to the “striking Southern situation” of almost no discrimination against Jews there. True, Jewish-Gentile relations had somewhat declined there by the mid-twentieth century, and the massive campaign during the Frank appeals to paint his prosecution, and the South generally, as anti-Semitic — and the eventual creation of the Anti-Defamation League in the wake of Frank’s death — played their part in this change. The revived 20th-century Ku Klux Klan, inspired in part by the otherwise invisible and perhaps even nonexistent group that took responsibility for Leo Frank’s lynching, the Knights of Mary Phagan, was quite different from the original Klan: It took an overt and aggressive anti-Jewish position.
But the aftermath of the Frank trial had no part, of course, in the attitudes of the people of Atlanta on the day Mary Phagan was murdered. All things considered, the South in general and Atlanta in particular seem to have been, if anything, safe havens for Jews where they might escape from the anti-Semitism that was rampant around the beginning of the last century.
* * *
ATLANTA was not without real prejudices, though. The transformation of the South from an agrarian economy into an industrial one, with all its attendant evils, such as child labor, was the cause of passionate outcries for reform. The businessman, especially the industrialist, was not always looked upon with favor.
With industrialization came Northerners – often rich Northerners – who were commonly perceived as lording it over poor Southerners from illustrious family lines who, it was widely thought, ought to have been their social superiors. And the scars of the Civil War still ran deep. The war, and the sometimes brutal “Reconstruction,” was still within the living memory of the older generation. Many Atlantans of 1913 had personally experienced the killing of loved ones, defeat, exploitation, rape, poverty, hunger, dispossession, disenfranchisement, military dictatorship, and worse. The city itself had even been deliberately set afire by Union forces during the war. Though young Georgians had not experienced such horrors, they all had parents or other loved ones who had.
Southerners in 1861 had enough sense of peoplehood to separate themselves from the Union. The humiliating defeat of 1865 and the decade-long federal occupation had made that sense of peoplehood – of being a people apart, an oppressed nation within a nation – even stronger. And it bred a sense of distrust of authority, of resistance to established power, of direct vengeance on wrongdoers when the System failed to act, that suffused the very air of the South, from the sleepiest hamlet to the vibrant, burgeoning, modern, and industrial Atlanta that was rapidly arising from the ashes.
The African-Americans of the South were yet another nation within a nation. Freed by Lincoln’s decree during the war, and briefly ascendent during Reconstruction when almost the entire Southern white population was disenfranchised, black people were quickly relegated to second class citizenship when self-government was restored to the former Confederacy. Almost all of them poorly educated and in poverty, and viewed as impulsive and potentially violent, they were the first to be suspected – and, almost universally unable to employ competent counsel – the most likely to be convicted of violent crimes. Even worse for them, if it was popularly perceived among the white community that an African-American was using a lawyer or the “letter of the law” to avoid responsibility for a crime, or if authorities were simply too insistent that a black man or woman had legal rights that ought to be respected when “everybody knew” he or she was guilty, an abduction and an extra-legal hanging – a lynching – was often the result.
“Lynch law,” as it came to be called, often targeted African-Americans, though some “no account” Southern whites were its victims too. The lynching of a Jew, though – and lynching would ultimately be Leo Frank’s fate – was, as far as I have been able to determine, unheard of.
The “color line” in the South (and, in fact, in some parts of the North as well) forbade sexual contact or marriage between the races, and the rule ran far deeper than a mere written law. The violation of a white girl or woman by a black man was viewed as especially heinous and the man even suspected of such an act, to say nothing of one convicted of such an act, especially if the woman was harmed or killed, was probably not long for this earth.
In the race-conscious South of 1913, Jews were considered white. In fact, in the newspapers of Atlanta before, during, and after the trial of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, Frank was referred to as a “white man” on innumerable occasions by reporters, witnesses, African-Americans, fellow Jews, pro-Frank partisans, and anti-Frank polemicists. Jews, furthermore, were not known for violent acts or crimes, nor feared as violators of white women. If anything, they were seen as an unusually industrious, intelligent, and law-abiding segment of society, even if they were a bit peculiar in their religious views. Marriage between Jews and Christians might have raised a few eyebrows in both communities – just as did intermarriage between members of widely different Christian denominations – but it was far from unknown, and such couples were not ostracized. In fact, Leo Frank’s own brother-in-law, Mr. Ursenbach, with whom he canceled an appointment to see a baseball game on the day Mary Phagan was killed, was a Christian.
If there was prejudice against Leo Frank in 1913 Atlanta, it was almost certainly not because he was a Jew. He was, however, a capitalist, a business owner, a manager, an employer of child labor, and a Northerner with an Ivy League education. He also came to be known during the course of the trial as sexually profligate. These facts probably did count against him.
* * *