The story of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan is a very sad story that will told over and over for many different reasons. The most strinking reason is that Leo Frank was led out of his jail cell and lynched by a mob after a trial that had shown no real motivation in proving the case but only to prove Leo Frank quilty. At the time of the trial the south was just ending the period of reconstruction but still had a deep resentment for any encrochment on the southern lifestyle by outsiders. Racism and the fear of the outsiders was prevelant during this time.
As stated by C. P. Connolly, “There is but one reason, aside from the peculiarly atrocious murder of Mary Phagan, which made possible the injustice done Frank. Atlanta is still practically untouched by the flow of immigration from Europe which has made our Northern cities so tolerant in matters of race and religion. It is ridiculous to protest that there has been no prejudice against “the Jew” in this Frank case”. (1) The case of Leo Frank was as much to do with the south’s enforcement of mastery over their lives as it did the murder of young Mary Phagan.
Leo Frank was sent to Atlanta, Georgia to help manage a pencil factory that he partially owned. He was a graduate from Cornell University and was a very educated young Jewish man. It was the beginning of a time when young northern capitalists were trying to make their mark in the south by integrating new manufacturing and technology to the post war area. The arrival of Mr. Frank was not welcomed with open arms to the southern community. The people of the “confederate” states were making all attempts to maintain their mastery over their workplace, home, and families.
They did not believe that a northern factory owner, especially a jew, should be ordering their wives or children around in the work environment. The gentlemen of the south believed that they had strict control over their homes and families and without that control they were some how less than a man. They resented sending their family members to work for Leo Frank and tension was continually building. On April 26th 1913, a fourteen year old named Mary Phagan came to work to receive her pay. This happened to fall on a holiday in the south, Confederate Memorial Day.
The next day her body was found in the pencil factory. She had been strangled, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Her body was found by a negro night watchman that worked for the pencil factory. His name was Newt Lee. Leo Frank and Newt Lee were immediately arrested. Newt Lee was questioned but let go the next day. Another employee of Mr. Frank had found letters supposedly written by himself and Mr. Frank attesting to the murder of Mary Phagan. The letters were believed to have been written by the employee, Jim Conley. Mr. Conley was questioned many times about the letters and he claimed that he could not write.
It was later found that he could write. Instead of looking at Mr. Conley as a possible murderer his statements were used in the conviction of Leo Frank. Before taking the witness stand against Mr. Frank he had revised his statement five times. (1) The trial was convened in as much to convict an outsider to the southern way of life as it was to find and convict the murderer of Mary Phagan. All of the evidence in the case points away from Mr. Frank and at some other individual, mainly Jim Conley. The prosecution was set on trying Leo Frank and the public would have nothing but a guilty verdict against him. The Atlanta “Journal” said that it was known that a verdict of acquittal would cause a riot such as would shock the country and cause Atlanta’s streets to run with innocent blood”(2) The fear of an acquital or guilty was so strong that the Chief of Police and the Colonel of the malitia were consulted in order to find a way to keep Leo Frank safe. Leo Frank was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He and his attorneys immediately sought a retrial but was denied. After the trial many of the witnesses recanted their stories. One such case was the New York Times article in which Mrs.
Nina Formby “… called The Times and asked that she be permitted to make a public denial of the statements she made against Frank only after she had been unduly influenced to do so by the Atlanta detectives”. (3) After all of the facts about forced testimony, Leo Frank could not get a retrial. The only ally that Frank had in his corner was that of Governor Slaton. Governor Slaton commuted Leo Frank’s sentence to life imprionment on June 30th, 1915. The Syracuse Herald reported that Governor Slaton said “I would be a murderer if I let this man hang”. 4) As stated in Trial by Prjudice “Thereupon the cry of the crowd was: “We want John H. Slaton, King of the Jews and Traitor Governor of Georgia”, The Governor was driven out of office”. (5) Any one who stood up for justice in the case against Leo Frank found themselves against southern public opinion and even worse against the southern beuracracy. On August 17, 1915 a group of between twenty five and seventy armed men drove to the Georgia state prison farm and kidnapped Leo Frank. They took him on a hundred mile ride to Mary Phagans birthplace and lynched him.
It is said that a seond mob arrived at the scene and mutilated Frank’s face. (6) In the aftermath of Leo Frank’s case, several thousand Jewish citizens left the state of Georgia. More witnesses during the trial have recanted their story and some have remembered things thay did not speak about in court. One such case is that of Alonzo Mann. He stated, in 1982, that he was Jim Conley carrying the body of Mary Phagan alone the day she was murdered. Mann swore in an affidavit that Conley had threatened to kill him if he told what he had seen.
Based partially on this evidence, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Leo Frank a pardon on March 11th, 1986. (1) C. P. Connolly. The Truth about The Frank Case. 1915. Foreward. (2) Hays, Arthur. Trial by Prejudice. New York: Covici Friede, 1933. Pg. 301. (3) Hays, Arthur. Trial by Prejudice. New York: Covici Friede, 1933. Pg 309. (4) New York Times. February 26, 1914. (5) Syracuse Herald. June 21, 1915. (6) Hays, Arthur. Trial by Prejudice. New York: Covici Friede, 1933. Pg. 314. (7) New York Times. August 18, 1915.