The Murder of Mary Phagan

by Eve Cohen
The Murder of Mary Phagan

“In 1913, in Atlanta, Georgia, Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the National Pencil Factory, was tried and convicted for the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old female worker in his factory. Local newspapers documented the court proceedings in great detail, framing Frank as a corrupt factory owner and a pervert.”

In 1913, in Atlanta, Georgia, Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the National Pencil Factory, was tried and convicted for the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old female worker in his factory. Local newspapers documented the court proceedings in great detail, framing Frank as a corrupt factory owner and a pervert. The Atlantan public followed the case very closely and believed these descriptions of Frank, despite the fact that many of them were made up or exaggerated. Atlantans were so convinced Frank was guilty that, when Governor John M. Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence from the death penalty to life in prison, an outraged mob swarmed Frank’s cell, took him away, and hanged him outside Mary Phagan’s house. During a time when lynching was very prevalent in the South, this lynching was unusual: it was one of the only lynchings of a white man. In one sense, the lynching was a manifestation of anti-Semitism, which had been progressing in Atlanta as the city’s Jewish population had rapidly increased over the last century. The lynching was also the result of class tensions in Atlanta, as the city industrialized, and the working class felt mistreated by wealthy, powerful factory owners like Leo Frank. Decades later, as new evidence and testimonies revealed that Frank was innocent and the guilty person was most likely the African American janitor, Jim Conley, it became clear that Frank’s conviction was also closely related to the tensions between the Jewish and African American communities in Atlanta. Overall, Leo Frank’s trial and lynching exposed the profound divisions in Atlanta’s society in the early twentieth centuries — between the wealthy and the poor, Jews and anti-Semitic Gentiles, and Jews and African Americans.

 

The Leo Frank Case

On the night of April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan’s dead body was found in the factory’s basement. That morning, which was Confederate Memorial Day, Mary Phagan had gone into the pencil shop at which she worked to collect her pay of $1.20. However, she never came home. Newt Lee, the factory’s night watchman, found her body, brutally bruised and bloody. He contacted the Call Officer, W.F. Anderson immediately, exclaiming that, “a white woman has been killed up here!” When the detectives arrived at the scene, they originally thought that she was a black woman because she was covered in soot from her head to her toes: “her features — even her eye sockets and nostrils — were caked with soot, and her mouth was choked with cinders.” When they arrived at the scene, the only clues the detectives found were two murder notes next to the body. The first note read, “He said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it but that long tall black negro did boy his slef,” and the second note read, “Mam that negro hire down here did this i went to make eater and he push me down that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it wase long sleam tall negro i wright while play with me.” The detectives assumed that the notes were written by the murderer to direct the suspicion towards someone else, or possibly written by Mary as a way to help them identify her murderer. Basing their initial judgment on the notes, officers arrested Newt Lee, since he fit the “tall black negro” description in the first note and had found Mary’s body.

On behalf of the Atlanta Police Department, Detective Black stepped in to solve the crime. From the beginning, he was opposed to the idea of convicting a black man, as he did not think such a conviction would satisfy the public. He famously said, “The murder of Mary Phagan must be paid for with blood. And a Negro’s blood would not suffice.” Detectives later confirmed that Newt had not been around the factory when Mary was murdered, so he was released as a suspect. Quickly, detectives shifted their focus to Leo Frank, who appeared nervous when first accompanied by detectives to the scene of the crime. Frank was arrested and brought to court where, instead of acting nervous as he was before, he appeared calm and confident. Over the course of the trial, his calm was shaken as witnesses provided evidence that he had made sexual comments and advances towards Mary Phagan and other little girls in the factory. Moreover, there were questions about his alibi, and his lawyers struggled to prove that he had not been at the Pencil Factory during the murder. The evidence gathered, and public suspicion grew as the press printed shocking stories framing Frank as a perverse, evil factory owner. On May 23, 1913, the grand jury indicted Leo Frank for Mary Phagan’s murder.

The most significant testimony against Frank, which is widely believed to have convinced the jury he was guilty, was that of Jim Conley, a black man who worked as a janitor in the factory. Conley was a criminal himself, having already served two sentences on the chain gang and one time for attempted armed robbery. The police questioned Conley about the murder since they found him rinsing out a stain from his shirt, which he claimed was just a rust stain. The police did not arrest him because he told them he was not near the factory the day of Mary Phagan’s murder because he claimed he was drunk all day. He also told them he could not read or write, so they suspected he could not have written the notes next to her body. When he was later called in for another affidavit, he told a different story, claiming that he had seen Frank murder Mary Phagan and that Frank had forced him to help move the body. Rather than being suspicious of Conley’s changing story, detectives helped him correct his facts, and the press praised Conley for coming forward.

After the jury convicted Frank, his attorneys tried to overturn the decision, gathering evidence to build a case against Conley. They learned that Conley had confessed about the murder to multiple people and even threatened to kill those he told if they told anyone else. Leo’s attorneys collected medical evidence that established that Mary was actually murdered much later than when Hugh Dorsey, Frank’s prosecutor, claimed. Most importantly, though, when Leo was not in the factory. They wanted to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to review the case, despite Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes dissenting. They argued that the trial had been influenced by newspapers and general public sentiments, which meant that it had been unfair. As they wrote in their dissent, “Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury.” Governor John M. Slaton reviewed the entire case and decided to commute Frank’s sentence to life in prison. Georgia’s public was outraged when they heard this news. Riots erupted, leading Governor Slaton to institute Martial Law.

An angry mob raided the prison and captured Frank. They took him to Marietta and hanged him facing Mary Phagan’s house. He helplessly dangled there for hours, “head snapped back, chin resting in the noose’s bottom coil dangled from above.” Almost the whole city came to witness this disturbing event. Most Atlantans did not view it as tragic or upsetting but rather as an act of justice. One woman said, “I couldn’t bear to look at another human being, hanging like that… but this — this is different. It is all right. It is — the justice of God.” Some Atlantans, however, recognized this lynching as an injustice. An article published in The Atlanta Constitution ten days after the lynching emphasized the event as a setback for rights and freedom for all people, declaring, “We may regret and deplore, but the stain is there. In it the name and the identity of Leo Frank are but an atom. The great question others will ask is, ‘What surely can Georgia offer of the enforcement of constitutional rights and the protection of the laws?’”

Atlantan and global newspapers had played a very crucial role in the trial and lynching, printing sensationalist headlines and inflaming public outrage. After Mary’s murder, Monday’s issue of The Georgian gave five pages to the story. The paper had recently been acquired by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and he saw Mary’s murder as an opportunity to increase his paper’s readers through dramatic, shocking coverage. The Georgian’s main competitor, The Atlanta Constitution, followed after The Georgian, covering the case in a way that dramatized it to capture readers. As the case unfolded in court, the two newspapers competed with each other, each one trying to write more shocking, eye-catching headlines than the other. These two newspapers were largely responsible for framing Frank as a pervert in the eyes of the public: a few days after the murder, The Georgian ran a story about the National Pencil Factory being a seedy business that was unfit for women to work in, with the headline, “NUDE DANCERS’ PICTURES ON WALLS.” The article also emphasized that the Pencil Factory was located near a street with a lot of prostitutes. George Epps, a 15-year-old who gave a testimony, said that Mary Phagan had been afraid of Frank, that Frank would “try to flirt with her” and “winked at her,” and that she had had him [Epps] walk her home from the factory sometimes. Because of that, the next morning the Constitution’s headline read, “FRANK TRIED TO FLIRT WITH MURDERED GIRL SAYS HER BOY CHUM.”

The sensationalist headlines also made the factory out to be emblematic of the problems of industrialization and factory work, portraying Frank as a greedy Jew and a boss with no qualms about child labor. Many poor, white, working-class Atlantans bought into the newspapers’ portrayal of Frank, viewing him as the ultimate villain of industrialization; these sentiments were a crucial driving force behind his lynching. However, a minority of privileged German Jews saw these newspaper articles as stirring up public outrage against one of their own and viewed this outrage as not necessarily proportional to the evidence against him.

Seventy years after Frank’s trial, new evidence and a review of the old evidence of the case proved that Frank was indeed innocent. Alonzo Mann, who had been a 14-year-old worker at the factory during the time of Mary Phagan’s murder, did an interview in which he confessed that he saw Conley murder Mary Phagan.

”Many times I wanted to get it out of my heart,” Mr. Mann told interviewers. ”I’m glad I’ve told it all. I’ve been living with it for a long time. I feel a certain amount of freedom now. I just hope it does some good.” Mann submitted to a lie detector test and a psychological stress evaluation and ended up passing both. The New York Times conducted a two-month investigation into Mann’s claims, and it reported that his confession was accurate. To explain why he had not come sooner, he told interviewers that Conley had told him, ”If you ever mention this, I’ll kill you,” which intimidated him and kept him from coming forward. Frank’s conviction and lynching should be reexamined in light of this new evidence, and both must be understood as the result of the anti-Semitism and social tensions that were so prevalent in Atlanta at the time.

 

Anti-Semitism

In the early twentieth century, anti-Semitism was spreading throughout America and especially growing in the South. Powerful individuals, such as Georg Von Schönerer and Karl Leuger, were outspoken and active in their efforts to villainize the Jews. A prominent industrialist figure at the time, Henry Ford, was particularly famous for his strongly anti-Semitic beliefs, which he was able to spread widely because he owned his own newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. “Ford wanted to assert that there was a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. He blamed Jewish financiers for fomenting World War I so that they could profit from supplying both sides. He also accused Jewish automobile dealers of conspiring to undermine Ford Company sales policies. Ford wanted to make his bizarre beliefs public in the pages of the Dearborn Independent.” Ford was not alone in his strongly held anti-Semitic views, and the kind of sentiments he expressed were pervasive throughout America, especially in the South.

At the time of Frank’s trial and conviction, Jewish immigration and involvement in Atlanta made the Jews a significant presence in the city. Six hundred Jews were living in Atlanta in 1880, which was a large number compared to the twenty-six that were living there in 1850. Several synagogues were built during this period of time due to this influx of Jews. During Reconstruction, many Atlantan Jews became prominent and involved in the city’s economy because their ties to Northern Jews allowed them to build their businesses back up more quickly than other whites whose businesses had been devastated by the Civil War. From 1881 on, Atlanta also began to receive some Jews from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

As the Jewish presence in Atlanta grew, so did social tension. The Atlanta race riots took place in Atlanta from September 22nd to 24th, 1916. During these riots, white mobs killed African Americans, damaged their property, and wounded many other people. The riots were seen as the manifestation of frustration with the job competition poor whites felt with blacks. The 1881 strikes against the Elsas family’s Fulton Bag and Cotton Company also highlighted the growing social tension of the times. These strikes were the result of wage disputes, the hiring of black women, and the problem of child labor. These strikes, as well as the Atlanta race riots, show that this period in Atlantan history was defined by social unrest and frustration with the power dynamics in society. On top of racial tension, Jewish prominence in the social hierarchy also disturbed many Atlantans, especially poorer gentiles, who thought of themselves as racially superior and did not like feeling inferior to Jews in any way.

During this turbulent time, many Southerners developed a phobia of foreigners. While Northern Jews were making an effort to include new Russian Jewish immigrants in their communities, Southerners had strong feelings about the types of immigrants who were coming over and joining their America, and set up immigration bureaus in order to attract what they considered to be the “Best Type” of immigrant — immigrants of European heritage. For immigrants of other backgrounds, living in the South could be difficult and even dangerous. For example, nineteen Italians in Louisiana were lynched because of a fear of them associating with black people and of them being an inferior race. Jews were widely considered to be an inferior race, and so Jewish immigrants were not among the “Best Type” of immigrants, in the eyes of most Southerners. It was said that “Southern attitudes toward [Jews] had been an amalgam of affection, tolerance, curiosity, suspicion, and rejection.” During periods of stress in society at large, Southerners would lash out at Jews who acted differently from them. As scholar Leonard Dinnerstein wrote, “Jews were considered ‘rebels against God’s purpose,’ and many a Southern Christian mother lulled her children to sleep with fables of Jewish vices.” Religious teaching played a large role in getting Southern Christians to loathe Jews, with many ministers preaching, “The Savior was murdered by Jews.” One Baltimore minister said that, “of all the dirty creatures who have befouled this earth, the Jew is the slimiest.”

The widespread reaction to Leo Frank’s trial — and the public’s overwhelming belief in his guilt — is a testament to the intense anti-Semitism that was underlying Atlantan society at the time. Leo Frank was very involved in the Jewish community in Atlanta. He was the president of the B’nai B’rith organization for community service. His religion was an important part of his identity, and many Atlantans did not like him because of it. The Macon Daily Telegraph noted the effect that Frank’s trial and lynching had on Atlanta’s Jewish community: “… the long case and its bitterness has hurt the city greatly in that it has opened a seemingly impassable chasm between the people of the Jewish race and the Gentiles. It has broken friendships of years, has divided the races, brought about bitterness deeply regretted by all factions. The friends who rallied to the defense of Leo Frank feel that racial prejudice has much to do with the verdict. They are convinced that Frank was not prosecuted but persecuted. They refuse to believe he had a fair trial…” (The Macon Daily Telegraph). Leo Frank was widely compared to Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew in France who was wrongfully convicted of espionage largely due to the jury’s anti-Semitic sentiments. A New York Times headline read, “FRANK LYNCHING DUE TO SUSPICION AND PREJUDICE.”

Jews in Atlanta and across America believed Frank was a scapegoat for the city and the South’s anti-Semitic feelings. As a prominent member of the Jewish community, Frank represented a social group that was threatening and unsettling to gentile Atlantans. As scholar Jeffrey Melnick wrote, “There is little doubt that Frank’s status as a capitalist roused great enmity during the trial and after, and that the specific conceptions that circulated were inseparable from the negative connotations surrounding his Jewishness.” Jewish newspapers at the time tried to combat the information being disseminated by the larger gentile publications, arguing that he was innocent and only being targeted because he was as Jew. “He was sacrificed because he was a Jew, and a Northern Jew, at that. But, thank God, his sufferings are all over at last. If he had lived, his life would have been a torture to him, and they might have killed him in a worse way. Race hatred and political ambition have been satisfied.” Jewish publications, most significantly The Jewish Exponent, were outspoken in blaming Jim Conley for the murder:

The suspicion that was directed against him by the perjured testimony of a self-confessed negro accessory to the killing of Mary Phagan, who was left off with the ludicrous punishment of one year’s imprisonment, was fanned to a flame by the demagogism of a Solicitor General anxious for only political advancement and by the anti-semitic prejudice of a mob instigated by yellow journalists and mendacious Ishmaelites of the Tom Watson type. Frank was victimized because he was a Jew.

Jews throughout America believed that Frank was a martyr, suffering the consequences of a crime he did not commit simply because he was Jewish. As The Jewish Exponent printed three days after Frank’s lynching, “Frank underwent a martyrdom as horrible as any man has suffered. It has borne himself throughout this ordeal as a brave man and as a loyal Jew should.”

Despite recognizing Frank as the scapegoat for anti-Semitism, the broader Jewish community was slow to mobilize around his case while it was in trial. Frank’s powerful friends sought help from The American Jewish Committee, an organization set up by wealthy Jews who wanted to provide help to other Jews who were being denied important civil rights because of the age’s anti-Semitism. In Frank’s case, the American Jewish Committee president decided that “whatever is done must be done as a matter of justice, and any action that is taken should emanate from non-Jewish sources.” The president recognized the important role that the media was playing in Frank’s case, and so he wanted to influence the Southern press to shape opinions in favor of Jews and to establish “a wholesome public opinion which will free this unfortunate young man from the terrible judgment which rests against him.” The Committee agreed Frank’s case was an American Dreyfus, but it was divided on what to do. While Marshall and other committee members gave support however they could individually, the Committee did not act quickly enough and therefore never gave Frank any official help.

 

Class Tensions

Jews at the time were viewed as economically prosperous and thus became the scapegoat for issues caused by industrialization in the South. As factories were being built across the South, the rich factory owners grew richer as poor whites found themselves working for very low wages. Many families sent their children off to work in factories during the day to have some more income, which led to widespread public frustration with the issue of child labor. Depressed and dissatisfied workers in the South saw blaming the Jews as a way to relieve tension and frustration they had built up for many years. Georgia had had a small but very “prosperous, tight-knit community” of Jews for a long time before the twentieth century. However, as the Jewish population in Atlanta increased exponentially by the 1890s, tensions between the Jews and gentiles began to grow. The gentiles began to blame Jews in part for “the chaotic conditions in the city,” including prostitution and gambling, and the media printed a lot of outrageous, dramatic stories to stir up anti-Semitic public sentiments. Gentiles became jealous of the amount of money Jews were making as factory owners and fearful of the idea of rich Jewish men pursuing gentile women. Burton J. Hendrick famously wrote “The Great Jewish Invasion,” as well as several articles in McClure’s Magazine, about how the Jews were too ambitious and taking over every important aspect of city life.

As they followed the murder trials, Atlantan newspapers framed Frank in the context of the city’s working class frustrations with industrialization. The case took place during a time when labor unrest and tensions were higher than ever before. Workers believed they were not being paid fairly, and the working conditions in the factories that were springing up were terrible. White workers were especially frustrated, as they felt their jobs being threatened by black workers. A few decades before Frank’s trial, there were the aforementioned strikes against the Elsas family’s Fulton Bag and Cotton Company, which took place due to labor disputes and competition for jobs from black women. They were a testament to poor white workers’ frustration with the fact that they felt they were not being paid enough, and that working conditions were terrible. During the Leo Frank case, the National Pencil Factory was portrayed as an immoral place to work, unfit for women, and Frank was framed as an evil, perverse boss who did not care at all for the well-being of his employees. Because Frank was a Jew, Atlantans were already primed to see him as greedy and evil, so newspapers did not have a difficult time portraying him as a stereotypically cruel, greedy boss. Frank came to represent all the problems with industrialization that were disadvantaging so many Atlantans, which is why they felt so vehemently convinced of his guilt and his deserving to die.

Through their coverage of the case, the press especially portrayed Leo Frank as the emblem of what many people thought was the most terrible aspect of industrialization: child labor. At the time, Georgia was one of the worst states when it came to regulating child labor laws, allowing ten-year-olds to work 11-hour workdays in mills and factories. Frank’s trial came at a time when many provocative stories were already being published in newspapers about child labor in factories. Georgians were desperate to get rid of child labor: “‘Thy Kingdom Come’ means the coming of the day when child labor will be done away with, when every little tot shall have its quota of sunlight and happiness.” The fact that Mary Phagan had been only thirteen when she was murdered allowed the newspapers to frame the case as a perfect example of the evil that children could experience in their factory jobs. Frank, as the accused murderer, was portrayed as the stereotypical factory owner who exploited children. The implication that Frank might have raped Mary Phagan before murdering her only increased the public’s sense of Frank representing the way industrialization corrupted children. Indeed, as the trial progressed, its main focus became the suspicion that he had raped Mary Phagan. The testimonies against him introduced this suspicion, with many of Mary’s friends saying that Mary was made uncomfortable by Leo and that he always “wanted to talk to her.” The fact that Frank was considered ugly and unattractive made it easier for the Atlantan public to imagine him as a pervert.

In the end, Frank came to represent all the things wrong with Atlantan society at the time. Jeffrey Paul Melnick put it best when he said that Frank was:

identified as a ‘capitalist,’ doubly a capitalist, since to the lumpen Socialist mind of the American Populist capitalist equals Jew, and the two together add up to demi-devil. And in certain regards, the record seems to bear them out, for Frank did hire child labor, did work it disgracefully long hours of pitifully low wages; and if he did not (as popular fancy imagined) exploit his girls sexually, he failed in on their privacy with utter contempt for their dignity. Like most factory managers of the time, he was — metaphorically at least — screwing little girls like Mary Phagan.

 

Black-Jewish Relations

The crucial testimony that convicted Frank was delivered by Jim Conley, the janitor for the National Pencil Factory. After suspiciously changing his story multiple times, he gave a testimony in court in which he claimed he had helped Frank move the body after the crime, thereby admitting he was involved in order to blame Frank. He also claimed that he had helped Frank write the murder notes that surrounded Mary Phagan’s body, saying that he could not have written them himself because he did not know how to write. Playing into African American stereotypes, he convinced the detectives that he, as an uneducated, drunk African American, was incapable of the level of complex thinking that would be necessary to murder someone and frame someone else for it. Sixty-nine years later, when Mann came forward and confessed to having seen Lee murder Mary Phagan, it became clear that Conley had been capable of this deceit and had effectively carried it out. Regardless of how aware he was of what he was doing, Conley had played into crucial tensions in Atlantan society at the time in order to shift the blame onto Frank.

The living and working conditions for African Americans in Atlanta at the time were brutal. Jim Crow laws had established restraints on all public spaces, so black people lived lives very segregated from white America. A few decades after they had been granted legal freedom, African Americans were still denied many basic American freedoms in practice. They wanted to move up in society, but whites continued to find ways to shut them out of public places and disenfranchise them. African Americans were deeply frustrated with this state of affairs, and could not communicate with most Southern whites, who felt threatened by the idea of African Americans rising through the social hierarchy and changing the power dynamics. Rather than seeing blacks as disadvantaged, white people viewed them as lazy, urban people and blamed nearly all the problems of the city on the bad character of the city’s black population. The Atlanta race riots took place in Atlanta from September 22nd to 24th, 1916. During these riots, white mobs killed African Americans, damaged their property, and wounded many other people. The riots were the manifestation of pent-up feelings of frustration at the job competition poor whites felt with blacks, as well as other crucial tensions between the races. This racial conflict was the backdrop for the Frank case to unfold against, and it is part of the larger narrative about race in Atlanta at the time.

The Leo Frank case took on an important symbolic meaning in America and got at the heart of a tension between African Americans, represented by Jim Conley, and Jews, represented by Leo Frank. The anti-Semitism that was pervasive in the South had spread from the white gentiles to the African American community, who were distrustful and resentful of Jews’ economic success, which they viewed as keeping them in their lower social status. Because Jews were economically successful, they saw themselves as above African Americans. Leo Frank’s case was not just the first major case in which a black man’s testimony was important in convicting a white man, but also the first major case that pitted Jews and African Americans against each other and gave African Americans the upper hand. This tension was most obvious when officials wanted to arrange a meeting between Frank and Conley to see what would happen when “the negro [would] be quizzed in the presence of the man whom he accuses… his every action and look as he sees Frank’s eyes upon him will be followed closely by detectives and by the solicitor himself, and a crisis in the case may develop from the meeting.” However, the meeting did not happen because Frank decided he did not want to meet face-to-face with Conley. This important decision sent the signal that he thought of himself as racially and socially superior, which infuriated the people of Atlanta. Rather than seeing Frank as one of them because he was white, Atlantan gentiles saw him as an other because he was Jewish, and his insistence on his racial superiority called even more attention to his Jewishness.

Ultimately, the case was crucial in the narrative about the power hierarchy in the industrial South, and so Atlantans were predisposed to suspect evil and deceit from Jews, while expecting African Americans to be stupid and lazy. Jim Conley behaved in certain ways that whites expected him to, and played into the narrative of being a dumb factory worker in order to make sure people would conclude he was incapable of committing a crime and covering it up. Conley gave the appearance of fitting into the social order that Jim Crow laws had established, projecting an image of the kind of black person that Southerners felt used to and therefore did not see as threatening. In contrast, Frank was seen as very threatening, as he represented the stereotyped, rich Jews building businesses, becoming influential, and threatening the social order. The American Israelite captured the truth of the matter, which was hidden underneath these racial tensions, when it printed a piece that read:

The Dorseys, the Browns and the Watsons have succeeded in bringing about the murder of an innocent man because he was a jew, in order to protect themselves against the truth that must have come out at some time of their guilty knowledge, and to render powerless the vicious and criminal negro, the real murderer of Mary Phagan, whom they have been shielding.

The fact that Conley was not convicted in the case or villainized by the Atlanta public is also due to the positions of blacks and Jews in society. An important reason Conley wasn’t focused on too much as a suspect is because he wasn’t an authority figure, and the case was occurring at a time when people were suspicious of authority figures. However, another significant reason is that, while there were many opportunities to kill a black man in Southern society at the time, there were not many socially acceptable reasons to lynch a Jew. As anti-Semitism and antagonism grew in the South, people were eager to convict a Jew since it was so rare. Agreeing with Detective Black’s statement that “a Negro’s blood would not suffice,” Detective Watson famously said, “Hell, we can lynch a nigger anytime in Georgia, but when do we get the chance to hang a Yankee Jew?” In the end, the fact that Jews were perceived as superior to African Americans in Atlantan society worked against Leo Frank. He represented a hated social group within the city that Atlantans did not usually have an opportunity to commit violence against, and so lynching him had a special allure for Atlantans.

 

Aftermath

The lynching and false conviction of Leo Frank had a profound impact on American society. First and foremost, it was a warning to Jews in Atlanta, who were now divided from the rest of the city by the “chasm” that the intense anti-Semitism surrounding the case had created. Frank’s lynching was a sign to Jews across the country that anti-Semitism was a powerful force in America that was threatening their lives and freedom. After Frank’s death, many Jews came together to start the Anti-Defamation League, which was an organization that worked to fight anti-Semitism and preserve the reputations of Jews.” Unfortunately, the Anti-Defamation League would be necessary in the years to come: Leo Frank’s experience was a precursor to many other horrible manifestations of anti-Semitism that would happen in the twentieth century.

As Jews became a more isolated community within Atlanta and across the country, the white gentiles also came together to preserve their spot in the social hierarchy. Within Atlanta, many of them found Frank’s trial and lynching had confirmed the importance of preserving white gentile dominance in the South: “A short time after the lynching of Leo Frank, 33 members of the group that called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan gathered on a mountaintop near Atlanta and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia.” For most Atlantans, lynching Frank seemed like “the justice of God,” the right way to preserve their spot in the hierarchy in their society. Both Jews and African Americans would continue to be marginalized, threatened, hurt, and killed in Southern society because of their race. African Americans, in particular, would continue to have to fight against the stereotypes of blacks as lazy, criminal, drunks — the kinds of stereotypes that Conley had played into during his testimony and his attempts to frame Frank.

The Frank case also contributed to the ongoing discussions of the problems having to do with industrialization. It helped expose the ways that factory owners mistreated their workers, as the newspaper articles about Frank focused largely on his cruelty as a boss and his inappropriate comments. It also added to the discussions of child labor, which had already been happening but now had a new, disturbing example to add to the list of reasons that child labor should be abolished or at least regulated. It would take more years, more newspaper articles, and more public outcry for the problems in factories to be addressed, but the industrialization-focused anger that Frank’s case revealed was the beginning of the force that moved those reforms forward.

Ultimately, Leo Frank’s trial and lynching got at the heart of several key themes in Southern society at the time: anti-Semitism, racial hierarchies, and labor dynamics. The case exposed many huge problems facing society, but at the time, rather than helping people better understand these issues and work to resolve them, the Frank case seemed to divide social groups further and increase the tensions between them. Only with some distance could historians look back and understand the case fully in its context, and use it as a window into these different dynamics and problems that have had a lasting impact on American society. Perhaps the most important lesson to be found in Leo Frank’s experience is the importance of reexamining history to understand the trends that have shaped our society into what it is today, and the truths that might still need to be uncovered.

 

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Rawls, Wendell Jr. “AFTER 69 YEARS OF SILENCE, LYNCHING VICTIM IS CLEARED.” The New York Times. Mar 8 1982. ProQuest. Web. 2 Feb 2017.

“Witness Swears He Saw Frank Forcing Unwelcome Attentions upon the Little Phagan Girl.” The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945): 2. Aug 20 1913. ProQuest. Web. 9 May 2017.

 

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