Leo Frank is Brutally Lynched and Hanged, 1915
On This Day in Jewish History: August 17, 1915
Leo Frank was lynched by a mob after the Governor of Georgia commuted his sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment. This controversial case and the violent aftermath would directly lead to a mass emigration of Jews in the US State of Georgia to other states and the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the organization that still unites southern black and northern Jewish communities to have their civil rights recognized. The important elements of this trial is that the neo-Nazi organization fought against the Jewish community and used this episode as a reason for their actions, declaring Leo Frank a killer, despite the lack of evidence. Even today, Neo Nazis continue to distort the memory of Leo Frank to advance their own interests.
Leo Max Frank was born to a Jewish-American family in Texas. Se served as the president of the Atlanta chapter of the B'nai B'rith, a Jewish fraternal organization. He also served as superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta. Version a (The background of the trial that condemned him as the murderer of a 13-years-old girl was gathering high level of concerns over the violence, the crimes and the crisis of working conditions. Moreover, the level of antisemitism was also rising, supposedly a direct result of the Jewish-owned factories where children were also employed.) Version b (Before discussing details of the trial that condemned Frank as the murderer of Mary Phagan, it needs to be noted that the level of antisemitism during the period was a concerning fact, along with a serious level of crimes, violence and a crisis of working conditions. Factories owned by members of the Jewish community where children were also employed had a terrible effect on this trial, where being Jewish became an obvious target.)
In 1913, Leo Frank was found guilty of killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a verdict predicated upon false charges and pretenses. Mary Phagan left home on April 26 to pick up her paycheck from the same factory where Frank worked but she never returned home; she would soon be found murdered by strangulation. Near her body letters were found written by someone who tried to copy her handwriting. Shockingly, these physical clues along with bloody fingerprints on the basement door and Mary’s jacket would be taken into consideration only after Frank received the death sentence and his supporters asked for a review of the case.
The police arrested several men including Frank and the watchman Newt Lee. At the same time the 27-year-old black janitor Jim Conley was also arrested based on the notes that seemed to identify him as the potential murderer. He admitted to writing the letters yet convinced the jury it was Frank who told him to do so. Yet he changed his statement several times, the last one being considered "the final and conclusive piece of evidence...against Frank." The proof of Conley having been seen washing blood from a shirt was never taken to court or questioned, the evidence of him being the murderer never validated.
Conley was taught by detectives, lawyers and Frank’s opponents how to act, what to say, as well as what gestures to use while testifying against Frank. He became the main source of information held against Frank and thus deciding his future. At the same time, based on the employees’ opinions, the declarations of Mary’s colleagues of what seemed to be bloodstains near a machine tool, led to his eventual guilt, coupled with his responsibility to distribute paychecks and the last person to see her alive.
In the local community rumors circulated that she was sexually assaulted prior to being killed. At the time, in the south, if a black individual sexually assaulted a white girl, he would be lynched by a mob and hanged. These same sentiments were felt against Frank for his Jewishness in a testy court case that dragged on for 2 years at the end of which Frank was found guilty. When the jury announced their decision, the courthouse chanted “Hang the Jew.” This was one of the first times that the testimony of an African-American man (Conley) was believed over that of a white man, albeit a Jew (Frank).
The trial was believed to have been unfair from the start as jurors, prior to their selection, determined his fate regardless of guilt. The judge gave in to the mob mentality and sentenced Frank to death. Frank appealed the decision and the Supreme Court voted 7-2 against reopening the case. Georgia Governor Frank Slaton decided to review the case and after reading letters from the trial judge telling him to commute the sentence and the results of a private investigator he hired, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment.
The people of Atlanta were angry and they protested in front of the Governor’s mansion all night, but Slaton did not change his mind. On this day 25 people, the mob “Knights of Mary Phagan” stormed the hospital where Frank was recovering from a throat slashing by an inmate, kidnapped him, and lynched him right outside of Mary Phagan’s home where he was brutally killed and hanged from an oak tree. In 1986, he was posthumously pardoned because his lynching took away his right to further appeals. To this day, the people of the town and Mary Phagan’s family still believe Frank to be the guilty party, a reason why the lynchers were never brought to court.