In 1913 Mary Phagan, a 13-year old girl, was murdered. The absolutely barebones account of the fascinating story behind this event and all that followed is that Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who managed the factory in Atlanta where Mary worked, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death by hanging. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison by the governor of Georgia after several rounds of legal appeals failed to change the judgment of the trial court. While in prison, Frank’s throat was slit by another prisoner, and soon thereafter a group of Georgians broke into the prison and lynched Frank.
Leo Frank at his trial, 1913
The Leo Frank case is important if only because it continues to be the focus of Jewish activism. Recently a film on the events, The People vs. Leo Frank, was released, to much fanfare by the ADL, including special screenings and teacher guide books for use in classrooms. Leo Frank, therefore, has become an icon of all that was wrong with the old America and a morality tale with important lessons for the present— a miniature version of the Holocaust. Like the Holocaust, it is used as an indictment of the entire culture in which the events occurred — the trailer for the film begins ominously: “Set against the backdrop of an American South struggling to shed its legacy of bigotry and xenophobia …” More on that later.
In this series of articles, I review and discuss some of the writing about the Leo Frank affair, including especially Steve Oney’s very balanced and exhaustive account, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.
However, before embarking on that adventure, I should say that my first exposure to the Leo Frank affair was in reading Albert Lindemann’s important 1991 book,The Jew Accused: Three Anti-Semitic Incidents. Lindemann’s writings on Jewish history and anti-Semitism, most notably Esau’s Tears, are by far the most balanced and nuanced available from academic historians. In The Jew Accused, he takes the view that Jewish accounts of the Frank affair have virtually assumed anti-Jewish conspiracies: “People then and later have in some sense wanted to find anti-Semitism. They have not been entirely disappointed in their search, but they have also been inclined to dramatize inappropriately or exaggerate what they found of it” (p. 236).
LEO FRANK: THE TRIAL OF LEO FRANK IN 1913 WAS MOTIVATED BY THE RAMPANT ANTI-SEMITISM OF THE TIME. THE FOUNDING OF THE ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE THAT SAME YEAR WAS MOTIVATED BY A PASSION TO ERADICATE SUCH INJUSTICE AND BIGOTRY. DESPITE HIS INNOCENCE, FRANK WAS ABDUCTED FROM JAIL IN 1915 AND LYNCHED. ADL REMEMBERS THE VICTIM LEO FRANK AND REDEDICATES ITSELF TO ENSURING THERE WILL BE NO MORE VICTIMS OF INJUSTICE AND INTOLERANCE.
Whereas much of the writing on Mary Phagan’s murder makes it into a Jewish morality tale emphasizing Southern racism, bigotry and xenophobia — not to mention Jewish victimhood, Lindemann notes that Jews were better received in the South than in the rest of the country. There were relatively few Jews in the South, and those who did live there did not act as a “dissenting minority” (p. 224) — that is, they were not engaged in constructing a high profile culture of critique that has been the hallmark of Jewish intellectual activity since the Enlightenment. Jews participated in Southern culture like other Whites. Before the Civil War, they bought and sold slaves and they owned them. Southern attitudes toward Jews “tended toward philo-Semitism” (p. 227).
In Atlanta in 1910, Jews comprised around 2.5% of the population. Jewish businessmen “were respected, and Jewish enterprise was generally welcome.” The one fly in the ointment was the influx of a number of Russian Jews — often described as “barbaric and ignorant” by the established German Jewish community. These Jews often owned saloons and were accused of selling liquor to Blacks, thus contributing to public disorder. After the race riot of 1906, the liquor licenses of several Jewish-owned saloons were revoked.
Nevertheless, Jews had become well-integrated into the elite of Atlanta — far better than was the case in most areas of the North at this time. (Frank was part of the elite of Atlanta’s Jewish community — president of the local B’nai B’rith.) Although the Populist leader and newspaper publisher Tom Watson eventually blamed northern Jewish media and financial interests for the controversies following Frank’s trial and publically advocated Frank’s lynching, Watson eschewed the Jewish angle during the period leading up to the trial, even defending Jewish revolutionary anarchist Emma Goldman, and despite the fact that Jewish business interests in Georgia and elsewhere were opposed to Populism and its issues, such as ending child labor — an issue near and dear to Tom Watson’s heart.
Given this background (and the reputation of Jews as not involved in violent crime), “Frank’s Jewishness weighed at least as much in his favor as against him” (p. 236). Indeed, “Frank’s lawyers and his other defenders, in order to strengthen their case, overstated the role of anti-Semitic prejudice in his arrest” (p. 237), thereby setting up later exaggerations of the role of anti-Jewish attitudes. The defense also appealed to anti-Black attitudes in their attempt to pin the crime on a Black man, describing the prime Black suspect (Jim Conley) as a “dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying nigger” (p. 245).
Lindemann points out that the evidence at the time of Frank’s arrest was “of far greater substance and persuasiveness than that presented against [Alfred] Dreyfus” (p. 239), the French Jew accused of treason whose case became a cause célèbre for the forces combating anti-Jewish attitudes. In particular, Frank was one of very few people at the factory when the murder occurred. Several female employees testified at a Grand Jury hearing that he had made improper advances toward them and a male acquaintance of Mary testified that she had complained about Frank’s advances. Other stories alleging that Frank had engaged in perverse sexual behavior at local bordellos and had often used the factory as a place for sexual liaisons appeared in the newspapers. Lindemann writes that later this evidence was “demonstrably false or of uncertain validity” (p. 243), stating, for example, that at least some of the women’s evidence was “unreliable” (p. 243). (Based on Oney’s account to follow, the accusations of Frank’s history of sexual impropriety toward his employees are well-founded.)
Lindemann also notes that Frank’s statements to the police (that he didn’t know Mary Phagan) conflicted with testimony of employees (that he often called her by name). He also gave “seriously conflicting” accounts of what happened when Mary came to his office to pick up her pay. That he seemed very nervous during questioning and had already hired a lawyer and a private investigator before he was arrested were also seen as pointing to his guilt. The “most incriminating evidence” was that Frank had stated that he was in his office for an hour after giving Mary her pay, but this account conflicted with the testimony of another employee who came to his office at this time. This employee, Monteen Stover,
was not suspected of harboring grudges against him; she testified that he was a kind man and in fact well liked by the women employees. Frank could not satisfactorily explain this episode except to speculate that he may have gone to the bathroom when Monteen came to his office. Frank, furthermore, was never able to provide a widely persuasive account of what he was doing during the hour … when it was believed, according to autopsy evidence, that Mary was murdered. In the evening following the murder he repeatedly called the factory, finally reaching the nightwatchman, Newt Lee, and asked if everything was all right (this was before Lee had found the body). Frank’s explanations for making these calls, that the nightwatchman was fairly new and that he was worried about a recently fired employee, were judged inadequate by many, especially since Frank had never made such calls before this. (p. 246)
Lindemann notes that one of these inconsistencies was noted by Governor John M. Slaton in his statement of commutation. He noted that “Frank had made an engagement on Friday to go to the Base Ball Game on Saturday afternoon with his brother-in-law, but broke the engagement, as he said in his statement, because of the financial statement he had to make up, while before the Coroner’s Jury, he said he broke the engagement because of the threatening weather.”
Lindemann also rejects the theory that Hugh Dorsey, the prosecutor, was “a ruthlessly ambitious man, one who harbored anti-Semitic beliefs and knew perfectly well that Frank was not guilty” (p. 250). This “morality tale”(p. 250) is contradicted by the lack of any indication of animosity toward Jews prior to the trial, his moderate views on Blacks, his Jewish law partner, his Jewish roommate in college, and his support from Jews in running for his office. His concluding summation at the trial included philo-Semitic statements.
Lindemann suggests that the best explanation of Dorsey’s actions is that he genuinely did believe in Frank’s guilt, “as did other astute observers” (p. 252).“In particular Dorsey seems to have been firmly persuaded of Frank’s bad moral character, of his perverse sexual escapades, about which he claimed to have an overwhelming mass of evidence, most of which he did not introduce at the trial” (p. 252).
Nevertheless, Lindemann asserts that “the best evidence now available indicates that the real murderer of Mary Phagan was Jim Conley” (p. 254), a person employed by Frank. Frank, “in spite of some strong evidence against him, was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, especially in light of the evidence that later emerged” (p. 254).
One gets the feeling, however, that Lindemann himself is far from convinced that Frank was innocent. What was this evidence that supposedly exonerated Frank? Rather than present any obviously exonerating facts, Lindemann instead continues to point to things that support the prosecution case. He notes that Conley’s testimony was “extraordinarily rich in details, sometimes of the most minute and graphic sort” (p. 255). “Many observers simply could not believe that a southern Black, a man with Conley’s supposedly limited mental powers, could make up such an intricate story or even repeat a story in which he had been coached by Dorsey, without tangling himself in contradictions” (p. 255), especially considering that he was cross-examined for 16 hours by lawyers who were “some of the most experienced and sharpest legal minds in the South” (p. 255).
Lindemann also notes that Dorsey would have been foolish to coach Conley on a false story: “It seems … unbelievable that … the prosecution could have been so reckless as to thus risk a humiliating collapse of their case against Frank” (p. 256). Indeed, the careers of the prosecutors would be in jeopardy if Conley had broken down in court and implicated the prosecution in coaching fraudulent testimony. Add to that the fact that before the trial Frank refused an offer to confront Conley. And, even more damningly, Frank refused to implicate two other Black employees, never mentioning Conley to the police, “as if he feared to have Conley interrogated.” Finally, Frank “knew perfectly well that Conley could write (a key point because of the notes left at the scene of the murder) but remained silent when Conley initially denied that he could” (p. 256).
Moreover, Lindemann accepts the idea that whether or not Frank murdered Phagan, there was a great deal of support for the claim that Frank was a sexual pervert. Besides the claims of the prosecution for a mass of evidence that hadn’t been introduced at the trial, the defense at times acknowledged that Frank “had not been perfect in the past” (p. 257). Indeed, Dorsey later stated that he would have brought charges against Frank for sexual perversion and criminal assault if he had been freed of murder charges.
Lindemann also questions the claim that the jury was intimidated by the crowd — the focus of an appeal that was rejected by the US Supreme Court. Such intimidation was not reported by any newspaper, the jury denied that they felt intimidated, and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that pressure from the crowd “did not have a decisive impact on the jurors” (p. 258). Nevertheless, despite his own marshaling of facts on crowd influence and never citing even one source for the claim of undue influence, Lindemann writes that “these denials [of pressure from the crowd] are puzzling and finally difficult to believe” (p. 258).
Lindemann pays special attention to the role of Tom Watson in inflaming passions after the trial. But even then, Watson the populist seemed much more motivated by his perception that a rich person was throwing around money in an effort to overturn a just verdict for a heinous crime against a poor southern girl —“that rich men escaped scot-free for doing things that brought down harsh punishment upon the poor” (p. 263). He warned about a “gigantic conspiracy of big money” aimed at undermining the judicial system to free a“rich Sodomite” (p. 263).
“Watson repeatedly observed that a non-Jewish convicted murderer, no matter how flagrantly unjust his trial, would never have benefited from such a massive infusion of money, nor would a non-Jew have benefited from such a network of men who had privileged access to those who formed public opinion in the United States” (p. 266), including especially Adolf Ochs, publisher of the New York Times.
Eventually the Atlanta newspapers got in line in asking for a new trial. Frank petitioned for a new trial some thirteen times, twice going all the way to the US Supreme Court, but failed each time. As Georgia governor John M. Slaton stated in his justification for commuting Frank’s sentence, “A court must have something more than an atmosphere with which to deal, and especially when that atmosphere has been created through the processes of evidence in disclosing a horrible crime” (a reference to the allegations of Frank’s sexual behavior that came up during the trial and in the newspapers).
Lindemann labels Governor Slaton a “heroic figure” for risking his reputation in commuting Frank’s sentence. Nevertheless, he also notes that Frank’s lead defense attorney was Slaton’s law partner and that Slaton had had a Jewish partner in the 1880s. In running for governor in 1916, prosecutor Dorsey alsopointed out that immediately after commuting Frank’s sentence, Slaton had met with Louis Marshall, Frank’s attorney before the US Supreme Court and doubtless the most prominent and visible leader of the American Jewish community at the time. Slaton controlled a very large “slush fund” — doubtless contributed by wealthy Jews — aimed at defeating Dorsey in his campaign for governor of Georgia. (Oney also describes the very warm reception Slaton received on his trip to New York after the commutation.) Dorsey won the election and Slaton never ran for office again in Georgia.
Lindemann points to a number of “minor inconsistencies” brought out by Slaton in his commutation order or at the trial, but none that in his judgment warranted discrediting Conley’s testimony. Rather, Lindemann places the entire weight of his judgment that Frank should not have been convicted on Slaton’s justification for his decision to commute Frank’s sentence. In particular, Slaton noted that during the trial Conley had testified that on the morning of the day of the murder he had deposited a pile of excrement where the elevator landed when it went to the basement (what became known as the “shit in the shaft” issue). He also testified that he and Frank had ridden the elevator to the basement to dispose of Mary’s body. However, the detectives testified that when they climbed down the elevator shaft to search the basement, the pile of excrement had not been crushed as it would have been if the elevator had been used by Conley and Frank to dispose of the body, as per Conley’s testimony. (Oney provides an explanation compatible with Frank’s guilt.)
In the end, Lindemann’s account of the Leo Frank affair is tantalizing, if not definitive. It certainly is a far cry from the account that continues to be disseminated by the ADL. Lindemann’s work is courageous given the previous mainstream scholarship and the continuing campaign by Jewish activist organizations to distort the events into a morality play of evil non-Jews martyring a heroic and upright Jew. Its strong suit is the foregrounding of the murder and trial, showing that anti-Jewish attitudes were not rampant before the trial. As discussed in the following articles in this series, the fact anti-Jewish attitudes developed in the course of the trial is hardly surprising given the course of events.