One hundred years ago, on a hot August night in 1915, more than dozen of Marietta, Georgia’s finest citizens — a former governor, a judge, lawyers, two former mayors, school teachers — got into their Model T autos, driving more than 100 miles over back roads, often unpaved, to the prison farm in Millidgeville, to hang Leo Frank, the Jew convicted of killing Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old Christian girl from Marietta. She attached erasers in Frank’s pencil factory. In April 1913 she went to collect her wages from Frank on her way to the Confederate Memorial Day parade, but was found dead in the factory cellar.
Outside Frank’s trial, crowds chanted at the jurors, “Hang the Jew or we’ll hang you.” The governor who commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment was forced by mob fury to leave Georgia for a decade.
The prison guards turned Convict 965 over to the men from Marietta without a fight. No one was sorry to see him go. A few days prior, an inmate slashed his jugular vein, and Frank, 31, expecting to die from his wounds, didn’t even want his would-be killer punished. “I’m at peace with God,” he wrote, “ready to die.”
In the dark of morning, Aug. 17, Frank was pushed into one of the Model T’s. He asked if one of his killers could please give his wedding ring to Lucille, his wife of five years, three of them in jail.
In the thin light of dawn, back in Marietta, the blindfolded Frank, with a noose around his neck, was hoisted onto a table. The hangmen kicked the table and Frank’s slender body, all 5-feet-8 of him, gently swayed from an oak tree. His wedding ring, in an envelope, was thrown on Lucille’s porch. Leo’s body was sent by train to New York, to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens. One hundred years later, he has visitors, as can be seen from the small rocks on his gravestone: “Leo Frank / Beloved Husband / April 17 1884 / August 17 1915 / “Semper Idem” (Always the Same).
In the same cemetery, a few hundred yards away, there are pebbles on the grave of Mendel Beilis, another Jewish factory supervisor like Frank, who in 1913, the year of Mary Phagan’s murder, was accused of murdering a young boy in Kiev. Semper Idem.
In Frank’s final moments, he must have wondered, how does a man of dignity and intellect, a graduate of Cornell, a “macher” in the Jewish community — president of the Atlanta B’nai B’rith; member of The Temple, Atlanta’s most elite Reform synagogue; a man who married into one of Atlanta’s most prominent Jewish families — how does it happen that he should be standing outdoors on a table, blindfolded, with a noose around his neck? His Cornell yearbook noted, “Leo Max Frank hails from sleepy Brooklyn, famed for graveyards, breweries and baby carriages.” An engineering student, “His genius found expression in three-phased generators and foundry work. … His services as a debating coach… have made him a fame hard to equal.”
It was Elul, almost Rosh HaShanah. Who by rope in the cool of a Georgia morning?
Soon after the lynching, Frank’s B’nai B’rith created the Anti-Defamation League, even as the Knights of Mary Phagen, as some of the lynchers dubbed themselves, created the modern Ku Klux Klan, dormant since the 1870s. In the night, one could see flaming crosses on nearby Stone Mountain.
At the time of Frank’s hanging, there were no Jews living in Marietta. A century later, there is a Chabad and Conservative and Reform synagogues. Living down the block from the lynching site, Rabbi Steven Lebow, 60, of Reform’s Temple Kol Emeth, says, “I felt I became Leo Frank’s rabbi.” He had a historical sign erected, and says Kaddish at the site on Frank’s yahrtzeit (Elul 7, this year on Shabbat, Aug. 22). Rabbi Lebow tells us over the phone that he officiated at a memorial for Frank last week, where they also said a prayer for Mary Phagan. In the room were Jews from all the shuls, and the grandchildren of some of Frank’s hangmen.
“The grandchildren and great-granchildren of some of the lynchers are friends of mine,” says the rabbi. “I socialize with them. I see them all the time. They are the nicest, kindest people. They are horrified by what happened here 100 years ago.”
On March 4, 1982, The Nashville Tennessean headlined, “An Innocent Man Was Lynched.” Alonzo Mann, 84, the last person alive who testified at the Frank trial, wanted to tell the truth that he didn’t tell at the trial, “Then I can die in peace.” Mann, 14 when he worked for Frank, told the Tennessean (and two lie detector tests), “I have something heavy on my heart. I was in the factory that day. I saw Jim Conley [carrying] the body of the girl, and Leo Frank was nowhere to be seen.” Mann said Conley, an African-American janitor at the factory, intimidated the young boy into keeping quiet about what he saw. The boy ran home to his parents who advised him to indeed be quiet.
Other than the Phagan family (one of her uncles was in the lynch mob, said Rabbi Lebow) and some anti-Semitic groups, it has become the consensus among historians that Conley was Phagan’s killer. Shortly after the trial, said Rabbi Lebow, Conley’s own lawyer, William Smith, sent word to the governor, “‘You’ve got the wrong guy. It was my guy (Conley) who did it.’”
It was rare, to say the least, that a Southern court would accept the testimony of a black man to convict a white man of homicide, but Frank embodied “a perfect storm” of resentment, says Rabbi Lebow. Frank was “a Northerner, an industrialist, the money man at a time when poor whites were being forced off farms and into factories, an Ivy Leaguer, and, of course, a Jew.”
Even though Frank wasn’t charged with Phagan’s rape, Conley and the district attorney prosecution depicted Frank as a sexual monster, with a parade of underage factory girls testifying that Frank didn’t simply look at them, he leered, he ogled. Not that he did anything. In Conley’s testimony, says Rabbi Lebow, “he wove in these lurid sexual details, how Frank would regularly meet prostitutes in his office, performing oral sex, it was said. Other times it was suggested Frank was gay.” It was insinuated that Frank’s circumcision accounted for his deviance. All this, despite Frank never being charged with any sexual crime.
Despite Mann’s testimony, a Georgia parole board ruled in 1983 that it was “impossible to decide conclusively guilt or innocence,” and so they denied the application for a posthumous pardon.
In 1986, with the Phagen family still insisting (as they still insist) on Frank’s guilt, the ADL, the American Jewish Committee and the Atlanta Federation filed another appeal. The Board of Pardons and Paroles, in “an effort to heal old wounds,” made a ruling more surreal than Solomonic. Frank was pardoned for being lynched, but not for murdering the girl. Pardoned, because the State of Georgia failed to protect him from the lynching, precluding future legal appeals, and the state did not prosecute his killers, but once again, the pardon was granted “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in the Phagan case.
After the lynching, Rabbi Lebow says, the Jewish community of Atlanta “was completely traumatized.” The story became taboo, best left unspoken. Jewish wives and children were sent to live in Baltimore, or further north, often into the 1920s. The Temple, Frank’s synagogue, notes on its website that after the lynching, “many Jews retreated from public life.”
The month of Elul, prelude to Rosh HaShanah, is the season to visit cemeteries, and visitors have been coming to Mount Carmel’s Section 1, Block E, Path 41, leaving pebbles on Frank’s grave. Mystics teach that the souls of our loved ones, or souls of special merit, are hovering at their graves, waiting
to advocate and intercede for us in the Days of Judgment. Who better to advocate for the lonely, the unfairly accused? In his time, he was an excellent debater.