The old pendulum clock ticked its last at 12:18. Was it after midnight or high noon? A museum exhibit, particularly about a murder — two murders, actually, the killing of a young girl and the lynching of a Jew — can tell us only so much, welcoming us into the mystery but with no way out. Such is the wistfulness of “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited,” opening this week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, at Battery Place.
The clock sits near Leo Frank’s Cornell diploma, above Frank’s handsome ornate wooden desk from which he captained the National Pencil Company when “Little Mary Phagen,” as the newspapers called her, a beautiful 13-year-old with an elegant, mature face, came for her pay on a Saturday morning in 1913. For many of Frank’s friends and family, it was Shabbos, they were members of “The Temple,” the elite synagogue for Atlanta’s German Jews (including the theatrical “Daisy” of “Driving Miss Daisy”). Frank, 29, was proudly one of those elite Jews, a former president of B’nai B’rith, an Ivy Leaguer, a New Yorker married into an elite Atlanta Jewish family, and now boss of his family’s pencil factory.
In the museum is a red pencil, made in Frank’s factory. Is there anything more ordinary, or haunted? See the eraser attached to the pencil by a small metal ring? That’s what Little Mary Phagan did, attaching that metal to erasers.
That Saturday, in Atlanta, was Confederate Memorial Day. We can peer back into that cool Saturday morning, via video, and see marching bands on the boulevards, and old soldiers in grey.
Phagen rode a streetcar to the factory, walked into Frank’s office, and was never seen alive again. Her body was found in the grime of the factory basement. Frank was arrested, sentenced to death, and lynched by some of Atlanta’s leading citizens, politicians and businessmen when his death sentence was commuted to life.
The exhibit, on loan from the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, and here in New York through Aug. 28, tries to balance what the heart and mind cannot. “Without drawing conclusions regarding Frank’s guilt or innocence,” says the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the exhibit “invites visitors to explore the fascinating evidence,” which is no small undertaking. The museum can hardly be expected to contain what a century of rage and debate could not. As Aaron Berger, executive director of the Breman museum, explains, “The legal case itself is still taught in law schools today.” There have been, adds Berger, “hundreds of printed articles nationally and internationally, numerous books and movies, and even a Tony Award-winning musical,” “Parade,” the 1999 Tony winner for “Best Book of a Musical” and “Best Score.” (Musical selections from “Parade” will be performed at the museum March 7, at 7 p.m., with a panel of the creative team: playwright Alfred Uhry; composer, lyricist and playwright Jason Robert Brown; and Steve Oney, a leading historian of the case.)
That the exhibit can say it will not be drawing conclusions regarding guilt or innocence is at first shocking, even repellent, until one understands the case as bifurcated between the 1913 trial, which was inconclusive, and the 1915 lynching, whose horror couldn’t be more conclusive.
The Frank defense underestimated Jim Conley, the factory’s black janitor, whose testimony was at the core of Frank’s conviction. He and nearly a dozen factory girls depicted Frank as a creepy sexual predator, and the prosecution suggested Frank killed Phagan to prevent her reporting his attempted rape. The defense, quoted in the exhibit’s catalog, was certain that no white jury would take Conley seriously — “every Southern man knows that Negroes can make up gruesome stories.”
Conley was an undeniably crude person, admitting to the court that he had defecated on the floor of the elevator shaft and left the feces there. And yet, as the trial progressed, there was something about this janitor’s testimony that was oddly compelling. As the Atlanta Georgian editorialized, people were saying a “negro, no matter how hard he tried or how generously he was coached, still could never have framed up a story like the one he told” about Frank’s murder of Phagan “unless there was some foundation in fact.”
Harold Ross, long before he became the founding editor of The New Yorker, covered the trial for the Atlanta Journal. Ross later wrote that Frank seemed innocent, but Ross was nevertheless not absolutely convinced of Frank’s innocence. Not too many others were convinced, either. Frank lost several appeals, all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he lost 7-2. Maybe a mob influenced the Atlanta jury, but there was no mob pressuring the High Court, and they ruled against Frank just the same. With the exhibit called “Seeking Justice,” it would have helped if the exhibit included at least an excerpt from the Court’s majority opinion.
Down in Georgia, folks could buy souvenirs of Frank’s hanging tree, carved into wooden picks, now on display. For years, you could buy (and now see in the museum) picture postcards of the hanging, as smiling men stood around with folded arms, clearly satisfied.
The exhibit has Frank’s baby rattle and booties, Phagan’s bedtime clothes; items that can break a heart, reminders that two lives were ended unfairly. And on the chance that Frank was innocent, who then killed Little Mary? We’re shown a video of Mary Phagan — the dead girl’s niece and namesake — recalling how the story was taboo to discuss. She learnt about it from her schoolteacher asking, are you related to Mary Phagan? We’re shown that video of the niece, but not her conclusion; she told CNN in 1999, that “Leo Frank was guilty as sin. He was a sexual pervert.” She points out that a note that her aunt allegedly wrote before her death used the word “negro,” when that was a word a northerner would have used; her aunt would have said “colored.”
Most of the exhibit’s drama is conveyed through yellowed front-page broadsides from the era. In the exhibit’s catalogue, historian Oney notes that “After Frank was sentenced to death, the coverage took a different turn. The glandular excitements of yellow journalism gave way to the white heat of advocacy.” Late to the battle, arguing that Frank was an innocent victim of an anti-Semitic plot, was The New York Times. Publisher Adolph Ochs had previously resisted because, said an assistant, he didn’t want the Times to be seen as “a Jewish newspaper.” But “the Times would publish hundreds of articles and editorials about the case,” so favorable that we’re told Frank himself wrote Ochs a thank-you note.
Led by future Georgia U.S. Sen. Thomas Watson, publisher of the local Jeffersonian, headlines blared in response, “Does the State of Georgia Deserve This Nationwide Abuse?” Ochs was depicted as a “servant of the Wall Street interests,” and the Jeffersonian circulation jumped from 25,000 to 87,000. Watson led the call for Frank’s lynching.
The editor of the Macon Telegraph wired the Times, Ochs wrote, “for the sake of the decent people of Georgia and especially the sake of the Jews of Georgia,” Ochs should stop “this offensive propaganda. It was the outside interference of the Jews, led by the Times, that made it necessary to lynch Frank.” The Jews of Georgia also asked the Times to retreat, and so it did.
Ironically, for all the anti-Semitism, it was the image of Jesus that inspired Gov. John Slaton to commute Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Slaton wrote: “Two thousand years ago another governor [Pontius Pilate] washed his hands of a case and turned a Jew over to a mob … that governor’s name has been accursed. If today another Jew was lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands.”
In the end, the Jew was killed, through no fault of Slaton.