March 14, 2005
Leo Frank (photograph c. 1915)
Virulent anti-Semitism led directly to the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and lynching of the innocent, but Jewish, Leo Frank. Police and prosecutors fabricated evidence to win a death by hanging verdict. When the governor of Georgia commuted Frank's sentence to life in prison, a resurgent Klan mob stormed the prison and re-imposed the original sentence.
by Denise Noe
At approximately 3 a.m. on Sunday, April 27, 1913, the night watchman of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta discovered a girl's brutally battered body in the factory's basement. Covered with sawdust, her skull was caked with dried blood, her eyes were bruised, her face scratched and bruised and some of her fingers out of joint. A piece of rope, along with a strip taken from her own underpants, encircled her neck.
She was soon identified as 13-year-old Mary Phagan, the child of a working-class family. She had been employed at the factory putting metal tips on pencils. She had recently been laid off because the factory had run out of the metal required for her job. On Saturday, April 26, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, she planned to see the parade but first wanted to stop off at the factory to collect $1.20 in wages owed her.
The killing captured the Monday headlines and news about it would appear on the front pages of Atlanta newspapers for more than a year afterward. Much of Atlanta suffered a paroxysm of grief over this murder. About 10,000 people showed up at the morgue and over 1,000 attended her funeral. Those grieving over this stranger were nicknamed ''Mary's People'' while she became known as ''the little factory girl.''
The crime touched an exposed nerve because it symbolized the vulnerability of young women during a time when the South was transitioning from a rural to an urban economy. During the first two decades of the 20th century many ruined farmers migrated to the city where they, their wives, and often their children, got jobs in factories.
In death, Mary Phagan became the psychological sister and daughter of many Georgians because her killing symbolized the deepest fears they had for their own female relatives and young women in general. Public outcry meant the police were under tremendous pressure to solve this homicide. Atlanta's mayor warned the police: ''Find this murderer fast, or be fired!''
Two semi-literate notes were found beside her corpse. One read: ''Mam that negro hire down here did this i went to make water 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 other read: ''he said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it but that long tall black negro did buy his slef.''
The notes appeared to either point to the night watchman who had found her body, an African-American named Newt Lee who was tall, slim and dark skinned or to William Nolle, a tall black who worked in the basement of the factory. ''Night witch'' could be a misspelling of ''night watch.'' Lee was arrested. Police held him while arresting others. The ''hole'' referred to seemed to be the factory chute.
But police attention soon focused on another suspect: factory superintendent, Leo Frank, the last person known to have seen Mary alive.
Leo Frank, at age 24, had left Brooklyn in 1908 for Atlanta to become superintendent of the National Pencil Company's factory. He wed Lucille Selig in 1910. A pretty but heavyset young woman, she had artistic inclinations and a mischievous side. According to Steve Oney in And the Dead Shall Rise, she was initially attracted to Leo ''because I liked to make him blush.'' The couple did not have children.
Frank was elected president of the Atlanta chapter of B'nai B'rith, a Jewish fraternal organization, in 1913. Albert Lindemann in The Jew Accused wrote that Frank ''appointed a committee . . . to investigate the complaints against Jewish caricatures that are becoming so frequent on the local stage.''
Four hours after the discovery of Mary's body, police visited the 29-year-old Frank at his home. A nervous Frank initially denied knowing Mary, although he soon recalled a girl who had come for her wages.
Police took Frank to the place where the body had been discovered. The group got into the elevator and descended to the basement. As Steve Oney wrote in his book about the murder: ''The instant the lift hit bottom, a powerful stench wafted up from beneath the men'' as the lift smashed human feces. The significance of the feces would not be realized until much later.
On Tuesday, April 29, police arrested Frank. Lindemann has pointed out that the police first suspected Frank for ''a number of perfectly legitimate reasons having nothing to do with his Jewishness. First, he was one of the few in the factory on the day . . . of the murder. Since it was never seriously questioned that the murder took place in the factory, he automatically became one of a few natural suspects.''
Physical evidence appeared to point to Frank. Spots that looked like blood were found in the metal workroom across from his office, as were hairs around the lathe. Witnesses said the hair was Mary's.
Neither of these supposed links would stand up to scrutiny. At Frank's trial, a detective would testify that authorities did not know with certainty that the stains were in fact blood. It would not come out until after Frank's trial, but a biologist would find that the hair strands were not Mary's.
The Indictment of Leo Frank
On Wednesday, April 30, 1913 a Coroner's Jury inquest convened and the prosecution of Leo Frank commenced. Erroneous evidence given at the inquest and widely reported painted Frank as a menace to young women. An acquaintance of Mary's named George Epps testified that he had ridden into town with her on the last day of her life. Bruce L. Jordan wrote in Murder in the Peach State, ''Epps claimed that he had been told that day by Mary that she was afraid of her boss, Leo Frank, because he was too familiar with her and made advances towards her.'' However, as Jordan further wrote, ''Epps had been interviewed by an Atlanta Georgian reporter a few days earlier and had said only that he sometimes rode to town with her. During that interview Epps said nothing of having ridden to town with her the day she was killed.''
After the Coroner's Jury's inquest, more bogus evidence damning Frank surfaced. A police officer claimed to have found Frank in a wooded area with a girl and that Frank had admitted taking her there for ''immoral purposes.'' This same police officer would later admit that he had made a mistaken identification, but this information did not appear on the front pages of the newspapers.
''On May 23, the Atlanta police released an affidavit from Mrs. Nina Formby, the proprietor of a 'rooming house' in Atlanta, disclosing that on the day of the murder Frank had telephoned her repeatedly and had attempted to secure a room for himself and a young girl,'' Leonard Dinnerstein wrote in The Leo Frank Case. Her maid disputed Mrs. Formby's story about Frank making a call to her rooming house. Quoting Dinnerstein, ''In the middle of June the maid . . . said that the detectives had been pestering her on numerous occasions to make an affidavit supporting Mrs. Formby's contention that Frank had phoned several times for a room on the evening of the murder. The maid refused because she claimed that there had been no such call that evening, and if there had been she certainly would have answered the phone.''
The most damaging evidence against Frank came from 27-year-old Jim Conley, the janitor at the pencil factory, a heavy drinker with a criminal record. According to Bruce L. Jordan's Murder in the Peach State, Conley had ''several previous arrests for theft and disorderly conduct.'' Conley, a short, stocky, light-skinned African-American, had been arrested in connection with the Phagan murder on May 1 after a factory foreman told police he had seen Conley trying to wash what looked like bloodstains from a shirt. According to Oney, Conley told police ''…he'd just been trying to rinse away some rust marks because he had nothing else to wear to the coroner's inquest.'' Authorities believed – despite being in possession of two semi-literate notes left near Phagan's corpse – that Conley could not be the killer because he had told them he was illiterate.
On May 16, the police found out Conley was semi-literate. Exactly how they discovered this was disputed. Frank always claimed he was the source of this finding. Oney wrote that, ''…in the report the agents submitted to both defense counsel and police, they failed to mention Frank's contribution.'' Rather, they said assistant superintendents and the day watchman of the factory were the sources for this information. They discovered that Conley had written notes to a firm from which he was buying a watch on installment and confronted him with his own signature.
Police insisted Conley write what they dictated: the Phagan notes. What Conley wrote was almost identical to the originals.
The janitor admitted he wrote the originals but claimed they had also been dictated to him – by Frank. Conley would tell three stories pinning the murder on Frank. In the first, as Jordan wrote, Conley said ''…he had been summoned to Leo Frank's office the day before the murder and ordered to write them. Conley claimed in this first affidavit that while writing the note for his boss, Frank mumbled what Conley believed to be, 'Why should I hang? I've got wealthy people in Brooklyn.' Conley also initially claimed that he was not even in the factory on the day of the murder.'' This story meant that Frank had plotted the murder at least a day in advance. Police found this unbelievable because they did not think the murder had been premeditated.
Pressed, Conley changed his story, admitting he had been at the factory and had written the notes on the day of the killing, but he still denied knowing anything else.
On their third try, the police pulled from Conley the story they would go with. Conley claimed that Frank had summoned him to his office. He stated that the superintendent told him that he had let a girl fall against a machine in the metal room and wanted him to bring her out of the room. Conley said he went into it and found the girl dead. He said he reported this to Frank who asked him to help carry the body to the elevator. Conley said the two of them together took the corpse to the basement and left her in the corner. Afterwards, the pair returned to Frank's office where Frank dictated and Conley penned the notes.
Given the South's history of anti-black prejudice, why was Conley's word accepted instead of Frank's? After all, Frank was a successful businessman with no criminal record.
Part of the explanation lies, as Dinnerstein noted, in the ''alien'' image Frank projected ''as a Northerner, an industrialist, and a Jew.'' Dinnerstein quotes a pastor saying, ''when . . . the police arrested a Jew, and a Yankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction.''
Conley understood racist ideology and manipulated it. He explained his complicity by saying, ''I was willing to do anything to help Mr. Frank because he was a white man and my superintendent.'' Adopting this Uncle Tom persona won over investigators. In essence, Conley told a story that was vivid with detail that supported the investigators' preconceived notions regarding Frank's guilt.
Atlanta's Solicitor-General Hugh Dorsey took charge of the case. He met with a grand jury on May 23 and the next day, he announced the indictment of Leo Frank.
Frank's trial began July 28, 1913. Two respected Georgia lawyers, Luther Rosser and Reuben Arnold, represented him. Frank Hooper assisted Solicitor Dorsey with the prosecution. The Judge Leonard S. Roan presided.
Spectators packed the courtroom and a throng gathered outside it. The temper of that crowd was so anti-Frank that the police had many officers guarding the courtroom throughout the trial.
Lucile Frank sat close behind her husband each day of the trial. She was unwavering in her belief in his innocence and integrity. To the press she said, ''He ever has been just the plain, more or less studious and serious minded Leo, gentle and thoughtful, sincere and true.''
The state put on witnesses who said Mary's hairs were on a lathe in the second-floor workroom across from Frank's office. They put on doctors who testified that she died between noon and 12:15 p.m.
Employee Monteen Stover took the stand to discredit Frank's story that he had not left his office between noon and 12:30 p.m. and that he had handed the money due Mary to her sometime between 12:05 p.m. and 12:10 p.m. Stover said she had arrived at 12:05 p.m. and not seen Frank in his office.
Detective Starnes testified that he saw red stains in the workroom but acknowledged on cross-examination that he could not know if they were blood.
Conley was the prosecution's star witness. Both Dinnerstein and Oney record that he testified that Frank had told him he was expecting a young lady to come to his office for a ''chat.'' Conley also told the court that he regularly ''watched out'' for Frank when ladies visited him. According to his story, when Frank stamped his foot Conley would lock the front door, then unlock it after hearing Frank whistle.
On this day, Conley claimed to have seen Mary go upstairs. He also said he heard footsteps going in the direction of the workroom and heard a scream. He said that after that scream, he saw Stover go to the second floor.
He recalled the signal of the stomping foot and locking the front door, hearing the whistle, then unlocking the door and trekking up to Frank's office.
Conley said that when he got to Frank's office that Frank was ''shivering and trembling and rubbing his hands.'' In those hands, Conley said, Frank held a piece of rope. Conley testified that Frank asked him if he had seen ''that little girl who passed here just a while ago?'' Conley said he answered that he had seen ''one come along there and she came back again, and then I saw another one come along there and she hasn't been back down.''
Conley quoted Frank as confiding, ''I wanted to be with the little girl, and she refused me, and I struck her and I guess I struck her too hard and she fell and hit her head against something.'' Conley further claimed Frank told him to go to the workroom and see how she was. He found her dead, and reported that back to Frank. Conley then described how the two of them together took Mary's body onto the elevator, then left it in the basement.
They returned to Frank's office, where Frank dictated the notes found next to Mary's body.
Rosser and Arnold cross-examined him for three days but were unable to shake him on anything substantive.
They did draw a disclosure – which they failed to pursue – that could have proved vital to Frank's defense. Under cross-examination, Conley testified that he had defecated at the bottom of the elevator shaft on the morning of the murder. Later, others examining the facts in this case would see this admission as key to the real murderer.
Conley had been well prepped for cross-examination by his own lawyer, William Smith. As Oney wrote, ''Smith, a fair mimic, gave [Conley] a taste of . . . Rosser's corrosive manner, preparing him for the inevitable courtroom encounter.'' Smith said he hoped ''to render Conley impervious to cross-examination'' and he had.
The prosecution, as it had at the inquest, called a number of former pencil factory female employees to testify that Frank had taken various ''liberties'' with them. Frank's attorneys did not elect to cross-examine any of them at trial. The defense called a number of character witnesses, several of them women who worked at the pencil factory. Each testified that Frank's conduct had been unimpeachable. The defense also called witnesses who claimed Conley had a reputation for lying.
The defense put on witnesses to show that Frank simply did not have the time to do all the things Conley said he had done. According to Dinnerstein, Conley testified that Mary Phagan had been in the pencil factory prior to Monteen Stover's arrival. Stover said she had been outside Frank's office from 12:05 to 12:10 p.m. However, both the motorman and conductor of the trolley Phagan took claimed she left the car at 12:10 p.m.
Defense doctors disputed the time at which their prosecution counterparts had pinpointed her death.
Under Georgia law at the time a defendant in a capital case may take the stand in his own defense without being subjected to cross-examination by the prosecution. The defendant's statement is unsworn. It is up to the jury to determine its value. Frank took the stand to give his statement. He testified he left the factory to go home for lunch at 1 p.m. Several defense witnesses took the stand to say they had seen him between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., contradicting Conley's assertion that the two of them had been in the factory at that time. To murder the child, transport her body to the basement, return to the office and write the murder notes would have taken at least half an hour according to Conley, other witnesses, and common sense. Yet all of Frank's time during the supposed period when he was about his dirty work was accounted for save a period of approximately 18 minutes between 12:01 and 12:20 p.m. The Atlanta Constitution observed that the ''chain of testimony, forged with a number of links, has established a seemingly unbreakable corroboration of Frank's account of his whereabouts.''
Frank testified that Monteen Stover may have missed seeing him at his desk when she arrived because ''it is impossible for me to see out into the outer hall when the safe door is open, as it was that morning, and not only is it impossible for me to see out, but it is impossible for people to see in and see me there.'' He also said he might have been temporarily out of his office for a trip to the restroom. He derided Conley's story as a ''tissue of lies.''
Lawyers for both sides rested after four weeks of testimony. In his first closing argument, Dorsey called Frank a ''Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,'' appearing to be a decent man to friends and family while cruelly indulging his sexual appetites at the expense of young women.
In his closing, defense attorney Arnold brought up the issue of anti-Semitism, saying, ''If Frank hadn't been a Jew there would never had been any prosecution against him.''
Dorsey objected on his second summation by saying that, ''the word Jew never escaped our lips.''
Outside the jury's presence, Judge Roan summoned Frank's attorneys to the bench. According to Jordan, Roan, fearing violence in the event of an acquittal, ''recommended that neither they nor Frank attend the announcement of the verdict. The attorneys agreed without consulting Frank.''
The jury convicted Frank of first-degree murder. Albert S. Lindemann wrote in The Jew Accused, that, ''the jubilation in the streets of Atlanta was extraordinary.'' Jordan wrote, ''When Solicitor Dorsey exited the courthouse and reached the sidewalk, he was physically lifted into the air by the cheering crowd and passed across the street to his office with tears rolling down his cheeks, his hat raised over his head, his feet never touching the ground until he reached his office.''
Frank was in his jail cell when he received the news. Shocked, he exclaimed, ''My God! Even the jury was influenced by mob law.''
The next day Frank was sentenced to hang. Jim Conley later pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to serve one year on a chain gang.
The Case Becomes a Cause
Frank's attorneys announced that they would appeal. Little known outside the South prior to Frank's conviction, the case gained notoriety in the North as investigators turned up evidence casting doubt on the verdict.
The Atlanta Journal revealed that, as Jordan recorded, ''the state biologist had issued a report to Solicitor Dorsey shortly after Mary Phagan's murder. After having examined with a microscope the hair found on a lathe in the metal room, the biologist concluded in his report that the hair was not Mary Phagan's.'' The Journal asked Dorsey why he withheld the report from the jury and he replied that he relied on other witnesses who believed the hair was hers.
Adding to doubts were prosecution witnesses' recantations. According to Steve Oney in And the Dead Shall Rise, Albert McKnight, husband of the Frank's family's cook, signed an affidavit saying ''he had concocted his tale regarding Frank's failure to eat lunch the day of the crime and subsequent hasty departure from home.'' McKnight claimed he had made up this story, Oney wrote, ''at the behest of his employers at Beck & Gregg Hardware – who like so many others had been angling for the reward's offered in the slaying's aftermath.'' Nina Formby contacted The New York Times to claim that she had made up the story of Frank's wanting to rent a room under police pressure. Finally, George Epps claimed police had pressured him into his statement about Mary's fear of Frank.
The hair evidence and the raft of recantations led The Atlanta Journal to run an editorial calling for a new trial.
To add to the confusion, McKnight, Formby and Epps all soon recanted their recantations. Without explaining why they had made the first recantations, they each insisted their testimony against Frank had been accurate.
Frank's defenders found ammunition in a fresh examination of the notes. Dinnerstein recorded that attorney Henry Alexander ''showed that these notes were written on the carbons of old order pads which had been used previously by a former factory official. The dateline read 190-,'' indicating that the forms must have been at least four years old. The official who signed the orders left the employ of the factory in 1912, and all his office records, including pads, had been removed to the basement, near where Mary Phagan's body had been found. Alexander concluded that this proved that Conley could not have written the notes on a pad which Frank had given him in his office.''
Alexander also believed that a phrase in one of the notes pointed to their author. That phrase was ''night witch,'' previously assumed by investigators to be a misspelling of ''night watch.'' Alexander believed it meant exactly what it said because the ''night witch'' was a character in Southern African-American folk belief, a witch who strangled children to death. Alexander believed it improbable that Frank, a Northern Jew, would be familiar with this belief and certain that Conley would be.
Judge Roan rejected Frank's first appeal. However, he wrote, ''I have thought about this case more than any other I have tried. I am not certain of the man's guilt. With all the thought I have put on this case, I am not thoroughly convinced that Frank is guilty or innocent. The jury was convinced. . . . I feel it is my duty to order that the motion for a new trial be overruled.''
A month and a half later, Frank's attorneys went before the Georgia Supreme Court. They argued that the prejudicial atmosphere precluded a fair trial. The court rejected their appeal.
Frank got a new defense team, made up of Herbert and Leonard Haas (brothers), Henry Alexander and the firm of Tye, Peeples, and Jordan. They made errors attributed to Frank's trial attorneys, Rosser and Arnold, the basis of an appeal. In Jordan's words, they claimed that ''Rosser and Arnold did not have the right to waive Frank's presence in the courtroom when the jury returned their verdict.'' U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes denied the appeal but added that there was doubt about the fairness of Frank's trial because of ''the presence of a hostile demonstration and seemingly dangerous crowd, thought by the presiding judge to be ready for violence unless a verdict of guilty was rendered.''
According to Jordan, ''In February of 1915, Frank's attorneys were given one more chance to be heard by the U. S. Supreme Court, this time petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus.'' It was denied.
Frank's supporters believed his only chance was a commutation. They received unexpected support in that effort from Conley's attorney.
Smith, Conley's attorney, announced on October 2, 1914, that he believed his client killed Mary Phagan. Smith claimed he did not act unethically in implicating his own client since Conley, convicted after Frank's trial as an accessory, could not be tried again because of the constitutional protection against double jeopardy. Smith added that he felt compelled to speak out because the life of an innocent man was in danger.
While Frank garnered support, his case also became a cause that lined up prominent people up against him. One of the most notable of these was Tom Watson, who had started his career as a Populist with relatively liberal racial views. Unfortunately, by the time of the Frank affair, he had curdled into an extremist frequently denouncing African-Americans and Roman Catholics. Still seen as a champion by poor white Protestants, he published a weekly, The Jeffersonian, and a monthly, Watson's Magazine.
In The Jeffersonian Watson ran a lengthy editorial called ''The Frank Case: When and Where Shall Rich Criminals Be Tried?'' He also posed the question: ''Does a Jew expect extraordinary favors and immunities because of his race?''
Frank's supporters looked to Gov. John Slaton for a commutation. Slaton made a painstaking study of the evidence. He was under a great deal of tension since, as Dinnerstein wrote, ''the governor was bombarded with pleas for commutation or demands that the prisoner hang. More than a thousand of the petitioners threatened to kill Slaton, and his wife, if he let Frank live.''
Early on the morning of June 21, he told his wife that he had decided to commute Frank's sentence to life in prison. He admitted he feared for his life. According to Jordan, his wife told him, ''I would rather be the widow of a brave and honorable man than the wife of a coward.''
Knowing the decision could provoke violence, Gov. Slaton directed officials to transport Frank from Atlanta's Fulton County jail to the state prison at Milledgeville over 100 miles away.
Then Slaton made his decision public. In it he said he had grave doubts about Frank's guilt. One factor in his decision was the probability that Mary had been shoved down the chute rather than transported in the elevator as Conley asserted. Here Slaton referred to a ''disagreeable'' matter, that of the feces at the bottom of the elevator shaft.
The mystery in the case is the question of how Mary Phagan's body got into the basement. . . . Conley testified that on the morning of April 26 he went down into the basement to relieve his bowels and utilized the elevator shaft for the purpose.
On the morning of April 27 at 3 o'clock when the detectives came down into the basement by way of the ladder, they inspected the premises, including the shaft, and they found there human excrement in natural condition.
Subsequently, when they used the elevator, which everybody, including Conley, who had run the elevator for 1 1/2 years admits only stops by hitting the ground in the basement, the elevator struck the excrement and mashed it, thus demonstrating that the elevator had not been used since Conley had been there.'' The governor noted other evidence tending to point toward Conley's guilt rather than Frank's including, as Jordan recorded, ''the fact that the notes were written on outdated pads normally kept in the basement and not in Leo Frank's office.
The governor was applauded by some newspapers and burned in effigy by those outraged. In Marietta, a town outside Atlanta, the effigy bore a sign reading ''John M. Slaton, King of the Jews and Georgia's Traitor Forever.''
In The Jeffersonian, Tom Watson blasted the decision, writing, ''. . . let no man reproach the South with Lynch law: Let him remember the unendurable provocation: and let him say whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.''
''Less than two weeks after Slaton had commuted Leo Frank's sentence state newspapers prominently featured the somber pilgrimage of saddened Georgians to the unveiling of Mary Phagan's monument. . . A group of 150 men, who called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, then met secretly near her grave, and pledged to avenge the little girl's death,'' Dinnerstein wrote.
On the night of July 18, 1915, a prisoner named William Creen slashed the sleeping Frank's throat. Two other prisoners, both doctors, managed to clamp the jugular vein. Frank was taken to the prison hospital and his wound stitched. According to Dinnerstein, when Frank was conscious he said, ''I am going to live. I must live. I must vindicate myself.''
One month later, on Aug. 16, a mob of about 25 men stormed the Milledgeville prison. They overpowered the two guards on duty, then went to the hospital room where Frank was recovering. The intruders handcuffed Frank and ushered him into the back seat of a waiting car with two men on either side of him. The kidnappers tried to persuade Frank to confess, even offering to spare his life if he did so. The prisoner adamantly denied the crime. According to Dinnerstein, ''he sounded so sincere that two of his listeners thought that perhaps he really had not murdered Mary Phagan, and that he should be returned to the prison farm.''
The doubters were overruled. When they got to a wooded area on the outskirts of Marietta, they led Frank to an oak tree. Jordan wrote, ''Frank was asked if he wanted to make a statement. He said no. He removed his wedding ring from his finger, handed it to one of his abductors and asked that it be given to a newspaperman who would forward the ring to his wife. The request was granted, and the ring eventually was returned to Mrs. Frank.''
A rope was wrapped around his neck, then flung over and attached to a sturdy limb of the tree. Frank was forced to stand on a table and the table was kicked out from under him.
The Rule of ''Lynch Law''
Lynching was common in the American West before formal legal institutions became established. As The Columbia Encyclopedia noted, ''Pioneers formed vigilance committees to repress crimes.''
The South was the other major area for ''lynch law.'' Lynching was not always associated with racism but the very word would eventually conjure up the image of an accused African-American strung up by an angry, white Southern mob. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, ''The antebellum South was known as the land of lynching before prejudice against black people became a major factor. Of the more than 300 persons hanged or burned by mobs between 1840 and 1860, fewer than 10% were black.'' However, protecting the slave system was often at issue as mobs set upon white abolitionists for aiding escaping black slaves.
After the defeat of the South in the Civil War, lynching focused more heavily on black victims. ''There are 2805 [documented] victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in 10 southern states, according to Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. ''Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority – almost 2,500 – of lynch victims were African-American. Of these black victims, 94 percent died in the hands of white lynch mobs. The scale of this carnage means that, on the average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob.''
As The Columbia Encyclopedia noted, lynching was used ''to intimidate blacks into political, social, and economic submission.'' Contrary to white supremacist myth and widespread perception, most lynched blacks had not been accused of raping or attempting to rape a white woman; that allegation was at issue in only one-quarter of cases in which black men were lynched. Blacks were lynched for a variety of offenses ranging from common crimes to actions that were ''crimes'' only according to white supremacist ideology such as ''insulting'' a white person or registering to vote.
The Leo Frank case was also exceptional, perhaps even unique, in that the victim was a white man lynched for a crime almost certainly committed by a black. However, according to Robert L. Zangrando's segment of ''About Lynching,'' victims included ''Native Americans, Latinos, Jews, Asian immigrants, and European newcomers.'' Lynching targets were also ''labor union organizers, political radicals, critics of America's role in World War I, and civil rights advocates.''
An anti-lynching movement had started almost a quarter of a century before a mob took Leo Frank to a tree in Marietta. Its primary leader was African-American journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She published a series of newspaper columns decrying the injustice of lynching and, in 1892, an influential pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People worked to fight lynching through both education and legal action.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many white women, offended by the defense of lynching as necessary to ''protect'' them, became prominent in the anti-lynching movement. According to Dickson D. Bruce, Jr. in ''Antilynching Campaign,'' they ''worked to create a climate of opinion among white southerners that would lead to lynching's demise.'' The practice began to die off in the 1940s.
Much of the Georgia public believed justice had been served by Frank's lynching. The local Marietta newspaper proclaimed: 'We regard the hanging of Leo M. Frank in Cobb County as an act of law abiding citizens.'''
No one was ever charged with a crime in connection with the lynching. Dinnerstein quoted the Greensboro, Ga., Herald-Journal as saying that ''the lynchers could confess, publish their confession in the Atlanta papers, and they would never be molested.'' While Tom Watson and many other prominent Georgians praised the lynching, there were also voices raised in condemnation. The Atlanta Constitution called it ''Georgia's Shame!'' and wrote, ''No word in the language is too strong to apply to the deliberate and carefully conspired deed of the mob.''
Gov. Slaton never held another elected public office. By contrast, Jordan wrote, ''In 1916 Hugh Dorsey was elected governor of Georgia riding the coattails of his popularity over the prosecution of Leo Frank and with the substantial endorsement of Tom Watson.'' Dorsey was re-elected in 1918. During that term, he broke ranks with Watson by criticizing Georgia's treatment of African-Americans. The two of them ran against each other for a U. S. Senate seat. Watson won by a wide margin and died in office in 1922.
Lucile Frank lived for several more decades but never remarried. In 1916, she left Atlanta for Tennessee when a brother-in-law offered her a job in a women's clothing shop. In the 1920s, she returned to Atlanta where she worked at the glove counter managed by her brother-in-law at a J.P. Allen clothing store.
Although she functioned outwardly, those close to her believed she never stopped mourning her husband. An internist who treated her, Dr. James Kauffman, said, ''She somatized [made physical] her complaints. She had chest pains, headaches. When I think of her, I think of depression. Leo may have been killed but she served a life sentence.'' She signed her name ''Mrs. Leo Frank'' until her death in 1957. Among her affects were the wedding ring a doomed Leo had asked to be returned to her and letters Lucile had written to her husband – several of them penned after his death.
After serving a year on a chain gang for his confessed crime of accessory after the fact for helping to move Mary Phagan's body, Jim Conley was released. He had more scrapes with the law for offenses ranging from public intoxication to burglary and died in 1962.
B'nai B'rith established the Anti-Defamation League shortly after Frank's trial. Frank's trial was one of the factors leading to the formation of this organization but by no means the sole cause.
After Frank's death, the Knights of Mary Phagan served as the launching pad for the resurrected Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that had been dormant since its Reconstruction heyday. According to ''The Leo Frank Case'' compiled by Charles Pou, ''It must be noted that the Phagan family has not condoned Klan activity, especially in regards to Mary. In fact the family expressly forbade a Klan request to hold a ceremony at Mary Phagan's gravesite.''
Pou recorded that on March 11, 1986, ''the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles finally issued a posthumous pardon to Leo Frank, based on the state's failure to protect him while in custody; it did not officially absolve him of the crime.''
Jordan wrote, ''On the 80th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, Rabbi Steven Lebow had a plaque placed on an office building near the intersection of Roswell and Frey's Gin roads at the site where Frank was hanged. It reads, 'Wrongly accused. Falsely convicted. Wantonly murdered.'''
Almost a century after her death, people have still not forgotten ''the little factory girl'' who went to pick up her pay and never returned home. According to Joan Ellars, executive director of Keep Marietta Beautiful that oversees the Marietta City Cemetery at which she is buried, they still visit Mary Phagan's grave and leave gifts of toys and model angels.