”Hell, we can lynch a nigger anytime in Georgia, but when do we get the chance to hang a Yankee Jew?”
Reportedly, these were the words of one Tom Watson, a populist leader in Georgia as he spoke to one Huge Dorsey, a prosecutor on the case.
The year is 1913 and the body of a girl by the name of Mary Phagan, all of 13 years old, is discovered in the basement of the pencil factory where she worked. She had been sexually molested and lying next to her were two crude hand-written notes that seemed indicate that the night watchman, one New Lee, was responsible for the crime.
He was quickly taken into custody where it soon became apparent that the notes were nothing more than a cover-up, (and a bad one at that) orchestrated by one Jim Conley, the janitor at the factory, a black man and a notorious drunk. Given the times, I couldn’t think of a worse thing to be in Georgia but apparently Mr. Conley could.
It seems the owner of the pencil factory was one Leo Frank, a successful businessman who had the unfortunate luck of being Jewish in the wrong place at the wrong time.. Conley was quick to name names and Frank was quickly arrested and charged with the crime.
When word got out that a Jew had been arrested, the local papers had a field day. Despite no direct evidence placing him at the scene and no physical evidence connecting him with the crime, Frank’s case was soon being tried in the papers. The rumor mill went into full swing. Among the many allegations cast his way were that we was an accomplished womanizer who lured young women to hotel rooms. A policeman even testified that he had once found Frank in the backwoods with a young girl whom he abducted with the intention of committing “immoral acts”. The policeman would later recant his telling of these events and claim it was simply a case of mistaken identity. Naturally, the recantation never made the papers, nor would the testimony of various witnesses who claimed that Frank could not have committed the crime and provided him with an alibi. The case was set to go to trial.
In a trial that lasted over four months, it should come a no surprise that in a long string of witnesses, the most damaging one against Leo Frank was Jim Conley, the man who had the most to lose. Conley concocted an elaborate story about Frank and Mary Phagan that indicated that Frank had killed her when she spurned his advances. He was “discovered” by Conley and later offered $200 to keep quiet and to help get rid of the body by burning it. Conley claims he refused.
The defense on the other hand, paraded about 200 witnesses who testified on behalf of Frank. Many were his business counterparts (who were shipped from the north but were also Jewish) who testified about his qualities of character. Others were local people whose testimony was used to try and discredit that of Jim Conley. The prosecution then began to call witnesses to rebut the testimony of the defense. Many people swore up and down that Leo Frank was indeed capable of committing the crime but none had first hand accounts of any behavior by Mr. Frank that would indicate just such a thing
The crowd that had packed the courtroom during the trial was solidly behind the prosecution. Many of them were close friends with members of the prosecution team and subscribers to racist publications. Their conduct during the ensuing months was often loud and intimidating towards the jury. Fearing a riot, the judge decided that the verdict would be read in a closed courtroom with only the attorneys present.
I guess the tactic worked, in a case that took four months to be heard, the jury took less than four hours to decide. Thousands of people surrounded the courthouse and there was joy in the streets when verdict of “Guilty” was rendered. The judge in the case, perhaps swayed by the emotions, postponed sentencing until the next day. In a closed courtroom, the decision was made that Leo Frank should suffer death by hanging.
The defense immediately set out upon the appeals process. In the first one, they raised over 115 “errors of law” they had occurred during the trial. Most of them centered on the atmosphere that was allowed to go in the courtroom during the trial and the admitted prejudice of two of the jurors. They went on to describe unsupported and unreliable testimony. Their appeal was denied.
They moved their case to the Georgia Supreme Court which voted 4-2 to uphold the conviction and the sentence. From there, the case moved on to the federal courts where the defense also brought into bear the fact that many of the witnesses that testified against Frank had subsequently recanted. No dice, the three judge panel voted 2-1 against Mr. Frank and his attorneys. The cast then bounced back and forth between the Georgia Supreme Court and the federal court three different times. Each time the appeal was denied. It was then taken to the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme which heard the case but refused to overturn the conviction in a vote of 7-2 claiming that there was no “writ of error.”
As a last resort, the defense team appealed to the Governor of the State of Georgia to commute the death sentence. During that time, over a hundred thousand letters had poured into the governor’s office in support of clemency for Leo Frank. The governor decided to initiate his own investigation into the circumstances and quickly came to the conclusion that Mr. Frank had been unfairly convicted of the crime. He postponed pardoning Frank until three weeks before he was going to leave office. He had hopes that by that time, the publicity surrounding the case would have died down.
He was wrong.
Galvanized by local bigots and inflamed by a biased media, the people formed a group that went by the name of the Knights of Mary Phagan. Essentially a lynch mob, many of their “members” had ties to the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations. When word of Frank’s pardon was announced, they formed what was essentially a lynch mob and set out upon the prison farm where Frank was being held. They managed to overpower and handcuff the prison guards and the warden.(Nobody seems to know much, if any, resistance the guards put up. If they are, they aren’t telling.) They found Frank and tried to get him to confess to the crime. He refused. They then abducted him from the prison and took him to Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia where he was hanged from a giant oak tree in front of hundreds of spectators while the police looked the other way.
Accounts of the hanging made it seem like some kind of social event. Families with children were seen posing in front of the body; pieces of Frank’s clothing were torn off to serve as some kind of morbid souvenir. When the body was finally cut down, many spectators took the opportunity to either kick at or spit on it. When it finally arrived at the mortuary, an estimated crowd of 15,000 people lined up to get glimpse of the corpse
In the ensuing years, many efforts to clear Leo Frank came before the Georgia Legislature. It wasn’t until 1986 that he received his posthumous pardon.
No one was ever brought to trial for his murder.