100 years later, Leo Frank lynching still resonates

It was one of the most sensational crime dramas of the 20th century, but it didn’t end when jurors found pencil factory superintendent Leo Frank guilty of raping and killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan.

Nor did it conclude with the lynching of Leo Frank 100 years ago today in Marietta.

While questions about Phagan’s murder likely never will be answered, the fears, resentments and prejudices exposed by Frank’s killing still resonate.

The death shook the Atlanta Jewish community’s sense of belonging. Many had settled in the area years before — some even fought for the Confederacy.

“It was a gigantic lightning bolt that hit this state,” said Steve Oney, author of “And The Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. “It wasn’t just a whodunit, but a clearinghouse for cultural grievances that touched on issues of race, class, gender, religion.”

For Southerners, defeated in war, demoralized by Reconstruction, Frank came to symbolize all they had grown to despise.

“He operated a sweatshop. He employed teenage girls. A Jewish industrialist with an Ivy League degree. He played into the worst dynamic you can imagine,” Oney said.


Leo Frank had already cheated death twice.

Two days before his scheduled execution, Georgia Gov. John Slaton, who believed Frank to be innocent after conducting his own investigation, commuted his sentence to life in prison. Then, after he was transferred from the Fulton County jail to the state prison farm in Milledgeville, Frank survived a knife attack by a fellow prisoner, angered by the commutation.

The attack delayed the plans of a small but influential group of Cobb County civic leaders who felt it their duty to avenge the girl who called Marietta home. The commutation had been bought and paid for, they alleged, though there was no evidence to prove it.

On Monday, August 16, the Knights of Mary Phagan, as they dubbed themselves, made their move. Eight cars left Marietta late that afternoon for Central Georgia, driving along makeshift dirt roads at speeds of no more than 20 mph. The first member of the team, arriving by motorcycle, cut the telephone wires from the prison. The rest charged and overpowered the prison’s guards, who offered little to no resistance. Not a single gunshot was fired as the posse escorted Frank, clad in a night shirt, from his cell.

The mob was in and out within 30 minutes, Oney said.

As a precaution, Frank’s abductors followed a circuitous route back to Marietta, a drive that took nearly seven hours. Frank sat handcuffed, his legs tied at the ankles.

“It’s hard to imagine the fear he was experiencing, knowing he was about to die,” said Steven Lebow, rabbi of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta and a student of the case. Lebow has lobbied for Frank’s full pardon.

Perhaps Frank found solace in the words of Epictetus, the Greek stoicist whom he had studied during his incarceration. Born into slavery, Epictetus taught that the path to happiness was determined by one’s ability to accept things beyond his control.

Own worst enemy

Frank was the last person to acknowledge seeing Phagan alive. He was not initially a suspect, but police noted his nervous behavior and presumed he was hiding something.

The evidence against Frank was flimsy and circumstantial, Oney said. His conviction hinged largely on the testimony of a janitor at the National Pencil Company, Jim Conley, who was arrested after someone spotted him washing red stains from a shirt, according to newspaper accounts. Four contradictory affidavits later, Conley testified that Frank had enlisted him to dispose of Phagan’s body.

In 1982, a death bed confession by a former office boy at National Pencil confirmed what many suspect. Alonzo Mann, 83 at the time he came forward, said he witnessed Conley carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the basement of the factory on the day of her death. He kept silent, he said, because Conley threatened to kill him.

Conley — relaxed and colloquial when he took the stand against his former boss — proved to be a much better witness than Frank, stiff and effete, Oney said.

Testifying without cross-examination — an option at the time for criminal defendants in Georgia — Frank seriously damaged any hope of acquittal.

“He was like a computer on the stand,” Oney said. “He used words like ‘data,’ that were completely foreign to people at the time. Jurors felt that he seemed afraid to confront his guilt or innocence.

“To be kind, he was a cold fish.”

Final resting place

The lynch mob finally reached Marietta at dawn’s break. Some accounts say they planned to hang Frank on the town square but didn’t want to be exposed in the light of day. They decided to pull off onto the property of a former Cobb sheriff, William J. Frey, land that now sits in the shadow of I-75 amid a landscape of strip malls and fast food restaurants.

It’s hard to imagine anyone stopping them; Cobb’s sheriff and Marietta’s mayor were among the lynchers, Oney said.

Former governor Joseph M. Brown and future Blue Ridge Circuit District Attorney Eugene Herbert Clay — two of the architects of the plan hatched soon after Gov. John Slaton ordered Frank’s sentence commuted — were there, too, according to Oney, who said he has identified 28 of the conspirators.

Amid a grove of oak trees illuminated by the rising sun, Frank was asked if he had any final requests. Removing his wedding ring, the slight 31-year-old engineer asked his killers to return it to his wife, the former Lucille Selig.

He was allowed to write her a note but she never received it, Oney said, because Frank had written it in German and the lynchers feared he might have implicated them.

A few minutes after 7 a.m., the table Frank was standing on was kicked from under him. He hung, four feet off the ground, slowly strangling to death.

Newspapers from Atlanta to New York were quick to condemn the vigilantes.

“Every man, woman and child in Georgia will feel the ultimate effect of that act of the law-defying mob which went to Milledgeville and lynched not only Leo Frank, who is only a detail in the awful story, but the state itself,” stated an editorial in The Atlanta Constitution, headlined “Georgia’s Shame.” “It is Georgia, Georgia law and justice, that was hanged upon that Cobb County tree.”

But in Marietta, the lynchers were widely celebrated. The city’s Jewish merchants had already felt considerable backlash; before Frank’s death, they received written threats warning them to “close up this business and quit Marietta by Saturday night, June 29,” according to the 1968 book, “The Leo Frank Case.”

“We mean to rid Marietta of all Jews by the above date,” the handbills, distributed by the Marietta Vigilance Committee, stated. “You can heed this warning or stand the punishment the committee may see fit to deal out to you.”

Marietta City Councilman Phillip Goldstein’s grandfather was among those to receive the handbill. He had settled in Marietta two years before Mary Phagan’s murder, opening a department store on the downtown square.

Goldstein’s grandfather refused to cower, opening for business every day. But, for awhile, he moved his family outside of town, afraid to be in Marietta after dark.

“I was in my 20s when I first heard about the Leo Frank case,” Goldstein said. “It wasn’t talked about in my family at all.”

Marietta’s old guard, known locally as “OMs,” weren’t eager to discuss it, either — first out of a sense of duty to protect the lynchers. But as generations passed, pride turned to shame.

“It was an uneasy inheritance that fell on both sides of the aisle,” Oney said. “For both communities, it was the elephant in the room.”

Frank’s killers were never indicted, a decision influenced by some of the same people associated with The Knights of Mary Phagan. Federal civil rights laws had yet to be enacted.

Never forget

Thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan was mature for her age, a circumstance born of nature and the times. Physically, she seemed more woman than little girl, said her great nice and namesake, Mary Phagan-Kean.

“She weighed 125 pounds when she died,” said Phagan-Kean, who has spent most of her life fighting to preserve the memory of the distant ancestor she never knew.

Mary started working when she was 10 years old, and, after her mother remarried and moved into the city in 1912, she got a job at the National Pencil Factory, working up to 55 hours a week for little more than seven cents an hour. She ran the machine that inserted rubber erasers into the pencils’ metal cylinder in a space across the hall from Leo Frank’s office.

But there was still plenty of little girl in dimple-cheeked Mary, said Phagan-Kean. On the day she died, according to her great niece, Mary was excited about showing off the dress made by her Aunt Lizzie for her to wear to the annual Confederate Memorial Day parade.

Mary, who had been laid off six days earlier from the pencil factory, stopped in to pick up her final check. Some 15 hours later, in the early morning hours of April 27, 1913, nightwatchman Newt Lee found her body in the factory’s basement, stuffed behind an incinerator.

Phagan-Kean has conducted her own research and remains convinced the real killer was convicted back 101 years ago.

She said she wishes Rabbi Lebow and others would quit pursuing a full pardon for Frank, saying no on can prove definitively he didn’t strangle her great-aunt. Phagan-Kean remains convinced, after conducting her own research about the case, of Frank’s guilt.

“He doesn’t deserve to be exonerated,” said Phagan-Kean, a retired educator who now lives in Ellijay. “I’m angry and I’m tired of it. But it is my responsibility to speak up for her.”

The wider consensus, however, asserts Frank was falsely convicted.

Oney said he’s “98 percent” certain Frank was wrongly convicted, but said there were some inconsistencies in his statements to police. There were also several girls who worked at the factory who said Frank made them uncomfortable.

“They could’ve been compelled to testify that, but we don’t know. He could’ve been guilty of what would now be considered sexual harassment,” Oney said. “You can’t re-adjudicate 100-year-old cases.”

In 1986, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles admitted officials failed to protect Frank and prosecute his killers. The issue of his guilt or innocence was avoided.

“Jewish families were split up over this. Wives and children were moved up to Baltimore and other parts north for their safety,” said Lebow, standing in the spot where Frank was executed. There are no trees there anymore, just a patch of dirt surrounded by concrete, littered with trash.

“It’s a story that must not be forgotten,” Lebow said.

Without conclusive evidence, and with none of Frank’s descendants pushing for it, a full pardon is unlikely. There is little chance closure will ever come to the Frank case, and unsolved mysteries rarely fade from memory.

“It will never go away,” Phagan-Kean said. “One hundred years from now, someone will be writing a story on the 200th anniversary. I just hope they get it right.”