Gov. John Slaton knew his decision to commute the death sentence of Georgia’s most notorious prisoner in July 1915 would be controversial.
Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank, convicted in the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, would still spend the rest of his life in prison, even though Slaton believed he had been wrongly convicted. Most his constituents strongly disagreed.
“I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation, ” Slaton, whose law partner was Frank’s lead counsel, said in his order. “But I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience, which would remind me in every thought that I, as a Governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right.”
The day the issue was ordered, a crowd of about 5,000 citizens marched to Slaton’s house in Buckhead. The governor had to call in the National Guard and would eventually flee the state. It would be 10 years before he returned.
Nine days before Frank’s lynching, former Gov. Joseph M. Brown, who had preceded Slaton in office, wrote an opinion piece in The Macon Telegraph asserting it was time for “the people to form mobs.”
Populist politician Tom Watson, writing in his newspaper The Jeffersonian, ratcheted up the rhetoric even more, just as he had done throughout Frank’s trial.
“Hereafter, “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?” wrote Watson, a celebrated trial lawyer who served in Congress and the Senate.
Gov. Slaton, he predicted, would be forever haunted by the commutation of “this satyr-faced New York Jew”: “And he will swaet blood!”