Leo Frank case remains relevant today

It’s unusual to see a Latin phrase on a Jewish tombstone. Yet, Leo M. Frank’s grave marker in New York reads “SEMPER IDEM” – “nothing changes.” Was his family being prophetic 100 years ago, or have times and public opinion really not changed since Frank was lynched?

Frank, the only Jewish person ever to be lynched in America, was the chief operating officer of the National Pencil Co. On April 27, 1913, the body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found in the factory. Jim Conley, the factory porter, was accused of the crime and in four successive, conflicting affidavits he, in turn, implicated Frank as the perpetrator.

When Frank was arrested, the pastor of an Atlanta church told his congregation: “Thank God! We finally have a defendant worthy to pay for the crime! Not just some Negro sweeper, but a rich Yankee Jew!” This set the tone for all that was to follow.

Frank’s trial lasted 29 days, with large crowds gathered outside the courthouse. There were reports that when the jury was marched to court each morning, some chanted, “Hang the Jew or we’ll hang you.” As U.S. Supreme Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a scathing dissent in an appeal of Frank’s conviction, “Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury.”

Unsurprisingly, the jury found Frank guilty and he was sentenced to hang. In a courageous act, Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. Mobs were burning crosses on the lawn of the governor’s mansion and the National Guard had to be called out to protect the governor.

Meanwhile the drums were beating and some journalists openly called for the lynching of Frank. A group from Cobb County, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, drove to Milledgeville, where Frank was being held and, without incident, kidnapped him from the prison. Not a shot was fired. On August 17, 1915 he was taken to a large oak tree off Frey’s Gin Road and lynched.

While the names of the lynchers were known, no person was ever prosecuted for Leo Frank’s murder. The prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, was later elected governor of Georgia. Later, a French journalist visited Atlanta and talked the prosecutor’s former secretary into letting him review Dorsey’s file. In it he found numerous things pointing to Frank’s innocence but which, under legal precedent in those times, were not required to be given to the defendant’s lawyers. It created quite a scandal when published.

Not long after the lynching, some of the lynching party, joined by others in white robes and masks, met on top of Stone Mountain where they burned a cross and renamed themselves the Reconstituted Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Ironically, within days of that event, the Anti-Defamation League was revitalized and became one of the nation’s leading civil and human rights organizations … and the KKK’s bitter enemy.

In 1982, The Nashville Tennessean published “An Innocent Man Was Lynched.” The newspaper had found an 83-year-old eyewitness to the events of the death of Mary Phagan, Alonzo Mann. “Lonnie” Mann had been a 14-year-old office boy at National Pencil who, on the fateful Confederate Memorial Day that Mary Phagan was killed, had gone to the factory to see if Mr. Frank had any work for him. He saw Jim Conley coming down stairs, carrying the limp body of Mary Phagan. When Conley lunged to grab him, Lonnie ran out the door. His parents ordered him “not to get involved.” Nevertheless, Mann was called as one of many character witnesses to testify for Leo Frank, but he was so scared that he stuttered and could barely pronounce his own name. The trial judge excused him as a witness since he was “too young.” Lonnie didn’t get to tell his story, which would have proved Conley was lying about the facts of the murder.

In 1983 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied an application for Frank’s pardon, saying the case was too old. Alonzo Mann was present to hear that decision and said “It is not a very Christian thing you have done today. Leo Frank was innocent.” But in 1986 the Board, without declaring Frank innocent, granted a posthumous pardon to Leo Frank for the stated reason that he did not receive a fair trial and for the State’s failure to protect him in jail. Mann did not live long enough to celebrate Frank’s pardon.

When one considers the recent surge of anti-Semitism globally and even in the U.S., and recent events leading to the deaths of African-Americans in Charleston and elsewhere, it is obvious that prejudice and discrimination are still with us. “Nothing Changes.”

Perhaps it is time for our governor or state legislature to finally issue a resolution declaring the innocence of Leo Frank. Such an act would close the book on a great blight in Georgia’s history.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Atlanta Attorney Dale M. Schwartz was lead counsel in obtaining Leo Frank’s pardon.