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Frank, who was convicted in August 1913 for strangling his young employee, 13-year old Mary Phagan, is believed to be the only Jew ever lynched in the United States. Phagan was found strangled in the factory cellar. From the beginning, many people believed Frank to be innocent, and that it was, in fact, factory janitor Jim Conley, a black petty criminal, who murdered Phagan. The all-white jury accepted Conley’s testimony over Frank’s, however, and after merely one month, Frank was pronounced guilty and sentenced to death.
Most Georgians celebrated the verdict, but observers around the country were outraged.
Two years later, after Frank’s defenders succeeded in commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment, Frank was kidnapped from the state penitentiary, driven to the town where the Phagan family lived, and hanged from a tree. The lynching spawned the revival of the Ku Klux Klan as well as the founding of the Anti-Defamation League.
The false conviction of Leo Frank for murder, and his lynching two years later, had a traumatic impact on American Jewry, explained Steve Oney, author of the book, “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank” (Pantheon Books, 2003). As Frank’s defenders worked diligently to commute his death sentence to life in prison, and even Georgia Gov. John Slaton campaigned and finally succeeded in doing so, the Southern Jews remained silent.
“The Jewish community in Atlanta then was 95% Reform,” Oney explained. “They were very assimilated and simply didn’t want to act too Jewish.”
“The Jews may have considered themselves white and accepted, but the trial and the subsequent lynching reminded them that they weren’t,” said Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
Northern Jews, on the other hand, rushed to defend Frank, and the New York Times led a series of articles on the story. “It was clear that New York Times Publisher Adolph Ochs saw it as a Jewish mission,” Sarna said. “But ultimately, the mission failed and the Times was attacked as ‘a Jewish paper’. No doubt, one of the reasons that the Times later failed to cover the Holocaust during World War II was tied to their earlier crusade for Leo Frank.”