Photo of Jew's Lynching Goes on Block

Leo Frank's Gruesome Murder Image Auctioned at Sotheby's

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published October 12, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
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The decision of the lynch party to murder Frank, a Jew, rather than the black man Conley was very telling, Sarna said. “These folks saw in Leo Frank a symbol of the attack on the South, represented by all the values they had fought against: a Jew, a businessman, an assault on the South and on Southern womanhood,” Sarna said. “They sensed at the time that lynching Conley wouldn’t suffice. The public anger was so great that they wanted ‘something more’ than a black janitor.”

The people seen standing around the corpse in the photo were not the lynch party members, Oney explained, but some of the thousands of onlookers who arrived at the scene after word got out. Frank was hanged at 7 am and the body was taken down three hours later.

The lower part of Frank’s body is wrapped in burlap in order to hide his naked body, since he had been wearing only a nightshirt when he was kidnapped. The reason he was wearing a nightshirt rather than a prison uniform, Oney explained, is because weeks earlier, a fellow inmate had attempted to kill Frank, so in order to protect him, he had been transferred to the hospital unit of the penitentiary, where patients wore nightshirts.

In 1986 the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles admitted culpability in failing to protect Frank or prosecute his killers, although they did not exonerate him. Today, a number of Marietta’s street signs still carry the names of the lynch party members.

Oney doesn’t believe that the street names should be changed, however. “We can’t go around re-writing history; that would be Stalinesque,” he remarked. “We’re not here to impose our version; just to tell the story.” Such a move would be controversial for another reason, too. Many of the families of the lynchers continue to be prominent members of the community, and in some cases, highly regarded figures, such as the brother of lynch planner Herbert Clay, General Lucius Clay, who was a World War II hero.

History provides its own vindicating irony, however. Today Marietta, the site of the infamous event, is a sought-after bedroom community. Cobb County, of which Marietta is the seat, has Georgia’s fastest growing Jewish community.

Oney says he would be interested to find out who the new owner of the photo is, and what was his or her reason for purchasing it. “I do hope it’s in good hands, and that the present owner appreciates it for the imporant moment in history that it represents,” he said.

Contact Rukhl Schaechter at schaechter@yiddish.forward.com. This article was adapted from the Forverts.


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