Leo Frank Case Stirs Debate 100 Years After Jewish Lynch Victim's Conviction

Notorious Case Raises Thorny Questions of Race and Hate


By Paul Berger

Published August 19, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

A century ago, Cobb County, Ga., was a sleepy farming community outside Atlanta, home to about 25,000 people. Now the county is an affluent suburb with a population of 700,000, including a booming Jewish community of about 8,000 families served by four synagogues, two restaurants doling out bagels and deli food, and a Kroger supermarket with a large kosher section.

“It’s changed so much by the influx of new people that it’s almost like a fairy tale that the lynching ever occurred,” said Roy Barnes, former governor of Georgia, as he sat in his wood-paneled office just off the main square in Marietta, the county’s largest city and its seat of government.

But the lynching did occur, just a couple of miles from Barnes’s law office, when an angry mob led by Marietta’s elite — including Barnes’s wife’s grandfather — stormed a remote prison, kidnapped Leo Max Frank, brought him back to Marietta and hung him from an oak tree in what is believed to be the only lynching of a Jew in America.

Paul Berger

Frank’s lynching provided the denouement for one of the 20th century’s most contentious and consequential murder trials, galvanizing both the infancy of the Anti-Defamation League and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The gruesome image of Frank — dressed in only a nightshirt, his neck broken by the noose, his lifeless body dangling from a tree as townspeople rejoiced — has become an iconic illustration of Southern anti-Semitism and hatred, an ugly trope that today still echoes in dark corners of the Internet.

But the story began nearly two years earlier, on August 25, 1913, when Frank was convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old white girl from Marietta who worked in the factory that Frank managed. Outside the courtroom, a crowd of 5,000 celebrated the verdict, while Northern Jews — including Abraham Cahan, editor of the Forverts — denounced the trial as a travesty of justice.

Today, the oak tree where Frank was hung is long gone. Strip malls, the I-75 overpass and a 56-foot-tall metal hen, an advertisement for a fast-food restaurant referred to locally as “The Big Chicken,” have replaced the surrounding woods.

The story of the Frank trial and lynching is buried deep beneath layers of trauma, embarrassment and shame. And 100 years after Frank’s conviction for the murder of Mary Phagan, the debate over his guilt or innocence continues.

‘The case [against Frank] is not as feeble as most people say it is,” said Steve Oney, a former staff writer at the Atlanta Journal Constitution whose 2003 book, “And The Dead Shall Rise,” on Phagan’s murder and Frank’s lynching, took 17 years to research and write.

“It was a tremendous event,” Oney said. “It’s deeply complicated with all kinds of class and race and religious undercurrents, and then there’s just the overriding question of what happened. Who killed Mary Phgan, and who lynched Leo Frank?”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.