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.
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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?”


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