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!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • 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.