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

(page 2 of 6)

“It’s a double murder mystery and a social history,” Oney added. “For some reason, these two cases were so charged with deeper implications that the entire country ultimately got caught up in it.”

Phagan took the trolley from her home near Marietta for the 20-mile ride to Atlanta on April 26, 1913, bound for the Confederate Memorial Day parade. On her way into town, she stopped by the National Pencil Factory, in Atlanta, to pick up her pay.

It was a Saturday, and Frank, the factory’s superintendent, was at work as usual. He paid Phagan the $1.20 she was owed and, according to his later testimony, she went on her way. No one recalled seeing her again that day. During the early hours of the following morning, the night watchman found her body in the factory basement.

The girl’s hair and face were covered in soot and cinders; her dress had been pulled up above her knees, and her $1.20 was missing. There was a large gash on the side of her head, and she had been strangled with a piece of cord. Two garbled notes found next to the body implicated a “long, tall, black Negro” in the murder.

Over the following weeks, the Atlanta police botched the collection of evidence and arrested several suspects, including the black night watchman and a black factory sweeper. Eventually they turned their attention to Frank, who was arrested April 29. As the drama unfolded, the city’s newspapers competed for scoop after scoop to bring the Atlanta public and, soon the rest of America, a string of often embellished and sensational stories.

There was plenty of copy to go around. The murder of Mary Phagan and the trial of Leo Frank contained all the ingredients of a blockbuster story.

Phagan, the young, pretty child of a typical lower-class Georgia family, represented all that was innocent and pure among the exploited and downtrodden families of the South. Fifty years after the Civil War —known to Georgians as the War of Northern Aggression — many families were still scrambling to get by. The pencil factory, like many Atlanta mills and factories of the day, profited off child labor.

Frank, 29, represented much of what locals despised about the North. Awkward and effete, he was born in Texas and raised in New York. Frank had a degree from Cornell University. He moved to Atlanta in 1908 to work at the pencil factory, which was part owned by his uncle, Moses Frank. In 1910 he married Lucille Selig, daughter of a prominent German-Jewish family, and together they enjoyed the fruits of Atlanta’s privileged world.

During the trial of August 1913, the star witness against Frank was the black factory sweeper, James Conley, who had initially denied to police that he knew anything about the murder. Following weeks of imprisonment and interrogation, and after changing his affidavit four times, Conley told police that Frank had murdered the girl after she resisted his advances and that Frank had asked Conley to help him move her body. Conley testified that Frank dictated the murder notes to him to throw police off Frank’s trail.

Conley gave convincing testimony and withstood three days of cross-examination. A reader of the Forverts, on August 26, could have been forgiven for suspecting that Frank was guilty. “Several witnesses testified that Frank had a corrupt and immoral character and that he consistently harassed the women and girls who worked in the factory, and these stories very much stirred public opinion against him,” the Forverts reported.


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!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • 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.