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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But the Forverts added that there was also a suspicion of anti-Semitism. “Many, however, say that such hatred is prevalent towards Frank because he is a Jew and he is successful,” the paper reported. “His lawyers discussed this openly in court in their defense of Frank.”

The judge was so nervous for the defendant’s safety that he asked for Frank to be kept away from the courtroom for the verdict that day. When the guilty verdict was announced, thousands who had gathered in the streets outside the courthouse cheered.

Fresh flowers, small toys and tchotchkes still adorn the grave of “Little Mary Phagan” in Marietta City Cemetery. Such is the evidence that people still make a pilgrimage up the hillside to where she is buried, surrounded by the tombstones of relatives and some of the old Marietta families that formed Frank’s lynch party.

Even today, new memorials are still being planned. On June 1, The Marietta Daily Journal ran a small news item reporting that Commander Jack Bridwell, of the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Soldiers, announced that that day and every subsequent June 1 would be marked as “Little Mary Phagan Day.”

“They asked for my approval on that,” Mary Phagan-Kean, the victim’s 59-year-old great-niece told the Forward. Kean, who moved to Ellijay, 80 miles north of Marietta, last year, assented to Bridwell’s request with the caveat that Mary Phagan’s name could never be used for “prejudicial purposes.”

“You wouldn’t believe the calls I get from crazy people,” Kean said.

The Frank case has long been a magnet for anti-Semitic groups. A few decades ago, the Ku Klux Klan marched through Marietta to Phagan’s grave to protest a movement to secure a posthumous pardon for Frank.

Anti-Semitic attitudes certainly played a role in Frank’s lynching. But Kean’s family, which is firmly convinced of Frank’s guilt, denies that anti-Semitism explains his conviction.

In this respect, Kean has some support from Frank himself. Cahan traveled to Atlanta in March 1914 to visit Frank in his cell. In the fifth volume of Cahan’s memoirs, published in Yiddish in 1931, Cahan relates that Frank told him the Atlanta police were desperate for a conviction. Mary Phagan’s murder presented a huge challenge for prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, who had just come off the back of two embarrassing courtroom defeats.

“Anti-Semitism is absolutely not the reason for this libel that has been framed against me,” Frank told Cahan. “It isn’t the source nor the result of this sad story.”

Instead, Frank said, police had “taken advantage” of Frank’s Jewishness to undermine his case. They had disparaged Jews in general so “that a Negro against a Jew is believable.“


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