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 4 of 6)

Indeed, Frank’s lynching stands out — as a white man, his lynching was the exception rather than the norm. Almost a decade earlier, 25 black people were killed and 150 injured during a 1906 race riot in Atlanta that was sparked by reports of a white woman being raped by a black man. In 1915, the year of Frank’s lynching, 21 black people were lynched, including one, John Riggins, who was hanged in South Georgia the same day as Frank.

By contrast, Jews were well integrated into Southern society. Many prominent Atlanta businessmen — the Riches, the Elsases, the Hirsches and the Seligs — were Jewish. Even in Marietta, the small Jewish community owned businesses and prospered. But Frank’s trial, conviction and appeal brought out an ugly side in the community, a side that was inflamed by the press.

Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, was the most prominent of a number of Northern newspaper owners to wage a campaign casting aspersions on the trial. The perception of Northerners interfering in Southern justice was grist for anti-Semites such as Thomas Watson, a former congressman and vice presidential candidate whose newspaper, the Jeffersonian, railed against “the Northern papers, which are owned by rich Jews.”

“This campaign of lies, abuse, defamation and race hatred gets worse and worse,” Watson wrote in a typical editorial in early 1915. “It must be costing the Chosen People a lot of money.”

While Frank was being retried in the court of public opinion, his lawyers fought to win an appeal. They argued that the hostile public sentiment that had precluded Frank from the courtroom proved he hadnot received a fair trial.

Even Conley’s lawyer, William Smith, joined Frank’s defense. When an analysis of the two notes found at the murder scene appeared to show that Frank could not have dictated them, Smith became convinced the murder could only have been the work of Conley.

Frank’s lawyers appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices found 7­–2 against Frank. His lawyers pressed on. In June 1915, they persuaded Georgia Governor John Slaton, then in his last days in office, to commute Frank’s sentence to life in prison.

Overnight, Frank was moved about 100 miles southeast to a prison at Milledgeville. The reaction was swift. A mob of thousands marched on the governor’s mansion. In Marietta, Slaton was hanged in effigy. An inmate at Milledgeville took matters into his own hands and slit Frank’s throat. But he survived.


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!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • 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.
  • 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.