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!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • 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?"
  • 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.