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!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • 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.