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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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.


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