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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Most Jews who know about Leo Frank believe that he was innocent. “He was wrongly accused, unjustly tried and wantonly murdered,” said Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth, in Marietta.

Lebow has waged a decades-long campaign to raise Frank’s profile and to secure a pardon. He was instrumental in erecting two plaques on the side of an office building closest to the believed site of Frank’s lynching within sight of The Big Chicken. The majority of Atlanta’s Jews have, at best, a vague knowledge of Frank’s case, if they have heard of it at all.

The last major attempt to pardon Frank, during the 1980s, was bolstered by the testimony of Alonzo Mann, a former pencil factory worker who said he had seen Conley struggling to carry Phagan’s body, alone. Mann, who was a teenager at the time of the murder, said his mother had told him to keep quiet.

The appeal was only a partial success. In 1986, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles found that there was insufficient evidence to clear Frank of Phagan’s murder. Instead, the parole board pardoned Frank on the grounds that the state failed to protect him and to provide an “opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction.”

Frank was abducted from the Milledgeville prison the night of August 16, 1915. The scar on his neck, from the attempt on his life less than a month earlier, had barely healed. A group of armed men, thought to number about 25, had driven south from Marietta through back roads earlier that evening, in seven cars. They cut the phone lines to the prison, overpowered prison staff and whisked away Frank, still dressed in his nightshirt.

“It was a feat of some daring,” said Oney, who linked some of Marietta’s elite to the crime by researching the area’s car owners in 1915. “All told, it was a 300 miles round trip, in the dead of night, on largely unpaved roads, in Model Ts and other cars of that vintage, with flat tires and magnesium headlights you had to light with a spark device.”

The convoy arrived at a wooded grove known as Freys Gin, a couple of miles outside Marietta, in the early morning of August 17. Frank was blindfolded, his arms handcuffed and legs bound. He was hoisted onto a table, where a noose was placed around his neck. Then the table was kicked away.

Over the course of the morning, a crowd of gawkers grew around the lynch site. “The crowd was an unruly, fanatically wild mass,” the Forverts reported. “With each passing moment it became even more infused with race hatred, with a lust to kill.” When the body was cut down, a member of the crowd stomped on Frank’s face.

The doctor who examined Frank’s body later told the Forverts: “There were well-defined markings of a sole of a shoe on his nose and near his left eye. His left ear was practically torn off. Many wounds to the skull. His facial expression was one of terror through having been brutalized.”

Marilyn Hurwitz, whose grandparents owned a store in Marietta at the time, said the mood in the town was grim. Her mother recalled how a mob gathered outside the family store the night after the lynching. Hurwitz, now 82, said the family had to rush through the crowd to make it to a streetcar bound for Atlanta. Her grandfather opened his store the following day, but he did not sleep in Marietta for some time afterward, Hurwitz said.

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