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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The lynching affected the Jews of Atlanta, too. Tony Montag, whose family owned a controlling stake in the National Pencil Company, said. “My father told me it was the first time he’d ever seen his father with a gun.”

Atlanta’s German-Jewish elite now had to live in a community that included people who supported Frank’s conviction and the lynching. They coped by not talking about Frank. Montag said of his father: “If people did start talking about it in a social context, he would get up and leave the room. It was just a painful memory to him.”

The events of 1913 to 1915 threw two contradictory forces into motion in Atlanta. Frank was president of a local lodge of B’nai B’rith, the Jewish fraternal organization. His lynching galvanized the newly formed Anti-Defamation League, which went on to become the pre-eminent American Jewish organization to fight bigotry and intolerance.

A few months after Frank’s lynching, atop Stone Mountain, about 35 miles from Marietta, the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan held its first cross burning. The Klan was spurred partly by the release in 1915 of the movie “The Birth of a Nation.” But it was also bolstered by the nativist writings in Watson’s Jeffersonian and by the rising xenophobia in Atlanta over the previous two years.

Though the lynching frightened Atlanta’s Jewish community, most Jews remained in and around the city. As Atlanta’s population has grown rapidly in recent decades, the Jewish community has grown even faster.

Until recently, Cobb County had one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in metropolitan Atlanta, which itself was among the fastest-growing communities in America. During the last population survey, in 2006, conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the community had grown 56% in the previous decade, to 120,000 Jews.

A century after Frank’s conviction, there appears to be little appetite in the community — apart from Lebow — to push for exoneration. Oney said that his 17 years of research led him to believe that Conley probably murdered Phagan, but there is enough doubt to “leave the door ajar.” So much evidence has been bungled, destroyed or lost since the murder that to be able to say with 100% certainty that Frank is innocent “would give me a power of clairvoyance that I don’t have,” Oney added.

Today, the trial and the lynching seem unimaginable in Atlanta. But they were unimaginable a century ago, too.

When Cahan visited Frank in 1914, he told Frank that he wanted to send a telegram to New York explaining to readers what it is like to be an innocent man sentenced to death. Cahan said that Frank smiled and took from his pocket a pencil and a piece of card.

“The whole story seems like a dream to me,” Frank wrote. “It seems to me that I’m observing it from the side; it belongs to somebody else, not me. For the moment, I feel no fear at all.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger


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