The 1913 trial and conviction of Leo Frank stoked a fiery public debate across America about race, religion, class and anti-Semitism. Frank’s case was so important to the Jewish community that the Forward’s editor, Abraham Cahan, traveled to Atlanta in 1914 to visit Frank in his jail cell. Cahan devoted 250 pages to Frank in the fifth volume of his memoirs, published in Yiddish in 1931. The following is an excerpt, translated by Chana Pollack, the Forward’s archivist, and edited for length and style.
Chapter 29 — I Travel To Atlanta
His cell was on an upper level. Behind iron bars stood a thin, brown haired young man with impressionable, intelligent eyes and next to him, inside his cell, a tall pretty young woman. They were Frank and his wife.
The portraits of him that I’d seen in the newspapers were similar to the original item. I recognized him immediately.
We greeted each other through the bars, and he introduced me to Mrs. Frank.
The neighboring cells — six — were empty. As I immediately realized, the Sheriff had intentionally not placed other prisoners there, in order for Frank to feel more comfortable, and to be able to have friends visit because the Sheriff, a man named Wheeler Mangum, was convinced that Frank was innocent and he did everything so that Frank’s life in captivity would be easier.
He had also permitted him to bring his own bed and bedding from home.
One of the cells was larger than the others, and the Franks and their guests used it as a parlor, sitting or standing and speaking through the bars.
Only Mrs. Frank was permitted by the Sheriff to go inside his cell. The rest of the visitors used to stand outside in the open ‘parlor.’ Mrs. Frank used to spend entire days there in his cell.
I jokingly remarked about the ‘seven room apartment’ that Frank rented here and he laughed heartily.
He told of how loyal the Sheriff was to him. At the time of the trial he was the one who, for the most part, drove Frank back and forth from the prison to court and back.
Once, when the trial neared its end, an angry crowd began pushing over to their car. Sheriff Mangum became upset.
Frank was seated next to him and in order to better protect his prisoner, Mangum told him to go sit behind him. Then, he drew his pistol out saying, “if they want to get you, they’ll have to get to you through my dead body. At any rate I’m an old man. You’re still young.”
Chapter 31 — What Frank Told Me About The Issue Of Anti-Semitism
I spoke with Frank at length in the beginning regarding the connection of anti-Semitism to his case. His answer to my question was as follows: “Anti-Semitism is absolutely not the reason for this libel that has been framed against me. The police harassed me because they have no one else to accuse. Because I’m a Jew, in their incitement they knew they could take advantage of my background too. And it was important to attack Jews overall. Don’t forget that this is the South where a Negro has no value. A Negro isn’t to be believed and one is always ready to blame them for the most serious crimes. And now, how is Conley [the prosecution’s star witness, a black factory sweeper] to be believed against a White? Though a Jew is actually not a Southern Christian, he is still a White. So they found it necessary to belittle the Jews so that a Negro against a Jew is believable.”
“If I were an Italian, they would be inciteful against me as an
Italian,” he proposed in a tone of someone deeply convinced.
Mrs. Frank who was born and raised in Atlanta, supported her husband’s claim. She gave me some examples of Jews in Atlanta who have always felt at home among the Christians.
“We became close, intimate friends, Jewish and Christian girls,” she said. “We frequently visited each other and our families were also close friends. We went to each other’s homes as guests, to each other’s weddings and parties. We knew nothing else. In the North it’s not like that. But here, in the South, it’s always been different.”
I heard similarly from other Jews in town. But the Frank case, with the incitements the police had circulated against the Jewish superintendent of the pencil factory, fired up angry feelings against all Jews — at the very least among the rabble.
“Once the masses were incited, simply insane with xenophobia,” Frank said, “they would just as soon believe even a Negro against a Jew.”
Many Christians, especially the intelligentsia, treated the Jews generally with their usual friendliness, whether they were swept up in the anti-Frank stream or not.
In one of my further discussions with Frank I asked if he had heard of the Beilis Trial. [Mendel Beilis was tried in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1913 for allegedly murdering a Christian boy to use his blood to make matzo. Beilis was acquitted.]
“Yes, I read about it,” Frank answered, “in one of the Jewish weeklies that are published in English. I assure you however, that my case has nothing in common with it.”
“But once the anti-Semitic poison has been poured in, there are certain similarities between your tragedy and Beilis’s. There a libel and here a libel.”
“Yes, a libel!,” Frank responded. “But with Beilis they made a true anti-Semitic libel, the ridiculous accusation that Jews desire Christian blood in their matzo. My case is simply a misfortune. There’s no telling how much trouble it’s created! Further on, this trouble grew into a bitterness against me as a Jew and as a Brooklyner, as superintendent of a factory, and as anything else you can want.”
My impression was that Frank didn’t want to make too much out of the anti-Semitism question in his case. He didn’t tell me that in those words precisely; I however, felt his wish and in several notes I made and in longer sections of a few articles I prepared, I didn’t use it. Now, however, when I write these pages [of my memoir] they are part of my material.
Telling Story of Leo Frank From His Jail Cell