Death and Disaster in Georgia
And the Dead Shall Rise:
The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank
By Steve Oney
Pantheon Books, 742 pages, $35.
* * *|
On August 16, 1915, Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman from the North who had been living and working in Atlanta, was snatched from a jail cell by 25 vigilantes, taken to a neighboring rural town and lynched. His body was then cut down from the tree and desecrated before it was returned to Atlanta for burial. This was the brutal end to a story that began just 26 months earlier, on April 27, 1913, when 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found dead and beaten in the basement of the pencil factory that was managed by Frank, who was promptly accused and ultimately convicted of the crime. But the narrative line from Phagan’s murder to Frank’s lynching was not a simple, straightforward one, and some of it has never been publicly disclosed.
That is, until now, with the publication of Steve Oney’s masterful “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.” As crucial as Frank’s case is in understanding American Jewish history, it holds a curious historical position. The trial attracted worldwide attention and was considered by many a national tragedy and public manifestation of the viciousness of American antisemitism. It was the basis for Mervyn Le Roy’s much-touted 1937 Hollywood film “They Won’t Forget” and again made the news when it served as the inspiration for Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s critically acclaimed 1999 Broadway musical “Parade.” But except for Harry Golden’s exposé the 1965 “A Little Girl is Dead” and Leonard Dinnerstein’s more scholarly 1968 “The Leo Frank Case,” book-length studies of the case have been rare. The story didn’t seem to have the resonant power of, say, the Lindbergh kidnapping or the Leopold and Loeb murder case and, to a large degree, it faded from the public consciousness.
In “And the Dead Shall Rise,” Oney, trained as an investigative journalist, has uncovered vital information about Frank’s lynching — including the names of its instigators, many of whom turn out to have been prominent Georgia businessmen and politicians. But the book is most impressive because Oney has created a tapestry of the social and political times and the legal proceedings filled with rich detail, nuanced observation and a page-turning narrative that reads like a best-selling novel, without ever sacrificing historical accuracy or journalistic integrity.
The bulk of “And the Dead Shall Rise” is a detailed re-creation of Frank’s trial and the legal complications that followed — he was found guilty and received a death sentence, which, in reaction to massive protests, was then commuted to life imprisonment by Georgia’s governor — and there is much new material here. Oney is especially good at explicating the myriad ways the prosecution played the blackness of Jim Conley, the other suspect, against Frank’s Jewishness to obtain the guilty verdict. The prosecution pit one series of stereotypes against the other — Conley may have had “animal” sexual instincts, but he was portrayed as being too childlike and simple to concoct his alibi; Frank, on the other hand, was a sexual predator determined to corrupt young women, and his good business sense indicated he was heartless and calculating — while relentlessly playing to a populist antisemitism that was magnified in the press and easily bought by a general population of people who lived in near-poverty. (It is now widely concluded that it was Conley who murdered Phagan.) Oney’s investigation of the trial’s mechanics are superb; complicated legal maneuvers are explained with clarity, and he never loses sight of the enormous personal and social drama that looms over all of these details.
But as good as the trial material is here, Oney especially shines when he re-creates the life of Frank, his wife, Lucille, and Atlanta’s Jewish community in the early decades of this century. This social history, which is woven throughout the book, is vital to explain why a jury in the racially segregated South in 1915 presiding over what was viewed as a sexualized murder case would convict a Jew over an African American. While Oney adroitly paints an astute portrait of the complex social, emotional, political and financial relationships of middle- and upper-middle-class Atlanta Jews to the city’s other citizens, he is perceptive and discerning when illuminating what he calls the “collective sexual hysteria” that gripped the public imagination over the case. Frank’s Jewishness was seen as both a prerequisite and a predictor of immoral and abnormal sexual lust, and the prosecution brought forth a barrage of witnesses who claimed to have seen Frank harassing and even molesting young women factory workers. And Oney is as good when describing the “collective sexual denial” of the Atlanta Jewish community, which, in the defense of Frank, portrayed him as an impossible, even inhuman, model of perfection. This examination of early 20th-century Southern sexual politics is at the heart of “And the Dead Shall Rise” and is a remarkable contribution to our understanding of it.
The Frank case is an important benchmark of prejudice in American history. Not only is it a jarring example of where even “polite” antisemitism can lead; it is a complex and shocking interplay of this bigotry with white racism and the use of racial myths to “prove” Conley’s innocence. Oney presents the complicated racial subtexts of “And the Dead Shall Rise” — especially the uses of myths about intelligence and sexual rapaciousness — unflinchingly and without political pieties. This analysis, along with his explication of the sexual overtones of the case as well as his new investigations into the trial and lynching, makes “And the Dead Shall Rise” stand head and shoulders above the other literature on the Frank case and, in addition, a thrill to read.
Michael Bronski is a film critic for the Forward.