An American Tragedy

These days the city of Atlanta lifts to the eye a panorama of shimmering office towers indistinguishable from the Everycities of America’s corporate civilization, with the same surrounding suburban plain of toy-neat houses innumerably ranked along a maze of cul-de-sacs. It seems now wholly translated beyond the old furies and sulfurs of its region’s past, famously hailed by its mayor even during the South’s racial convulsions of the Fifties as “the city too busy to hate.”

That in fact was hardly ever the case. Steve Oney, an Atlanta native and journalist, has evoked in And the Dead Shall Rise a grim and teeming ghost story of one such infamous instance: beginning in 1913, the arrest, conviction, and eventual lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of a pencil factory, after the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who worked in his plant. From seventeen years of research, Oney’s prodigious excavation of that distant dark episode is, like most efforts of its ambitious scale, not without its excesses—an overpopulous cast of accessory players and a kudzu-like proliferation of peripheral circumstances, along with a certain tendency to employ the melodramatic phrasings of the period as if from too deep an immersion in its voices and papers. But what ultimately emerges is a monumental folk parable of innocent suffering and a blind, brutal urge for retribution that passes finally into the simple, stark awe and pity of tragedy.

Mary Phagan was a country girl, her family part of the haggard Southern yeomanry that, with the onset of industrialization in post-bellum Georgia, had forsaken the land for the bleak mill villages around Atlanta. She was auburn-haired and blue-eyed, with ruddy cheeks, and was said to have an eager and sprightly nature. Little more is known of her beyond, as Oney reports, the fact that she was entranced with the new glamour of the movies. She had been working since the age of ten, most recently for about a year in the National Pencil Factory. On the morning of the day she was to die—Saturday, April 26, 1913—“after eating a breakfast of cabbage and wheat biscuits,” in Oney’s striking opening line, she had dressed and boarded a trolley car for downtown Atlanta to pick up her pay envelope of $1.20.

The streets would be filled that Saturday with a Confederate Memorial Day parade, a celebration with a certain ironic import for Atlanta. Largely effaced by Sherman’s campaign through Georgia, the city had been left free to recreate itself virtually whole into a robust hive of commerce proclaimed by Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady in 1886 the capital of a brave New South of business. But many of its factories were flourishing on child labor, Georgia law allowing ten-year-olds to work as long as eleven hours a day. The dispossessed country folk like Mary Phagan’s family, from whom those child laborers came, felt a sullen resentment at their desperate dependence on that license. It …

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