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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 was a rancor, with many of the factories owned by Jewish entrepreneurs, that would smolder throughout the trial following Mary Phagan’s death.

Also arriving at the factory that Saturday morning to catch up on paperwork was its twenty-nine-year-old superintendent, Leo Frank—a slight, bespectacled figure, raised in Brooklyn and educated at the Pratt Institute and Cornell, and endowed with an unremittingly shy and self-contained reserve. Though he had married into one of Atlanta’s diligently assimilated German-Jewish mercantile families, he remained something of a stranger in a strange land, his tight and almost primly fastidious manner disguising an interior uncertainty that, according to his relatives, gave way at times to seizures of a private dread.

While Atlanta had long shown an unusually easy and hospitable acceptance of the Jewish families settled in its midst, neither they nor Frank could have been unaware that they made their home in a region of raw racism. Though the Klan with its anti-Semitic vituperations had been fairly dormant since the 1870s, lynchings continued at a brisk pace—in Georgia, there would be 508 of them between 1882 and 1930, twenty-two in 1915 alone. But this readiness for vigilante execution had seemed almost exclusively occupied with African-Americans, and Atlanta’s Jews maintained a resolute cheerfulness about the comfortable normalcy of their own place in the community.

It was in the early hours of Sunday morning that a night watchman at the pencil factory found the body of Mary Phagan lying in the rubbish and cinders of the basement. She had been strangled to death, the twine still wound around her neck, her face battered, and her underdrawers ripped and bloody. Soon discovered in the debris beside her were two curious notes, scrawled on company paper, that seemed a crude, barely intelligible effort at pretending to have been written by the victim herself:

he said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it…. he push me down that hole …i wright this while play with me.

However bizarre and unlikely these notes seemed, police suspicions quickly settled on Leo Frank, principally owing to his behavior when they arrived at his house early Sunday morning to notify him of Mary Phagan’s murder. It was a time when much melodramatic import was placed on particulars of manner, and police would later testify that Frank paced about his front parlor “nervous” and “excited,” blurting questions as he twisted his hands, his voice “hoarse and trembling.” Being aroused early on a morning to receive such macabre news from two bluff and baleful Atlanta police officers might have been enough to unnerve anyone. But it was to be presented as additionally incriminating that when Frank was taken to the factory site, he answered detectives’ queries with explanations that struck them as too elaborately voluble and that, on being taken to a mortuary, he had turned away from the sight of Mary Phagan’s body lying on the concrete slab. On little more evidence than this, he was formally arrested a day later and put in Atlanta’s city jail.

The murder notes, though, remained something of a puzzle until the factory’s twenty-nine-year-old black sweeper, James Conley, was also arrested when seen at the factory’s water cooler trying to wash out red stains from a work shirt. Having been frequently jailed before for drunk and disorderly conduct, once for attempted armed robbery, with two terms on Georgia chain gangs, Conley now offered up a succession of contradictory avowals—including, initially, that he couldn’t read or write. But under the sort of strenuous interrogation Southern lawmen could apply to a black subject, he finally professed that Frank, after killing the girl on the factory’s second floor in a ravishment attempt gone awry, had enlisted his aid in transporting her body in the elevator down to the basement, and then dictated to him the murder notes, with the rather improbable remark to him, Conley claimed, “Why should I hang, I have wealthy people in Brooklyn.”

Meanwhile, public fevers had already begun gathering. On the afternoon of Frank’s visit to the funeral home, some ten thousand local folk had also collected there to shuffle past an open casket holding Mary Phagan’s body, and Frank’s subsequent arrest was announced by a local paper, above a photo of him, “POLICE HAVE THE STRANGLER,” in what had become a free-for-all among the city’s three newspapers of clangoring headlines like “NEIGHBORS OF SLAIN GIRL CRY FOR VENGEANCE.” This rising clamor stirred no little unease among those in Atlanta’s Jewish community sensitive to the precariousness of their position in a society into which they had assiduously strived to absorb themselves. After a somewhat raffishly opportunistic local attorney was found to have offered money for stolen police documents that might compromise the case against Frank, he simply counter-blustered that the police had “sold out to the Jews for big money” to humiliate him in order “to protect this damned Jew.” Thus, only a month after Frank’s arrest, what Atlanta’s Jews feared most—an outbreak of anti-Semitic antipathies lurking in the populace—was loosed into the air.

The trial proceeded in the late summer, with electric fans whirring over the crammed and sweltering courtroom—which, at procedural points scored by the prosecution, would detonate into cheers and applause, with word of the stroke just delivered whooped through the open windows to the crowd mobbed in the street outside. This second audience greeted the prosecutor’s arrivals and exits from the courtroom with roaring ovations, which, along with the eruptions inside, hardly escaped the contemplation of the jury.

For the prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey—who had lost a mortifying series of previous trials—the fundamental difficulty was that the brief against Frank was never to consist of any physical evidence directly connecting him to the slaying. Dorsey was thus obliged to construct a complex of circumstantial indicators—blood on the floor where Mary Phagan worked, the digestive time of the cabbage in her stomach, an alleged fifty-minute gap in Frank’s account of his whereabouts that midday—which, in combination, might be enough to convict.

But mainly shaping his case was the proposition that Frank had fancied Mary Phagan, would “try to flirt with her” and “often winked at her,” and had in fact been a covert rampant libertine who “rubbed up against” other girls at the factory and had engaged in dalliances in the woods of an Atlanta suburb. Conley himself maintained that he had often stood watch in the factory lobby as Frank conducted trysts upstairs with assorted easy women. To explain what would have seemed the garish disparity between this satyr-like behavior and Frank’s supremely staid comportment, the prosecution proposed a “Jekyll and Hyde” notion of his character: “This defendant,…when the shades of night come, throws aside his mask of respectability and is transformed….”

Frank indeed maintained throughout the trial a particularly taut, impassive, almost detached composure that did little to invite sympathy. This seeming abstraction from the awfulness of the crime of which he was accused was owing, Frank indicated in a letter to a friend, to a lasting daze at the “outrageous trouble” that “overtook me like a bolt from the blue. The charge was so preposterous…so foreign and far removed from my most fantastic conception.”

Frank’s defense would contend that it was Conley, meaning to rob Mary Phagan of her pay envelope, who had wound up killing her and disposing of her body down a chute, which was one of two other accesses to the basement, and then had written the murder notes alone. But the trial unfolded mostly as a phantasmagoria of mutually refuting perceptions of guilt and innocence, multiple retractions of testimony and then retractions of those retractions, counteraccusations of bribery and intimidations of witnesses. In all this, one detail only glancingly mentioned—though emblematic in its own way of the whole rank and squalid affair—was a deposit of human feces found at the bottom of the elevator shaft on the police detectives’ first visit, which during their subsequent visit with Frank was flattened by the elevator they took to the basement, emitting an unmistakable reek. Conley had readily acknowledged defecating at the bottom of the elevator shaft the morning of the murder. But if, as he had also sworn, he and Frank had later brought Mary Phagan’s body down in the elevator, “it would have smashed the excrement then,” as a Frank lawyer would eventually point out. But this seemingly definitive inconsistency in Conley’s testimony, almost certainly meaning he had not delivered the body to the basement by using the elevator, was somehow never really addressed during the trial itself.

Instead, those proceedings to decide Frank’s fate turned into largely a tournament of competing racisms. It was one of the few instances in the South of a white man, in every other way impeccably respectable, being tried for a capital crime mainly on the testimony of, as Conley was characterized by the defense, “a plain, beastly, drunken, filthy, lying nigger…fired with lust….” In fact, the racial derision of Conley was heartily participated in by all parties, including the press, one reporter pointing out, “Conley isn’t a cornfield negro. He’s more of the present-day type of city darkey,” and even The New York Times would eventually describe him as a “drunken, lowlived, utterly worthless…black human animal.” But the prosecution as well concurred in the racist caricaturing of its central witness, Dorsey declaring, about Frank’s reluctance to directly confront Conley before the trial, “never in the history of the Anglo-Saxon race…did an ignorant, filthy negro accuse a white man of a crime and that man decline to face him.”

The telling difference in that formulation, of course, was that Frank didn’t happen to be of the Anglo-Saxon race. And as if in acknowledgment of that liability, a defense lawyer insisted, “Frank’s race don’t kill. They are not a violent race,” and later, the defense felt it had to stipulate that one of its witnesses was, “it’s true, a Jew, but she was telling the truth.” The defense finally risked arousing exactly what it was protesting by claiming that Frank had only invited prosecution because he “comes from a race of people that have made money.” To counter that suggestion, Dorsey intoned that while “this great people rise to heights sublime…they sink to the depths of degradation, too,” mentioning among a list of Jewish malefactors Judas Iscariot, “a good character and one of the Twelve” who nevertheless “took the thirty pieces of silver and betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It wasn’t long before these two contending racisms would be joined by the offstage vociferations of Georgia’s raucous demagogue Tom Watson. A scruffy populist evangel descended from Jefferson’s old dream of a democracy of small farmers, Watson had originally labored to mobilize, against the advent of the industrial Gilded Age financed by Wall Street, an alliance between the poor whites and blacks of the South. But after a defeat for reelection to Congress and then as the vice-presidential nominee of William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Party, Watson by 1913 had retreated into a rancorous vilification of not only blacks but Catholics and Jews. He wrote in his weekly The Jeffersonian, as the trial began to catch the appalled attention of the national press, “It seems that Negroes are good enough to hold office, sleep in our beds, eat at our tables, marry our daughters, and mongrelize the Anglo-Saxon race, but are not good enough to bear testimony against a rich Jew!“; “the fact” was, he quoted from a dingily anti-Semitic volume of the time, “pleasure loving Jewish businessmen spare Jewesses, but PURSUE GENTILE GIRLS….” Before things were over with, Watson’s weekly had tripled its readership to almost 100,000 across the state.

After a trial lasting a month, the jury took only an hour and forty-five minutes to declare Frank guilty. The throng of five thousand outside the courtroom broke into a tumult of celebration, hats tossed in the air, and when Dorsey emerged, he was hoisted up and passed by jubilant hands over the heads of the crowd. The next morning, Frank was sentenced to hang, and shortly thereafter, the jurors, Dorsey, the judge, and reporters congregated at a park for a convivial barbecue with catfish and Brunswick stew.

But Atlanta’s Jewish citizens had been left profoundly shaken by the trial’s revelations of the anti-Semitic sentiment lingering in the society where they had with such determined optimism chosen to make their lives. Even so, against the pronounced misgivings of some Jewish leaders, others now mounted within the nation’s Jewish community—which would later evolve into the Anti-Defamation League—a campaign to appeal to the whole country’s conscience, for a rejection of the plainly anti-Semitic verdict against Frank. The publisher Adolph Ochs, after an initial reluctance to involve his New York Times lest it be perceived as simply “a Jewish newspaper,” finally opened its pages to a series of condemnatory reports and editorials. And before long, the Frank case had amplified into a national scandal, with protests in magazines and newspapers from Boston to Milwaukee to Houston, and popular appeals for clemency and a new trial from an array of governors and senators and figures ranging from Boston’s mayor James Curley to Jane Addams, Thomas Edison, even, improbably, Henry Ford.

Yet for the most part, the national furor only had the effect in Georgia of producing a popular backfire of indignation over being maligned by outsiders, and an intractable resolve that Frank must hang. That reaction was especially invigorated by the invective of Tom Watson in The Jeffersonian: “The pure little Gentile victim is dust in the grave, while the Sodomite who took her sweet young life basks in the warmth…, the be-flowered pet” of a national solicitude promoted by “millionaire Jews.” And he delivered, in his usual circus-poster effusion of punctuation and typefaces, clear exhortations to a lynching: “If Frank’s rich connections keep on lying about this case, SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN.”

All the while, a protracted appeals process finally reached Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, though declining to reverse a lower court’s denial of a new trial, added that “I very seriously doubt if the petitioner has had due process of law…because of the trial taking place in the presence of a hostile demonstration….” Moreover, the judge who had presided over the trial allowed in a letter dictated shortly before his death that “I am still uncertain of Frank’s guilt…largely due to the character of the negro Conley’s testimony….”

With all legal appeals exhausted, Frank’s last hope of being spared from the gallows came down to the possibility of a commutation by Georgia’s outgoing governor, John Slaton. After finding that linguistic patterns in the murder notes seemed to demonstrate to a certainty that they had been written by Conley alone, and after considering the circumstance of the feces left in the elevator shaft, he startled almost everyone by deciding to commute Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. With that, Frank was swiftly spirited, late at night, to the presumed safety of the state’s prison farm in Milledgeville, in the piney countryside 150 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Almost immediately, mobs converged on Slaton’s wooded estate in north Atlanta, only to be beaten back by deployments of police and state militiamen. In the square of Marietta, a town just north of Atlanta that was the Phagan family’s ancestral home, as Oney relates, Slaton was hung in effigy under the sign “King of the Jews and Traitor Governor of Georgia.” Not unexpectedly, Tom Watson blared in The Jeffersonian that “Jew money has debased us” in buying a reprieve for “this Jewish hunter of Gentile girls,” and he once again invoked the specter of a rougher spontaneous judgment by proposing “whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.” Watson would go on to pronounce that

this country has never had riots against the Jews, as all European countries have had; but the same causes, if they exist here, will produce the same results…and THIS FRANKENSTEIN, whom you created at such enormous expense, WILL HUNT YOU DOWN!

Indeed, a blizzard of leaflets presently covered Atlanta and Marietta calling for a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, and in Marietta notices were slapped on the doors of Jewish merchants demanding they “close this business…or else stand the consequences. We mean to rid Marietta of all Jews….”

Soon, there began to discreetly assemble in that community an expedition to abduct Frank from the Milledgeville prison farm. It is one of Oney’s arresting disclosures that the raid was organized by some of Marietta’s most notable citizens, including a former governor, a former state senator now solicitor general of Marietta’s judicial circuit, and a judge in the same circuit who was formerly speaker of the Georgia House. Among them was also a prominent attorney named John Tucker Dorsey, called John Tuck, a distant cousin of the prosecutor, who, though having once clubbed a man to death with a sawed-off pool cue and having served a turn on the chain gang, was now a state legislator and chairman of the House Penitentiary Committee. The actual lynching party that would make the run to Milledgeville was composed of twenty-five somewhat lesser members of Marietta society—a taxi driver, a mule trader, a construction foreman who was overseer of the county chain gang, several deputy lawmen, and both a former and the current sheriff.

After, Oney writes, “some sort of agreement” with prison officials through John Tuck’s intercessions as Penitentiary Committee chairman, a caravan of seven cars set out from Marietta on a hot August afternoon, with rifles and pistols and a rope with the noose already tied by the former sheriff. Around ten that evening, they dusted up the road to the prison buildings, and within ten minutes, without a shot being fired, had snatched Frank from his bed.

On the long drive back toward Marietta, he sat between two men in the back seat of a car, his nightshirt “luminous among the galluses and wool hats,” mutely resigned now to his doom, as the caravan took back roads through moonlit cottonfields, coming into the outskirts of the town just at dawn, where it stopped at a stand of woods by a cotton gin. Frank was hauled out, blindfolded, tied at his hands and feet, lifted up on a table; the rope was slung over the limb of an oak tree and the noose dropped around his neck. The circuit judge then kicked the table from under Frank’s feet. It was not from a snapped neck, though, that Frank died, but a slow strangulation, as he twisted about desperately.

Shortly, crowds came swimming from the town and surrounding countryside to the site where Frank dangled, and as the morning wore on, from Atlanta—numbering almost three thousand eventually. Their mood, Oney recounts, reeled wildly “from jubilation to rage to something approaching sexual rapture.” When the body was finally cut down, a local citizen stomped repeatedly on its face. The circuit judge retrieved the body from likely being torn apart, dumping it in a basket into the back of a Model-T, and sped it on to Atlanta. At a funeral home there, yet more thousands pushed their way into a front hall through the gloweringly hot afternoon to behold Frank’s body with its trampled face lying on a bier.

Outrage followed across the nation, more or less in the tenor of a San Francisco Chronicle commentary: “Georgia is mad…barbarous. She is not civilized. She is not Christian. She is not sane.” Demands arose, even from certain prestigious quarters in Georgia, for the arrest and prosecution of those who had slain Frank. All such attempts, though, soon guttered out, largely conducted as they were by officials who’d collaborated in the plot themselves, including John Tucker Dorsey. Rather, there set in a communal determination in Marietta to protect those who had hung Frank, much in the folk-ritual manner of the white tribal South lasting into the Sixties when whites tried for slaying civil rights workers were not only absolved but celebrated by juries of their fellow townsmen. Indeed, a few months after Frank’s lynching, a Marietta jeweler presented all twenty-five men who’d carried it out with congratulatory sets of silverware.

For that matter, there soon developed a general sentiment in Georgia that, as the Macon News phrased it, “those who wanted vengeance at least should be satisfied, and it will be better for everybody concerned to let the Frank case rest forever.” In fact, the Macon Telegraph‘s editor wired Adolph Ochs to protest any continuation of the Times‘s “offensive propaganda,” adding that it “was the outside interference of the Jews…that had made it necessary to lynch Frank. The Jews in fact were responsible for what had happened to him.” For his part, Tom Watson hooted, “Let Jew libertines take notice…. Your Gold Calf stands discredited,” and further announced that if the North did not desist from its “meddling with our business…another Ku Klux Klan may be organized to restore HOME RULE.

As it turned out, the Frank case and Watson’s fulminations, along with the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, would serve, with the flare of a flaming cross atop Stone Mountain just east of Atlanta on Thanksgiving Eve of 1915, to rouse the Klan from its forty-year limbo. By the Twenties, its membership, which included Georgia’s governor, rose to nearly eight million across the country, controlling the state governments in Indiana and Colorado, coming close to appropriating the Democratic convention in 1924, and blazing up again in the South during the civil rights turmoils of the Fifties and Sixties.

As for Atlanta’s Jewish community, the trauma of Frank’s lynching produced a forlorn urgency to absorb itself even more unobtrusively into Atlanta’s life—to the poignant extent that one rabbi, Oney tells us, citing Eli Evans’s The Provincials, “forbade the singing of Hatikva” and “refused to use wine or a canopy in wedding ceremonies.” But just how the mentality they hoped to escape has, however more furtively and privately, yet pervasively endured was indicated by Richard Nixon’s taped fumings to his White House aides about “the fucking Jews” who “think they can run the world”—a running acrimony cordially concurred in at one point by none other than Billy Graham, then preeminent apostle to the national righteousness.

If there could be found one tragic hero in the whole lurid and shabby spectacle of the Frank affair, it would be the earnest young Atlanta attorney William Smith, who, Oney recounts, initially represented Jim Conley, driven by an idealism to protect the “penniless and friendless” black man caught up in the coils of the case. But even before the trial’s conclusion, Smith was visited by chill misgivings about a sensed evasiveness in Conley, and reexamining the murder notes while Frank was in Milledgeville, Smith detected patterns of diction and phrasing convincing him that Conley was their sole author and Frank therefore innocent. Proving that was to become his lifetime’s obsession. It wound up wrecking his law practice in Atlanta, after which Williams wandered through the years from job to job—a pipe-fitter in a Virginia shipyard, security guard at a Brooklyn dry dock, finally prospering again as a Manhattan real estate lawyer. In 1944, he moved back to Georgia, to devote himself to compiling a memoir that would be a “vindication of the memory of Mr. Frank.” He was never to complete that project, though. Under an oxygen tent in an Atlanta hospital with his windpipe and diaphragm paralyzed from Lou Gehrig’s disease, on his last day of life he slipped a note to his son through the plastic sheeting: “IN ARTICLES OF DEATH, I BELIEVE IN THE INNOCENCE AND GOOD CHARACTER OF LEO M. FRANK. W.M. SMITH.”

Over the years after Frank’s lynching, stray bits of other provocative evidence surfaced. An Atlanta reporter discovered, in photographs, distinct teeth marks on Mary Phagan’s shoulder and neck that did not match X-rays of Frank’s teeth. Then, some seventy years after Mary Phagan’s murder, an office boy at the factory, now eighty-five years old, disclosed that on that day he had entered the factory around noon to find Jim Conley carrying her body, alone, across the lobby.

But by the time of that report, Conley himself had long ago vanished into oblivion, leaving behind not even a death certificate. An attempt in 1983 to win at least a posthumous pardon for Frank was denied by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. The most that could be extracted, three years later, was an official admission by the board that, in Georgia’s neglect of Frank’s safety, it bore some responsibility for his lynching.

Oney himself abstains from pronouncing any final verdict of his own. But in the sweep of his elegiac historical chronicle, at least its company of the dead—Leo Frank, his accusers and defenders, the lynch party, all the story’s gallery of the furious and base and bewildered and heartbroken—have risen to urgent life once more.

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