Monday marks the 100th anniversary of an ugly event in Georgia’s – and America’s – history; what’s believed to be the only known lynching of an American Jew.
The death of Leo Frank is a story whose effects still ripple today through our region.
“Any act of hate – really, the lesson should be, ‘Why? Why did we do that?’ and ‘How do we make sure that never happens again?’” said Dr. Richard Banz, executive director of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.
His face, his eyes are old sketches. His name is a headline. Leo Frank is a relic of the past that still looms over the future.
“The Leo Frank lynching certainly shaped our community, shaped our region, and really re-shaped the country,” said Kennesaw State history professor, Dr. Catherine Lewis.
The story of Leo Frank begins with the story of Mary Phagan. At age 10, she left school to work. At age 13, at her workplace, she was found dead.
“It’s a 13-year-old, working girl who had gone on Confederate Memorial Day to pick up her paycheck of $2,” said Lewis. “This is a young woman who had had a very hard life. To be murdered in such a brutal way, very quickly captivated the nation.”
Suspicion soon fell on Leo Frank, the superintendent of the factory where Phagan was found. But Frank’s trial quickly became about more than the law.
“You have this Southern, white, 13-year-old girl, who is murdered at the hands of what becomes this evil, Northern foreigner,” Banz said.
“He was the ultimate New York Jew, living in the South, and that brought out a lot of anti-Semitism,” said Mark Moskowitz of the Anti-Defamation League. “People had pretty much convicted him before the trial even began.”
The investigation was suspect.
“The police work was shoddy,” said Lewis. “There were just a whole host of things that went wrong and would lead most scholars and lawyers to conclude that the outcome was not legitimate.”
The outcome was guilty. To this day, it remains up for debate. What happened next does not.
“That a mob could go into a prison, not be stopped, grab an inmate, bring them back to Atlanta, and be lynched,” said Moskowitz.
Two months after his conviction, and after the governor had commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison, Frank was abducted from his prison cell in Milledgeville by a mob and driven to Marietta, where he was lynched.
“It was a festival,” Lewis said. “Almost like a Roman coliseum.”
SOURCE: Matt Pearl and Michael King