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Why Leo Frank’s Lynching Matters Today – Part 1



Leo Frank

An innocent Jewish man was hanged by a mob in 1915. Anti-Semites today are justifying his murder

There are some chapters in history nobody likes to be reminded of. The story of Leo Frank, convicted and lynched because of anti-Semitic sentiments, is one such chapter. Most Americans would react in horror to the notion that old-world blood libel played an important part in a trial that took place in the US in the 20th century. Most Jews would rather not think about that time in history when the menacing ghosts from Europe suddenly appeared in sunny Georgia. Who stands to gain from telling again that dark tale, tale of prejudice and hate, anti-Semitism and cold-blood murder?

Leo Frank was a 29 years old engineer from Brooklyn. Following his marriage to Lucile Selig, a woman from a well-known and wealthy Jewish family from Atlanta, he moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a superintendent of a pencil factory.

In 1913, a 13-year-old factory worker named Mary Phagan was discovered lying dead and mutilated on the floor of the factory basement. Initial investigation found out that Frank was the last man to admit to have seen Phagan, meeting her when she went to his office to receive her weekly wages. At once, he became the prime suspect.

Circumstantial evidence alone would probably have not been enough to convict Frank, but then an important testimony was added. The factory janitor, an African-American called Jim Conley, testified that Frank told him he had killed the girl and asked him to dispose of the body. In vain Frank’s attorney tried to demonstrate that the evidence pointed to Conley as a murderer, not to Frank. In the South, known for its racism, no black person’s testimony had ever been accepted over a white person’s version. But Conley made history: this time, anti-Semitism was proven to be an even stronger prejudice.

The newspapers from that time give a hint at how large a part prejudice played in this trial. The pastor of the church to which the Phagan family belonged wrote, “When the police arrested a Jew, and a Yankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against the Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime.”

The jury convicted Frank but impartial observers railed against the injustice. Newspapers from the North criticized the trial, prominent Jews protested, and even the judge who oversaw the trial confided that he was not convinced of Frank’s guilt. Neither was the governor of Georgia, John Slaton. The jury sentenced Frank to death by hanging, but Slaton expressed his belief that if he let that punishment take place, he would be letting an innocent man die. Accordingly, he commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. That courageous decision would later cost him his political career.

The citizens of Georgia, however, did not agree with the governor. Populist writers wrote explicitly about the need for the citizens to take the law into their hand. A group of well-known people from Marietta, Mary Phagan’s hometown, decided to follow that advice. On August 17th, 1917, Frank was abducted from his cell, driven to a location near Marietta and hanged from a tree. Leo Frank was lynched by a mob.

His captors didn’t try to hide their identity. Many pictures were taken there, showing those who committed the lynch posing by the swinging body. Soon enough, everybody in Marietta and in Atlanta knew who the perpetrators were. No action was ever taken against them.

Frank was buried in New York but the ramifications of the case did not end with his death. A few weeks after the lynch, a group of Georgians, many of them were among Frank’s murderers, formed a new chapter of the Ku-Klux-Klan. On the Jewish side, the frustration from the resurfacing of the ancient prejudices against the Jews led to the founding the Anti-Defamation League.

But the greater effect of the case was probably the trauma suffered by Southern Jewry. Steve Oney, a journalist and a writer who researched the case for 17 years before writing the award-winning book, And the Dead Shall Rise, told the Forward in 2009 that Southern Jews never recovered from the Leo Frank trial. “It drove them into a state of denial about their Judaism. They became even more assimilated, anti-Israel, Episcopalian. The Temple did away with chuppahs at weddings – anything that would draw attention.” (

(To Be Continued Next Week)

By:  Maayan Meir

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