Atlanta, Georgia, April 26, 1913. A 13-year old girl is found murdered at her workplace. Her boss, a Jewish man from the North overseeing a factory in the heart of the South, is accused. Although there is no physical evidence linking him to the killing, he is tried, reviled in the press, and sentenced to death. His lawyers appeal over the course of two years, with no luck. When the governor commutes the death sentence to life imprisonment, 25 armed men converge on the prison, kidnap the accused, take him to a place near where the girl was born, and lynch him.
It sounds like fiction, but it was only too real, said Jack Enright ’11, who studied the case during his senior year in 2010-2011. And although it occurred nearly 100 years ago, the murder of Mary Phagan, and the trial, kidnap and murder of her boss, Leo Frank, is relevant today as a chilling reminder of what happens when prejudice and cronyism reign over the rule of law.
Racism and stereotyping played a huge role in the Frank trial and subsequent hate crime, says Enright. Enright’s research, The People v. Leo Frank: A Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism in the Jim Crow South, required him to analyze why the jury found Frank guilty even though there was no clear evidence to prove it.
Reading through hundreds of pages of court testimony, several books on the subject, and newspaper accounts of the trial and its aftermath, Enright realized that it was a media circus from the beginning, with crowds shouting, “hang the Jew” outside the courtroom, rampant bigotry in the testimony, and yellow journalism abounding.
Frank’s conviction resulted “from the testimony of Monteen Stover, a 14-year-old girl at the factory who said she was waiting for Frank at his office near the time the murder was believed to have occurred,” says Enright. Frank couldn’t explain his absence, but it was “the bias against his religion and Northern heritage” that in the end was his real accuser.
After Reconstruction, the South’s recovery was dependent on Northern investment, a bitter pill for many Southerners to swallow. In Atlanta, several of the city’s mills and factories were owned or operated by prominent Jews. Life was hard for those who worked within them: Low wages, child labor, disease, and hunger were a fact of life.
Mary Phagan began working at the age of 10 when her father died. At the National Pencil factory, which Leo Frank’s uncle owned and had hired him to operate, Mary worked 56 hours per week at a wage of about 10 cents per hour, putting the erasers on the ends of pencils. Leo Frank was an educated, moneyed, Northern Jew. For many, he was a symbol of the oppressive factory system and the evils of Northern industrialization.
Certainly he was that for populist newspaper editor Tom Watson, whose vicious slurs against Jews in his weekly paper, The Jeffersonian, played upon the prejudices of common people. Calling Mary Phagan a “pure little Gentile victim” and characterizing Frank as a venal, sexually perverted New York Jew, he presumed Frank’s guilt as a matter of course.
Frank’s accuser was Jim Conley, the factory’s African-American janitor. Conley claimed that Frank told him he’d be meeting someone that day, and to lock the door after she arrived. Later, Conley testified that he’d done so and sometime later heard her scream. Frank allegedly called for him to help him move Mary’s body to the basement, then forced Conley to write two notes that attempted to put the blame on the night watchman.
When the guilty verdict came, there was public jubilation in Atlanta. However, many news stories criticized what was seen as a miscarriage of justice. Enright and most scholars believe Frank was innocent. Conley’s own lawyer “eventually decided that his client, not Frank, was guilty of the murder,” says Enright. But, he adds, “cases are won or lost on jury selection, and there was likely significant bias in the jury, especially with the sensationalist media against Frank.”
A staunch advocate of social justice and civil rights who plans to go to law school, Enright was interested to discover that “in response to perceived anti-Semitism against Frank in the case,” the Anti-Defamation League was founded. The ADL’s mission “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” was inspired by the injustice it felt had been perpetrated on Leo Frank. Since then, it has grown in both membership and significance as a civil rights/human relations agency, dedicated to fighting all forms of bigotry.
The Frank case also led to the revival of the ADL’s antithesis: the Ku Klux Klan. Tom Watson’s weekly tirade against Frank in The Jeffersonian repeatedly called for vigilante justice. On August 16, 1915 at 11 p.m., it came. Frank was abducted from his prison cell by a group of prominent men who called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan. They took him to a spot 150 miles from the prison, near Mary’s birthplace in Marietta, Georgia, and lynched him in the early hours of August 17.
In 1982, Alonzo Mann, who was an office boy at the National Pencil Factory and in the building on the day the crime was committed, came forward after 69 years. He said he had seen Jim Conley carrying the body of Mary Phagan by himself, but never revealed it, as Conley had threatened to kill him.
In 1986, the state of Georgia granted Leo Frank an official posthumous pardon.