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Leo Frank

Leo Frank
Leo Frank

Leo Frank (April 17, 1884August 17, 1915) was a Jewish-American factory manager whose lynching in Georgia turned the spotlight on anti-Semitism in the United States and led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. Frank was accused of murdering one of his employees and his trial attracted international attention. Soon after his extra-judicial death, evidence emerged that he was innocent of the murder charge brought against him.



Frank was born in Cuero, Texas and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In 1906, Frank graduated from Cornell University with a degree in mechanical engineering. In December of the following year, Frank left for Europe for a nine-month apprenticeship in pencil manufacturing. In August 1908, he moved to Atlanta and assumed the supervision of the National Pencil Factory. Two years later, in October 1910, he married Lucille Selig of Atlanta, and the couple moved in with Lucille's parents.

At the time, the Jewish community in Atlanta was the largest in the South, and Frank was president of the Atlanta chapter of B'nai B'rith. At the time of the murder of Mary Phagan, he was twenty-nine years old and had supervised the factory for almost five years.

The violent death of Mary Phagan

On April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee of National Pencil, was raped and strangled shortly after picking up her wages at the factory at noon on that Saturday. In the ensuing days and weeks, various suspects were interrogated, including the night watchman. Emotions became flamed by a story published by the Atlanta Constitution in which Nina Formby, who ran a brothel, claimed on the evening of the murder that Frank had telephoned her, urgently demanding a room in her house for himself and a young girl. "It's a matter of life and death," she said Leo told her. And though Frank proved by many witnesses that he was at that time entertaining friends in his home, the story got out that he was a pervert -- and the town went mad. (Formby later recanted -- from the safety of distant New York City -- saying that detectives of the Atlanta police got her drunk and made her accuse Frank.)

Mary Phagan, age 13
Mary Phagan, age 13

The Georgia populist politician and publisher Tom Watson, in his magazines Watson's Magazine and The Jeffersonian, snatched the story up and circulated tales of orgies in Frank's office. Several girls were produced who told of such affairs, but none of them went beyond assertions that their boss had tried to become familiar with them. Watson's inflammatory writings are generally credited with turning public opinion strongly against Frank. On May 23, after extensive investigations, a grand jury handed down a murder indictment against him.

Watson, at this time, was a far cry from the populist leader of the 1890s who had openly called for black political equality and racial unity along class lines. He had become a pronounced racist, and as his own wealth grew, he also denounced socialism, which had drawn many converts from the ashes of populism. Watson had also become a vigorous anti-Catholic crusader who called for the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan. With their racist and anti-Jewish slogans, Watson and the Southern press sensationalized the case and made wild, unsubstantiated charges.

The Trial of Leo Frank

The anti-Semitism-tinged trial began on July 28. The prosecution's lead witness against Frank was a sweeper at the factory, a poor black man named James Conley who at an earlier stage had been a suspect; he had been arrested after having been found rinsing out a soiled shirt at the factory on May 1. The stains on the shirt turned out to be blood.

On August 4, Conley testified he had "watched out" for Frank on several occasions while he entertained young women in his office. Some of his descriptions of what he saw insinuated that Frank was a sexual deviant. On the morning of April 26, Conley said Frank had asked him to watch out for him while he "chatted" with Mary Phagan. Later, Frank had whistled for Conley to come to his office. He allegedly told Conley that Phagan had refused him and he had struck her and left her in the machine room. When Conley was sent to get her, he said he found her lying on the floor, dead, with arms outstretched. Conley said Frank told him to wrap up the body and put it in the basement. Frank then showed him two hundred dollars that he would give him if Conley "kept his mouth shut."

Upon cross examination, Conley admitted he had lied to the police; he gave several different stories after his May 1 arrest when he had been seen washing out the bloody shirt. Conley also admitted he had been arrested numerous times. The defense was able to confuse Conley on some details of his story, but he held to the main points.

In testimony given on August 6, Dr. Roy Harris, secretary of the State Board of Health, insisted Phagan had died from strangulation, not from blows to her head. Later, C.B. Dalton, a railroad carpenter, testified he had met with several women in the basement of the factory while Conley was on the lookout for him, and that he had seen numerous women come to the factory to visit Frank. After stating that the financial records of the factory showed that two hundred dollars had been on the premises the day of the murder, Solicitor General Hugh Dorsey rested the state's case.

Frank's case was further damaged when his mother leaped to her feet in court and cried out to Mr. Dorsey: "You Christian dog!" This was printed in the pamphlets which, in verse and prose, assailed Frank and all Jews, and which were hawked among the crowds outside the courtroom.

In their final appeals to the jury, both Frank's defense attorneys as well as Frank himself asserted that Conley had to have been the true murderer. On August 25, the final day of the trial, the defense argued that Conley, and many other prosecution witnesses, had dubious backgrounds, while Frank was a pillar of the community who had many well-respected people and his employees testifying on his behalf. If the case came down to Leo Frank's word against Jim Conley's, argued the defense, then it was obvious who should be believed.

Among the many witnesses had been a young boy, Alonzo Mann, who was one of the office boys who worked for Frank. He was nervous and timid the few minutes he was on the stand, and said only that he worked most Saturdays, including the day of the murder, and had never seen strange women in Frank's office and had never seen Dalton at all.

After hearing their instructions from Judge Roan, the jury retired to consider the verdict. At 4:55 they returned with their decision; Frank was declared guilty. Neither Frank nor his family or lead attorneys were present in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. Reportedly, Judge Roan feared mob violence had Frank been acquitted. When told of the verdict, Frank reasserted his complete innocence, saying the jury had been influenced by mob law.

On the following day, August 26, Judge Roan sentenced Frank to hang for the murder of Mary Phagan. The execution date was set for October 10, but Frank's attorneys immediately moved for a new trial. The hearing on this motion was set for October 4, thus assuring that there would be a delay in carrying out Frank's sentence.


On October 31, Judge Roan denied a motion for a new trial for Frank. His execution date was re-scheduled for April 17, 1914. On February 24, Conley was sentenced to a year on a chain gang for his role in Phagan's murder.

On April 6, 1914, just eleven days before Frank was scheduled to hang, his attorneys filed a motion to set aside the guilty verdict in the Fulton County Superior Court. The execution was re-scheduled for January 22, 1915. On June 6, 1914, the Fulton County Superior Court denied the motion to set aside the verdict. Frank's attorneys immediately appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. On December 7, the Georgia Supreme Court denied the motion to set aside the guilty verdict. Frank's attorneys then appealed to the United States District Court of North Georgia. On December 21, the United States District Court denied the motion to set aside the guilty verdict. Frank's attorneys finally appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and Frank's execution -- set for January 22, 1915 -- was once again delayed.

The well-known investigative reporter C.P. Connolly reported extensively on the trial for Collier's Weekly and corresponded with the inmate. Frank wrote on December 14, 1914: "I feel with you that my ultimate vindication must come, although I must confess that it is hard for me at this time to see just in which way it will come about." Shortly thereafter, Frank wrote "I feel satisfied that the U.S. Supreme Court will be moved to give us some relief," on Jan. 4, 1915. "I receive a great deal of mail and many of the writers compliment your articles in Collier's. They turned the trick!" Frank expressed to Connolly his frustration and anger toward the prosecutor and others whom he believed helped frame him in a trial tainted by anti-Semitism and questionable evidence.

Another young reporter covering the trial was Harold Ross, who later founded The New Yorker.

By this time, the Leo Frank case had captured the attention of the whole nation, mainly due to the anti-semitic atittudes that tainted the trial. Prominent Jews such as Adolph Lewisohn, Samuel Untermyer, Louis Marshall, and Rabbi Wise interested themselves in the matter. There were mass meetings all over the country, and petitions containing hundreds of thousands of names were sent to Georgia urging clemency or a new trial or commutation. Senator Borah, Philander C. Knox, Myron T. Herrick, Senator James Reed, Mayor Rolph of San Francisco, governors of many states, editors, and businessmen joined in the flood of calls for justice.

On April 9, 1915, the United States Supreme Court rejected Frank's last appeal. His execution, already postponed three times, was re-set for June 22. On May 31, Frank's attorneys filed an appeal for clemency with the Georgia Prison Commission, hoping to have his death sentence commuted. The appeal was denied.

The death sentence commuted

However, on June 20, in his last day in office, Georgia Governor John Slaton commuted the sentence of Frank from death to life in prison. Slaton had spent many hours poring over the files of the case, and was convinced that Frank was innocent. He had several notable appeals to back this decision; Judge Roan (who had presided over the case and originally sentenced Frank to the gallows) urged commutation, saying he had serious doubts about Frank's guilt. Jim Conley's girlfriend had made it known that Conley had confessed privately to her that he indeed killed Mary Phagan, as had a cell mate of Conley's. Finally, Conley's own attorney, William Smith, wrote to Slaton urging commutation; Smith had become convinced of his own client's guilt in the matter. Fearing his decision would not be popular, he made plans to leave the state immediately upon his successor being sworn in. Slaton also ordered that Frank be transferred from the Fulton County Prison, for fear that a lynch mob would overpower the guards. On the night of June 21, Frank was transferred from the Fulton County Prison to the Georgia State Penitentiary in Milledgeville.

When the news spread in Atlanta, it caused an uproar. The militia was called out to protect the governor's mansion, and martial law was declared. Hundreds of automobiles with armed men raced the streets to the executive home, where the mob trampled the grounds, screamed and threw objects at the curtained windows, uttered anti-semitic epithets including "Hang the Jew!", and confronted the militia. Slaton was hanged in effigy; and the rumor that he and his wife were leaving for New York caused the throng to roar in anger. Sheriff Mangum was hauled bodily into the Senate chamber at the Capitol and made to swear that the governor had not actually pardoned Leo, but that he was at that moment a still prisoner in the Milledgeville prison.

Tom Watson continued to campaign against Frank, publishing editorials against him and the commutation of his sentence. Watson was blatant in his sentiments; he called on the citizens of Georgia to take justice into their own hands.

Cover of the Atlanta Constitution with Leo Frank
Cover of the Atlanta Constitution with Leo Frank

The lynch party

On August 16, a caravan of eight vehicles bearing twenty-five armed men from the Atlanta area, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, arrived at the Georgia State Prison at Milledgeville around 10 PM. They cut the telephone lines, surprised the guards, seized Frank and departed into the night. Seven of the cars then took back roads headed for Marietta, while one car acted as a decoy in case of pursuit.

On the morning of the 17th, they reached the outskirts of Marietta. There, at Frey's Grove, near Phagan's girlhood home, the men decided to hang Frank. Asserting his innocence to the very end, Frank's only request was that his wedding ring be returned to his wife (which it was several days later). When word of the lynching spread, crowds gathered to see the body hanging from a tree. Photographs were taken, one of which later became a souvenir postcard. Several onlookers began to inflict violence to Frank's body but a former judge, Newt Morris, convinced them to stop.

The lynching of Leo Frank.
The lynching of Leo Frank.

Frank's body was then taken to an undertaker in Atlanta, with a line of vehicles trailing behind. Although the undertaker tried to keep the body concealed, a large crowd soon gathered demanding to see it. After a rock was thrown through a window, officials agreed to let the public view Frank's body. Under police supervision, thousands of curious Atlanta-area residents filed by single file to view Frank's body. That night his body was quickly embalmed and placed on a train for New York, where the burial services were held in Brooklyn's Mount Carmel Cemetery.


To the nation-wide outcry at the pre-dawn lynching, the Macon Telegraph editorialized:

The men who lynched Leo Frank went ahead with clear consciences. It would never have happened had the rest of the nation left this state to mind its own business.

Governor Slaton went to New York from where he explained in an interview his decision to commute Frank's death sentence:

I know it means political oblivion for me, but I did what I thought was right. Conley had the same opportunity and much more disposition to assault and murder Mary Phagan. As to the mob -- well, every city has its riffraff and Atlanta's mob was composed of men whose wives support them by running boarding houses, whose children are in factories instead of schools, and who loaf on corners talking of the inequalities of opportunity and law in America.

The lynching of Leo Frank sparked a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, this time with a pronounced anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant stance. To many Southerners, Frank was a symbol of the "foreign" exploiter making money from the labors of children. To others, he was seen as a scapegoat for people's economic woes. For American Jews, the case demonstrated that the violent anti-Semitism from which they had fled in Europe could happen in the United States as well.

On November 25, 1915, the Knights of Mary Phagan met atop Stone Mountain, burned a cross, and initiated the new invisible order of the Ku Klux Klan. Soon thereafter, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith was founded in New York largely in response to the Leo Frank affair. In 1920, Tom Watson was elected to the US Senate. James Conley was shot some years later while committing a burglary. When he recovered, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

No one was ever prosecuted for the lynching of Leo Frank. Not a single resident stepped forward, nor were the participants who were clearly photographed identified at the time by local law enforcement officials. In 1982, on his deathbed, Alonzo Mann, the office boy who had briefly testified, confessed he had seen Conley carrying the body of Mary Phagan over his shoulder, near the elevator shaft on the first floor of the factory. Conley had threatened Mann with death if he ever repeated what he had seen. Mann had gone home and told his mother, who advised him to keep quiet, which he did for sixty-nine years.

In 1986, the State of Georgia officially pardoned Leo Frank.

In subsequent decades, the murder, trial and lynching have inspired books, a movie, plays and a musical.

External links

  • "The Mystery of the Pencil Factory" (from Ten real murder mysteries -- never solved!, 1929)
  • The Leo Frank Case compiled by Charles Pou
  • "Marietta's Shame: The Lynching of Leo Frank" (from the Atlanta Nation)
  • Leo Frank Lynchers (a site which claims to identify the lynchers of Leo Frank)
  • Letters probe killer's mind: Frank pleads his innocence (from The Cinncinnati Post)
  • Did Leo Frank die an innocent man? (a review of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank from the Charlotte Observer)
  • "The Case of Leo Frank" (Court TV's Crime Library)

Last updated: 02-10-2005 01:03:19
Last updated: 03-01-2005 14:34:45