Foundations of Holocaust: American antisemitism and the lynching of Leo Max Frank
Not one time did the poor child think
That she was a-going to die.
Leo Frank he met her
With a brutish heart, we know;
He smiled and said, “Little Mary,
You won’t go home no more.”
The Ballad of Mary Phagan, (Dinnerstein, Leonard, The Leo Frank Case, p.166)
Introduction: America, known as the “goldene medina” to Eastern European Jews fleeing 19th century pogroms, was never quite so “exceptional” regarding antisemitism as we American Jews prefer. In coming weeks I will provide an overview of this country’s view of its Jews since 1776, and particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries. I will discuss the attitude and actions of Roosevelt and his administration, its responses or lack thereof to Nazi Germany’s determined approach towards its goal of a final solution to the West’s Jewish Problem.
It has long been recognized that level of antisemitism is at any time highly correlated with level of social stress in the host country. Social stress might be in response to war or plague, the economy, ethnic tensions, etc. All the above contributed to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and accounts for the intensity of antisemitism in the United States during those years. But the United States experienced a series of economic shocks in the early years of the 20th century, the panics of 1907 and 1910
, and the recession of 1912-13, and antisemitism was also high during those years. And while this partly represents the backdrop to the arrest and trial of Leo Frank, his lynching in 1915 was not unique as an expression of antisemitism.
In 1928 a four year old Christian girl disappeared in Massena, New York and the town’s Jews were suspected in her disappearance. Why would the townspeople blame their Jewish neighbors in a possible act of “blood libel
”? Why would they even recall the medieval superstition of Jews supposed ritual murder of Christian children to use their blood in the baking of Passover matzo? How would they have even have come by that mediaeval superstition? As it turned out the child had wandered off and was later found. But not before a state trooper was called to question the local rabbi about the incident. The fact that people in the 20th century American could still accept the superstition as “fact” is one illustration of the transmission and underlying threat of traditional Christian antisemitic stereotypes, of the hidden danger they represent to Jews Christendom.
Nineteen years earlier a young Atlanta Jew, Leo Frank, was arrested, tried and convicted in the murder of a thirteen year old Christian girl. “The Jew” as despoiler of innocent Christian girls represents a second such stereotype, one commonly appearing in Germany during the Third Reich. What may be most challenging to the romantic notion of the United States as “goldene medina,” of liberal “melting pot,” is that where France eventually freed and reinstated Captain Alfred Dreyfus when the charade of his guilt was finally public; where even Czarist Russia set Menahem Beilis free after his trial dissolved into farce: until today neither the State of Georgia continues to withhold apology for the travesty of justice, for the outrage of Leo Max Frank dying at the at the hands of a lynch “mob” made up of the cream of Georgia society.
Leo Max Frank was manager of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. The morning of 27 April, 1913 the body of a thirteen year old girl employee was discovered in the factory basement:
“Frank was accused
of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan, a former Mariettan who worked at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. Historians [and some police investigators at the time] believe that the state's main witness
, Jim Conley, a janitor at the factory, murdered the 13-year-old girl.”
As it turned out John Conley, “who was arrested when he was seen washing red [described as “blood”] stains
from a shirt” Conley, with an arrest record involving alcohol and violence, became the state’s main witness. According to the janitor Frank had enlisted him to dispose of the body. At one point he claimed to be illiterate, a claim he later contradicted when he asserted that Leo Frank ordered him to write two notes, as if by the girl, as she lay dying.
Tom Watson, publisher of the Jeffersonian newspaper, used his paper to create an whip up antisemitism and shape public outrage against Frank. Watson reportedly made cash payment to the police for access to evidence, was accused of removing evidence he felt favored Frank.
Based on the evidence of the prosecutor the grand jury investigating the case indicted Frank on 24 May, 1913. Within days the factory foreman was told the newspaper The Georgian he believed Conley, whom he saw washing blood from his shirt, "strangled Mary Phagan while about half drunk.” He and two other witnesses against Conley were not called to testify. And when the panel voted to charge Frank several members expressed doubt regarding the outcome and wanted to call Conley for questioning. The prosecutor refused.
Lucille and Leo Frank at Frank's trial. (Wikipedia)
Amidst controversy surrounding the police investigation, the manipulation and even disappearance of evidence; with accusations of witness badgering and even coaching by the police and prosecution of the janitor Conley, the trial ended and Frank was convicted on 26 August, 1913. Defense presented evidence of jury tampering and intimidation of witnesses and demanded a mistrial, and denied. The conviction was greeted with jubilation in the street. With the conviction,
“William Manning Smith
, the attorney who defended Conley, reversed his position in 1914 concluding that his own client was the guilty party.”
Appeals to both the Georgia and US Supreme Courts were rejected. But Governor Slaton agreed to revue the case. Tom Watson, who in 1920 would overwhelmingly win a seat to the US Senate
, had little patience for the “legal wrangling” following Frank’s conviction.
Watson went on to warn the governor, “that he would throw his support behind a Senate bid if only the governor would let Frank hang.”
“A ten-thousand-word statement
accompanied the governor’s announcement. Slaton appeared thoroughly conversant with even the minutiae of the case.” Days before leaving office the governor, citing inconsistencies in evidence, commuted Frank's sentence to life in prison. Forty years later he would recall that he was convinced of Frank’s innocence and assumed his innocence, “would eventually be fully established and he would be set free.”
Indignation in the press about the commutation of Frank's sentence, (Wikipedia)
Incensed by the governor’s decision Watson, future presidential candidate, led a group of the state’s finest citizens to the prison, drove Frank 180 miles to a site two miles east of Marietta [in view of Mary Phagan’s home]. The site had been prepared, complete with a rope and table supplied by Sheriff William Frey and the self-styled “Knights of Mary Phagan” lynched Leo Frank the following morning.
The lynching of Leo Frank: The man on the far right in the straw hat is Newton A. Morris. (Wikipedia)
“…the murderous mob
imagined by so many was actually a conspiracy of aristocratic Atlantans well connected in city government... this sets apart the Frank case from other lynchings: It was “state-sponsored murder.”
The “Knights of Mary Phagan” comprised 26 cool and calculating members of the professions, the cream of Atlanta’s elite. Among these luminaries were: former governor Joseph Mackey Brown
; Superior Court Judge Newton Morris (standing near the hanging body of Leo Frank, above); Eugene Herbert Clay
, son of U.S. senator Alexander S. Clay, and himself the former mayor of Marietta; John Tucker Dorsey, a lawyer and state legislator (and solicitor general for the Blue Ridge Circuit who would have been responsible for prosecuting the lynchers, had any been indicted!).
Following the murder of Leo Frank an Atlanta Constitution journalist revisited trial evidence and discovered that images of tooth impressions on Mary Phagan were were not those of Leo Frank. A "prominent" Atlanta Jew asked the editor to not publish, fearing another antisemitic riot. In 1942, in the midst of the Holocaust, a graduate student expressed interest in researching the Frank case only to be discouraged by an Atlanta rabbi also fearing antisemitism. In response to the Frank lynching approximately half of Georgia’s 3,ooo Jews left the state. And while a Jewish defense organization was under consideration for some years, four months following the lynching Bnai Brith created the Anti-Defamation League.
But not only Jews reacted to the murder of Leo Frank:
“Following the lynching
a festive atmosphere prevailed, and crowds searched the site for souvenirs… A short time after the lynching of Leo Frank, thirty-three members of the group that called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan gathered on a mountaintop near Atlanta and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia. [and burned a cross]”
The question of how a black man in the antebellum south could be both primary suspect and chief witness for the state prosecution against a white man, something that would never be repeated, remained:
may have come from the pastor of the Baptist church that Mary Phagan’s family attended. In 1942 the Reverend L. O. Bricker wrote: “My own feelings… were to the effect that this one old negro would be poor atonement for the life of this little girl. But, when on the next day, 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.””
On March 11, 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Frank a pardon:
to address the question of guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the State's failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the State's failure to bring his killers to justice, and as an effort to heal old wounds, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles
, in compliance with its Constitutional and statutory authority, hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a Pardon.
Georgia has yet to admit to Frank’s wrongful conviction, its responsibility in the miscarriage of justice.
If antisemitism inspired the Leo Frank Affair, motivated a lynch mob consisting of Georgia elites to break into a prison and drive Frank to that farm in Marietta, that despicable crime would prove to be a ripple in the flood that would soon swallow the country. An indicator of how serious the Jewish problem was viewed in the United States was the 1924 bill overwhelmingly passed by Congress restricting Jewish immigration. Hotels, restaurants and country clubs were exclusive, for Christians only. Universities imposed a numerus clausus on Jews and many professions were closed to Jews. Conditions in America were almost indistinguishable from Germany. And Jewish fear in this country was justified. But that is for future discussion.
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