Home Authors Posts by Steve Oney

Steve Oney


Did Leo Frank kill Mary Phagan? 106 years later, we might finally find out for sure.

Leo Frank
Leo Frank on trial in August 1913

Photograph by Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP Images

In early May, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced that he will reopen one of the most notorious criminal proceedings in American history: the trial of National Pencil Company superintendent Leo M. Frank for the murder of child laborer Mary Phagan. The review will be supervised by the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit, a panel created to look into cold cases. Former governor Roy Barnes will serve as a consultant. Standing at Howard’s side during a news conference, Barnes said, “There is no doubt in my mind that we’ll prove that Leo Frank is not guilty.”

If the judgment of time is the deciding factor, the unit will indeed find Frank innocent. In the years since the April 26, 1913 murder, a consensus has emerged about what happened in Frank’s downtown Atlanta factory that day: The killer was Jim Conley, a black janitor who was the state’s star witness against Frank. While researching And the Dead Shall Rise, my 2003 book on the case, I reached the same conclusion. This is not, of course, how Georgians first saw it. An all-white jury accepted Conley’s word over that of Frank, his Jewish boss, and the judge sentenced Frank to die by hanging.

The spectacle of a Jim Crow–era court relying on a black man’s testimony to convict a white man of murder was remarkable, but the nation remembers the case because of what happened next. Following extensive coverage in the press and appeals that ran all the way to the United States Supreme Court, Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence in June 1915. Shortly thereafter, a group of men from Marietta, Phagan’s hometown, abducted Frank from the Georgia prison farm in Milledgeville, drove him to Marietta, and lynched him. Several months later, the Ku Klux Klan, which had disbanded following Reconstruction, reestablished itself at a cross-burning atop Stone Mountain.

The Frank case opened a deep vein of anti-Semitism in America, unleashing furies that remain part of the national psyche. (The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 to combat those furies.) As a result, any discussion of the subject is difficult. Emotions about it run strong, and, while a majority now believes the factory superintendent was guiltless, others resent what they regard as a knee-jerk acceptance of that fact. Howard’s investigators will need to keep this in mind if they are to vindicate Frank. The affair pitted Jew against Gentile, white against black, rural against urban. Regardless of the outcome, not everyone will be happy.

Attempts to clear Frank’s name are nothing new. In 1982, Atlanta lawyers Charles Wittenstein and Dale Schwartz sought a posthumous pardon for him. The application was based on the revelations of 83-year-old Alonzo Mann, who as a 14-year-old was Frank’s office assistant. In a deposition, Mann swore that on the day of the murder, he entered the factory lobby and saw Conley carrying Phagan’s body. Conley, Mann said, threatened that if he mentioned this to anyone, he’d kill him.

Mann’s story was not only dramatic, but it seemed to give the lie to a central part of Conley’s testimony. Conley asserted that Frank murdered Phagan, who worked for pennies an hour on the factory building’s second floor, after she resisted his sexual advances. He said that Frank then recruited him to cover up the crime and that he transported the body by elevator directly to the factory basement, where the police discovered it the next day. According to Conley, he was never in the lobby with the body. Mann’s statement refuted that.

Powerful as this was, the application for a posthumous pardon—which was opposed by the Phagan family and relatives of Hugh Dorsey, Frank’s prosecutor—failed. The Georgia Pardon and Paroles board announced, “After exhaustive review and many hours of deliberation, it is impossible to decide conclusively the guilt or innocence of Leo M. Frank. For the board to grant a pardon, the innocence of the subject must be shown conclusively.” The board felt Conley may simply have lied about the route he took to get the body to the basement and that Frank could still have committed the murder.

In 1986, Wittenstein and Schwartz reapplied to the board. This time, they sought an apology from Georgia for its failure to protect Frank from the lynch party. The board agreed, but the factory superintendent’s conviction remained intact.

Other efforts to vindicate Frank have proven just as futile. The first came in 1922 when Pierre Van Paassen, a young Dutch journalist working at the Atlanta Constitution, became obsessed with the story. While going through Dorsey’s files, he discovered what he determined to be a telling discrepancy between photos of bite wounds on Phagan’s body and Frank’s dental x-rays. The girl’s murderer, he determined, could not have been the factory superintendent: The photos and the x-rays did not match.

The Constitution, capitulating to pressure from Atlanta Jews fearful of stirring up anti-Semitic sentiments, refused to print Van Paassen’s findings. Not until the 1964 publication of his memoir, To Number Our Days, was the evidence that Van Paassen thought absolved Frank made public. But still no action was taken.

In 1943, Atlanta lawyer Arthur Powell, in a book entitled I Can Go Home Again, asserted that he possessed material exonerating Frank, yet once more Georgia’s Jewish community argued against revealing the information, which was said to implicate Conley. “I accept full responsibility for advising Judge Powell to destroy the memorandum,” wrote fellow Atlanta lawyer Max Goldstein. “It would have merely resulted in renewing the agitation.”

Again and again, in other words, those hoping to prove Frank’s innocence have hit a wall, which leads to the question hovering over the latest attempt: Why is this time different from others?

The involvement of Roy Barnes could provide that difference. The former governor is a native of the Marietta area, and his wife is a granddaughter of a Frank lynch party member. Barnes has a deep understanding of the stain the affair has left on Georgia. He wants to confront the troubled past and bring the truth into the open.

The question is how. Conley disappeared from the public record after a 1941 gambling arrest. There is no death certificate for him. Dorsey’s dossiers on the case, which included the dental x-rays that intrigued Van Paassen, were lost or destroyed sometime during the 1960s following the suicide of his son, James, the family archivist. Even the trial transcript is missing.

There is, however, one promising source: a study conducted by Conley’s lawyer, William M. Smith. The morning after Phagan’s murder, the police found two strange notes by her body. Conley swore that Frank dictated the notes to him in hopes of directing suspicion at another black factory worker. The story was improbable, but in the heat of the moment, the jury and most Georgians believed it. Following the trial, Smith examined the notes, comparing them to other written and spoken remarks by Conley. He determined that the notes, contrary to Conley’s testimony, were not dictated by Frank. They feature Conley’s syntax, misspellings, and slang. According to Smith, they are Conley’s compositions.

Smith’s study of the notes is on file at the Georgia Archives. It persuasively points the finger at Conley, it played a role in Slaton’s commutation decision, and it convinced me. Dusted off and presented anew, the study could establish Frank’s innocence as not just a matter of opinion but of fact. Howard and Barnes should start there.

This article appears in our July 2019 issue.

Home again at UGA

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

It pays to be friends with Loran Smith, former executive secretary of the Bulldog Club, the fundraising arm of the University of Georgia’s athletic department. Because of his status—not to mention the 547 consecutive games he’s attended—Smith holds the keys to the UGA football kingdom. On the Friday afternoon before this year’s homecoming, he meets me at Tate Plaza in the center of campus in his silver SUV. Sporting a monogrammed Bulldog shirt, khakis, and Sperry topsiders with socks (the weather’s been chilly, other­wise he would never commit such a sartorial faux pas), the 78-year-old Smith whips up one street then down another before pulling into the east gate of Valhalla: Sanford Stadium.

The security guard knows Smith and waves us in. We ease along a concrete path between the south stands and the fabled hedges that embrace the playing field. Smith stops near the west end zone. The green expanse of Alabama-grown sod that will be the focus of 92,000 fans tomorrow when Georgia hosts Vanderbilt is empty except for the grounds crew liming the hash marks. All is silent save for the sound of Smith’s Middle Georgia drawl.

“I hold the record for successive games attended,” he says, adding that if not for a business obligation that caused him to miss the 1971 Gator Bowl, he’d be perfect back to 1964. “A retired state trooper in Griffin thinks he has the record. I don’t say anything, because he’s an older man, and I don’t want to keep him from having his fun. Of course, I’m getting to be an older man myself.”

Sanford Stadium kindles untold memories for Smith, a self-described “barefoot farm boy” from Johnson County who began haunting the place in 1955 while still in high school. He was hooked when he saw Fran Tarkenton toss a touchdown pass to Bill Herron to lead Georgia to a 14–13 victory over Auburn and the 1959 SEC championship. “That was my first big emotional experience here,” he says. After finishing up at UGA and a stint as assistant sports information director, he spent 35 years as a sideline reporter, responding to radio play-by-play announcer Larry Munson’s patented “Whatcha got, Loran?” with scoops on disputed calls and shattering injuries. In 1981 he and Lewis Grizzard authored Glory! Glory!, an account of UGA’s 1980 NCAA championship season. He is now a cohost of the Tailgate Show, a three-hour mélange of news about UGA’s current team and updates from previous ones—this is where ex-players come to relive their greatest moments—airing on game days over the 49-station Bulldog Radio Sports Network. Smith is the one who never got away.

The author, in dark jacket, being interviewed by Loran Smith.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

I, on the other hand, went as far away as you can get—in the continental United States, anyway. After completing my studies at Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism in 1975 and spending five years at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, I moved to Los Angeles. The last time I was at Sanford Stadium was autumn of 1984, when I wanted to show Athens to the California girl I would marry. She wore what was high fashion in the L.A. punk scene during the Reagan era—a wife beater and leather pants cinched by an M16 cartridge belt—while I settled for pink Bakelite sunglasses and a ton of attitude.

That attitude—a mixture of defiance and irreverence—was a holdover from my undergraduate years. As editor of the Georgia Impression, the student magazine, I was determined to be subversive. In 1974 I devoted an issue to sex on campus (among the headlines: “Getting Laid at Georgia”). A few months later, over the legend “The New South,” I published a cartoon cover of an interracial couple (the man was out of Super Fly, the woman Blanche DuBois on a bad day) set against the blood-red backdrop of the Confederate battle flag.

What was I rebelling against? The conformity and racism that were so prevalent at the university during my era, for starters. From there it was just a step to the dismay I felt at attending Georgia at all. (For an Atlanta boy, UGA was where you went if you weren’t accepted at Emory.) Once I settled into life in Athens, I concluded that unless you were at the law school (getting a head-start on running for governor) or the art school (the incubator for R.E.M.), the curriculum was so irrelevant you might as well stay drunk. It was what Georgia students did best, so much so that Playboy—at least according to urban legend—declared UGA ineligible for its annual survey of the nation’s top party schools. The reason: The Dawgs were pros. A week after my last class, I was on a flight to New York for an internship with Advertising Age. I had to put some distance between myself and UGA, and at least for the first few years after I finally landed in Los Angeles, I kept trying to increase that distance.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Yet as I stand with Loran in the quiet enormity of Sanford Stadium on the eve of the 2016 homecoming confrontation, I am suffused with a surprising feeling: I belong here. I, too, have memories of athletic heroics: I saw Herschel Walker rush for a career record 283 yards on this field in 1980. I also have vivid personal recollections. Pinning a corsage (a mum boasting a “G” crafted from red-and-black pipe cleaners) on the lapel of my date’s velvet blazer prior to homecoming 1972, my freshman year. The whiff of Poss’ barbecue and the hot scent of bourbon sipped from Coca-Cola cups adorned by Jack Davis sketches of Hairy Dawg. Kisses after Bulldog touchdowns and walking with my date arm-in-arm up Baxter Street to Brumby Hall, the then-gleaming new women’s dorm.

Most returning alums conscious of their receding youth—I recently turned 62—are prone to such reveries, but Sanford Stadium has a way of making them more intense, for alone among college football shrines, it is also a graveyard. The brass plaques in the stadium’s southwest corner mark the final resting places of nine English bulldogs named Uga that have served as the University of Georgia mascots for 60 years.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

“Sonny Seiler received Uga I as a wedding present in 1956,” Smith observes by way of background, adding that the future Savannah lawyer (later famous as the attorney at the heart of the murder story memorialized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) offered then Georgia coach Wally Butts the use of the original dog. The latest in the line is Uga X. “Sonny’s son Charles breeds them now.”

At least figuratively, there’s something else buried at Sanford Stadium—a link to a dark tale from Georgia’s past. Soon after setting up a new life as a magazine writer in Los Angeles, I became obsessed with the notorious Leo Frank case, the worst incident of anti-Semitism in American history. The plot that led to the 1915 lynching of Frank in Marietta was a Bulldog production, hatched and executed by UGA alumni from Marietta, in several instances the fathers of people I’d met during college. Steadman Sanford, the former UGA president for whom Sanford Stadium is named, was superintendent of Marietta schools when most of the participants in the crime were growing up, and he knew them. There’s no evidence that Sanford had any idea these young men later carried out Frank’s murder, but the coincidence fascinated me, and in a way began the process of pulling me back to UGA. As an undergraduate, I had failed to appreciate the complexities of the university’s heritage, how that heritage plays a huge part in the South’s history, and what I felt about this. I loved the South, I hated it, but ultimately I loved it more than I hated it. Not until after I plunged into the Frank saga did I wake up. That awakening led me to write my first book, And the Dead Shall Rise. That’s when I began my halting return.

After Smith drops me back at Tate Plaza, I stroll to North Campus and the university arch. Across Broad Street lies downtown Athens and, of course, it’s different. The Varsity, where I bought beers from a refrigerated case and chili dogs from the counter, is gone. So, too, is Barnett’s News Stand, where I purchased newspapers by the armful. But I can still navigate this town blind, and I quickly reach the corner of Pulaski and Hancock, where the homecoming parade is forming.

Members of the UGA spirit alumni cheer after a Bulldog touchdown.

From a seat behind the plate glass window of Creature Comforts, the craft brewery that occupies the old Snow Tire Company building, I watch as outside the participants fall into order. The usual suspects—the Alpha Gamma Deltas, the Zeta Tau Alphas (ZTAs heart Dawgs), the homecoming court, the ROTC in desert camouflage, the cheerleaders, university president Jere Morehead in a 1931 Ford Model A, and Miss University of Georgia (Annie Jorgensen) in a red Mustang—are all here. But so are many who would not have been in 1975. The LGBT entry—a Mini Cooper draped with rainbow banners—zooms into view, followed by the Filipino Student Association, the Black Affairs Council, a float dedicated to Habitat for Humanity, and—a touch of Athens gonzo—the Spike Squad, zealots in Mad Max regalia who wear red and black war paint. Then comes more of the Georgia I remember—the 4-H Club pickup truck, which reinforces the larger point: In 2016 homecoming for one is homecoming for all. UGA today is more open than in my day and more academically rigorous. U.S. News & World Report just ranked Georgia as the nation’s 18th-best public university, ahead of rivals Tennessee and Alabama. This sure is more impressive than the alleged pro status Playboy accorded Georgia as a party school in the 1970s. The prospect of seeing the Dawgs open a can of whup-ass on Vandy suddenly offers a chance to root for the home team in a whole new way.

A low pedestal beneath a red-and-black canopy at Tate Plaza serves as the set for the Tailgate Show, which features Neil “Hondo” Williamson and former Georgia and NFL great Eric Zeier. But the star is Loran Smith. Despite the different paths our lives have taken, we share a lot: a love of words (Smith is a former sports editor of the Athens Banner-Herald), a fascination with Southern history, and more than a few friends. When he heard I was attending homecoming, he asked me to be a guest on his program. At 9:40 Saturday morning, we’re live. This isn’t hard-hitting journalism. We discuss our previous day’s visit to Sanford Stadium and my life in Los Angeles, which Smith thinks revolves around Hollywood (it doesn’t). But when he asks why I’ve returned, the line just pops out: “You can take the Dawg out of Georgia, but you can’t take Georgia out of the Dawg.”

Few listening could have understood the significance of that remark, and I’m not sure Smith did. But I knew instantaneously that I had articulated something profound. I may not have come home, but I was back.

Although homecoming is allegedly all about the game, it is in truth all about the tailgating. After I finish with Loran—his next guest is former heavyweight champion of the world Evander Holyfield, whose son, Elijah, is a promising young Bulldog running back—I get down to business.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications, as it’s now known, bills its spread as the “Tailgate of the Century.” The boast is a nod to the school’s recent celebration of its centennial, and reality bears it out. The lawn facing the dean’s office is packed with students and graduates gathered around tables topped with black cloths and adorned by red-and-black floral arrangements, many spilling out of miniature Bulldog football helmets. A DJ plays rap and country. As I heap pulled pork, coleslaw, mac and cheese, and white rolls atop a plate and then hit the bar, I run into countless people I know: professors, administrators, stragglers. Just as notable is who I don’t see: the big-hitters from the state’s leading newspaper, the Journal-­Constitution. (In my day, Grady was the source of journalistic power in Atlanta.) Instead, I see Chuck Reece, editor of the Bitter Southerner; Rebecca Burns, publisher of the student newspaper, the Red & Black, and former editor of this magazine; and many young alumni bragging about apps they’re developing. The center has shifted. As I’m leaving, I meet Henry Grady; his great-great-grandfather was managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution and coined the label I’d mocked in the Impression: “the New South.” After my years away, I finally shake hands with my alma mater’s namesake.

The author, left, takes in the game from the press box.

But then there’s the game. No sooner do I get situated in the Sanford Stadium press box than Vanderbilt is on the Georgia four-yard line. Defeat seems preordained. The Bulldogs, under new coach Kirby Smart, are lackadaisical and sloppy: unforced errors, unnecessary penalties, uninspired play calling. As a Georgia graduate from the Vince Dooley years, I expect our guys to meet certain standards. That I do reveals that, whatever remove I once sought from the university as an institution, I never stopped following the football team. (In 2012 I stayed glued to the telecast of the Dawgs’ disastrous SEC title game loss to Alabama, nearly missing a friend’s dinner party; for the rest of that night I was awful company.) I take losing personally, but to lose to perennial doormat Vanderbilt?

The final score is 17–16, but it isn’t that close. By the time the final seconds tick off the clock, many fans have left. Those who remain are silent, and I feel their pain. It’s been 36 years since Georgia won a national championship. At the end of last season, the school fired coach Mark Richt, who’d averaged nine victories a year. Not good enough. His successor will be lucky to win that many.

It’s been a tough season for Dawgs fans. Vanderbilt was supposed to be a pushover. Instead, the Commodores left with a 17–16 victory. At homecoming, no less.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

As I linger, I watch Charles Seiler walk Uga X the length of the field. They pass the graves of Uga’s forebears (the plaque for Uga I reads simply: “Damn Good Dog”) then exit through the west gate. It’s a moving sight, for implicit in it are concepts of loyalty and continuity, an unbroken chain between past and present, stronger than winning and losing.

Charles Seiler with the latest Uga.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Equally moving, and for the same reason, is the music the faithful file out to, the Georgia Redcoat Marching Band’s rendition of “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind. Every game at Sanford Stadium ends this way, and while I’ll never disavow the scamp I was at 20 (and still am), I’m grateful to witness the ritual once more. I’m also happy to know that at Loran Smith’s house, the party—he serves his bourbon in tumblers bearing headlines celebrating the team’s last NCAA crown—will start any minute, and I’m invited.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones
Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

This article originally appeared in our December 2016 issue.

The People v. Leo Frank

Photograph courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center
Photograph courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

Throughout the rain-threatened spring morning, pilgrims kept arriving at the Marietta City Cemetery. High school kids researching a history project. A Darlington, South Carolina, lawyer who’d been planning his trip for months. A curious college student. All made their way to the grave of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old child laborer murdered in a downtown Atlanta factory on April 26, 1913, exactly 100 years before. Little Mary’s final resting place, with its hauntingly engraved stone (“Many an aching heart in Georgia beats for you, and many a tear, from eyes unused to weep, has paid you a tribute”), has long been a shrine.

But the girl’s mysterious death and the subsequent tragedy it inspired—the lynching of Leo Frank, a Cornell-educated Jewish industrialist convicted of her killing—make the site more than just a place for paying respects. Here, unresolved hostilities still erupt. Among this day’s visitors was eighty-year-old Edward R. Fields, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, an associate of the late racist politician J.B. Stoner, and a founder of the anti-Semitic National States Rights Party. After offering a prayer and placing a flower, Fields told Leo Hohmann of the Marietta Daily Journal that Frank, contrary to most contemporary thinking, was guilty as charged. As to why many now believe otherwise, Fields declared, “Money is power. And the Jews have the money. They came down here from New York and made movies and wrote stories.” So began the centennial of Atlanta’s most infamous criminal case.

Even after 100 years, the questions linger. Was Leo Frank indeed innocent? Did he receive a fair trial? Did America’s Jews, especially those in the press, misplay their hand, inadvertently igniting the sectional hostility that doomed Frank? How did the lynch mob get away with such a brazen crime? Finally: Could it happen again?

From today’s perspective, the case beggars belief. Mary Phagan, who toiled at a Forsyth Street pencil factory run by Frank, was found strangled to death in the factory basement not long after leaving Frank’s office with her weekly pay: $1.20. Next to her body the police discovered two semiliterate notes that purported to have been written by her (“i wright while play with me,” read one) but were plainly the work of someone else. Jim Conley, the factory’s black janitor, claimed that Frank committed the murder when the girl rejected Frank’s sexual advances. Conley added that Frank dictated the notes to him in an effort to pin the crime on another black employee. Following a monthlong trial in the heat of summer, an all-white jury accepted Conley’s word over that of the Yankee Jew and returned a guilty verdict. A black witness had prevailed against a white defendant in a capital case in the Jim Crow South. The judge’s sentence: death by hanging.

Striking as all this was, what happened next proved even more dramatic. The Northern press, led by the New York Times, took up the story. Tom Watson, a fierce Georgia populist offended by what he saw as one-sided accounts in the Jewish-owned Times, responded in his weekly tabloid, the Jeffersonian, with incendiary rants that featured ugly stereotypes and played up Southern grievances. When the U.S. Supreme Court denied Frank’s last appeal, Governor John Slaton, widely seen as having a conflict of interest (his partner was the lead defense lawyer), reviewed the case. In June 1915 he commuted Frank’s sentence. Soon after, a disciplined cadre of vigilantes stormed the state prison in Milledgeville and abducted its now celebrated inmate. They drove Frank in an automobile caravan some 150 miles through the night to an oak grove near Mary’s family home in Marietta. There they carried out what they saw as the court’s verdict: They hanged Leo Frank. No one was indicted (one of the lynch mob leaders conducted the grand jury inquest), much less convicted. It was a perfect crime.

Little wonder the case remains profoundly unsettling. Not only were there two hideous murders, but religious prejudice, racism, and demagoguery ran rampant, and the law was trampled. When it was over, Atlanta’s Jews—previously secure in their social and business standing—retreated into a twilight of suspicion and fear. As for the leading citizens of Marietta who masterminded the hanging, they bore an abiding shame: the stigma of a lynching. For decades, neither group would speak of the subject. Nor would Georgia’s blacks. Conley, one of their own, gave the testimony that convicted Frank—testimony he had every reason to concoct if, as many came to suspect, he was the real culprit.

Not until the 1980s did the veil of repression and denial begin to lift, thanks largely to the late-in-life revelations of octogenarian Alonzo Mann, Frank’s long-ago office boy. Mann told the Nashville Tennessean that on the day Mary was murdered, he had entered the factory’s lobby and seen Conley toting the girl’s lifeless body. Conley, said Mann, threatened him: If he breathed a word, Conley would kill him. Mann’s story formed the basis for a posthumous pardon application for Frank filed by, among others, the Southern counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that grew out of the lynching. (A second group also emerged from the case: the modern KKK. Three months after the lynching, the hooded fraternity held its first twentieth-century cross-burning atop Stone Mountain.)

In 1983 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant Frank an outright pardon, but three years later it conceded that the state had failed to protect his constitutional rights (the break-in at the prison was unopposed) and issued what amounted to an apology. The affair reentered the public consciousness. NBC broadcast a miniseries starring Peter Gallagher as Frank and Jack Lemmon as John Slaton. In 1998 playwright Alfred Uhry, an Atlanta native, and director Hal Prince mounted a Broadway musical about the case, Parade. Finally, in 2003, And the Dead Shall Rise, my attempt to bring every last bit of the dark tale into the light, appeared in bookstores.

In the hours after Mary Phagan’s body was discovered, Leo Frank seemed unduly agitated. There was credible circumstantial evidence against him as well. According to one witness, he was not at his desk at the hour Mary was slain, even though he’d said he was. Also damning, at the trial many female employees testified to his reputation for lasciviousness. But almost certainly Frank did not kill the girl. The murderer was Conley. On the afternoon of the crime, the janitor was in the factory lobby when Mary emerged from Frank’s office with her wages. Drunk and by his own admission in debt, he had the opportunity to rob her, then a reason to kill her.

True, there will always be doubts. The Atlanta Police botched the forensics investigation, and an autopsy was not conducted on the victim until nine days after her death. Moreover, Conley testified convincingly at the trial, while Frank gave a wooden statement. But William Smith—Conley’s lawyer and a central character in my book—demonstrated that Conley lied about the case’s most important physical evidence. In a careful study, Smith, who’d long entertained doubts about his client, proved that Conley, not Frank, was the author of the notes found beside the girl’s body. Governor Slaton relied on Smith’s work when commuting Frank’s death sentence.

Frank’s trial was demonstrably unfair. There were frequent outbursts against him from spectators, and as the jury deliberated, the judge and the lawyers for both sides struck an agreement to keep Frank out of the courtroom when his verdict was read, for fear he would be lynched if acquitted. Still, there’s no evidence for a later claim that crowds shouted at the jury, “Hang the Jew, or we’ll hang you.” That was an invention by Frank’s supporters and is indicative of the heavy-handedness that would mark their pronouncements.

Although most American Jews believed that Frank was not so much prosecuted as persecuted, there was a fierce debate in the Jewish community about how to respond. American Jewish Committee president Louis Marshall, the constitutional lawyer who handled Frank’s appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court, felt that Frank’s ethnicity should not be a factor in the efforts to exonerate him. Others, among them Albert D. Lasker, the millionaire advertising executive who publicized Frank’s plight, disagreed, and they prevailed, transforming the case into a cause celebre in which religious prejudice was a central issue. Lasker’s daughter, Frances Lasker Brody, told me that in subsequent years her father said he had made a terrible mistake. He’d realized that his tactics had helped foment the backlash in Georgia against Frank.

No one was more convinced of Frank’s innocence than Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, and his conviction, no matter how well-intentioned, led to journalistic excesses. Ochs turned the paper of record into a pro-Frank propaganda machine. It printed hundreds of stories that played up facts in his favor. How biased was the Times? Researchers examining recently located files in the paper’s archives discovered a trove of photographs of the Phagan crime scene in which models reenact the murder in a sequence staged to establish Conley’s guilt. The pictures were commissioned by Ochs as the courts weighed Frank’s fate, and while he did not run them, they offer proof of the thinking behind what he did publish. The Times’ coverage spurred Watson to the rhetorical extremes that laid the foundation for the case’s awful conclusion.

Whatever the lapses by his allies, Frank’s lynching was an act of infamy. The crime was conceived by Marietta’s elite, men whose family names—Brumby, Clay, Brown, Morris—still resonate in high places and adorn prominent buildings across Georgia. It was carried out by farmers and merchants who answered to these worthies. But it was not merely a local operation. As I make clear in my book, the lynching was underwritten by the state legislature, which in the crime’s aftermath funded new construction at the Milledgeville prison. Georgia financed Frank’s lynching. It’s no surprise Frank’s sympathizers lacked the stomach to call for an investigation. In fact, the most startling discovery in the Times archives is a letter to Ochs from a sister who visited Atlanta after the lynching, telling him the city’s Jews had voted to let the matter rest. To look too deeply, they’d decided, could lead to more violence.

In many ways, 2013 bears a great similarity to 1913. Just as the industrial age is presently giving way to the information age, the agrarian age was then giving way to the industrial age, making people anxious about the future. There’s also another familiar element: proliferating and unreliable sources of news. In the early twentieth century, Atlanta boasted three daily papers (the least responsible was the Georgian, owned by William Randolph Hearst), and they deluged the city with extra editions about the Phagan murder. A detective probing the crime—making an observation that could just as easily apply to consumers of media in the era of Facebook and Twitter—described a witness as being “well-read to the extent that she is crazy.”

But the most worrisome parallel is this: The red state/blue state divide that now transforms elections and court decisions into venomous societal litmus tests finds its origins in events like the Frank affair. Under the right circumstances, the same sort of anarchy that engulfed Frank could be loosed again.

There is, of course, one huge difference between yesterday and today: The FBI, at the time of Frank’s lynching a nonentity, now has the authority to investigate civil rights violations and conspiracies. Indeed, just the threat of federal prosecution has a way of deterring atrocities. Even so, the sentiments articulated by ex-Klansman Edward R. Fields at Mary Phagan’s grave are not uncommon. For the next two years—the centennial will continue through August 17, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the lynching—the Frank case will be rehashed from all sides. The last battle of the Civil War and the first battle in the culture wars, it is not over.

Hear the Author
Steve Oney will talk about the Leo Frank case at Georgia State University on October 3. The event is at Speakers auditorium in the GSU Student Center, 44 Courtland Street SE, at 4:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Click here for more details.

This article originally appeared in our September 2013 issue.

Follow Us