Two Unsolved Murders and a "Trial Of The Century":
A Review of And The Dead Shall Rise, An Account of the Mary Phagan and Leo Frank Murders
By MARK S. ZAID
In 1913, in Atlanta, Georgia, 13 year-old Mary Phagan was killed. A Jewish man, Leo Frank, was tried for her murder. His trial gripped the nation. Indeed, it was the first "trial of the century," as that phrase is now used. The trial was permeated by lurid tales of sexual deviation, and it pitted North against South, Black against White and, most prominently, Jew against non-Jew.
Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison, but in 1915, he was kidnapped from a state penitentiary and lynched.
The identities of those who lynched Frank had long been a subject of debate. And even today, his case still evokes emotion in certain Southern and Jewish communities.
The crimes against Phagan and Frank have both been shrouded in mystery. But now, some of the shrouds have finally been peeled away -- with the publication of Steve Oney's 742 page, 17-year effort, And The Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.
Oney is a former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In researching the book, he reconstructed the day-by-day events of the trial through newspaper articles (the original trial transcript disappeared years ago). He also interviewed numerous individuals whose families had long ago tried to forget their involvement in anti-Semitic vigilante justice.
Ninety years after the events occurred, Oney presents the most comprehensive investigation into the case that has ever been offered. His account is particularly captivating because the story is revealed as truly a tale of two unsolved murders. Did Frank really kill Phagan, or was it another suspect? And who was part of the mob that lynched Frank?
The book's thoroughness is at once its great virtue and great flaw. And the Dead Shall Rise offers meticulous -- and, at times, overwhelming -- detail about everything and everyone connected to the case. That attention to detail, some might say, is more appropriate to a Ph.D. thesis than a mainstream work of non-fiction. Yet one cannot help but be fascinated with the depth of Oney's work. The advent of an even more definitive work on this topic seems unimaginable.
Who Killed Mary Phagan?
The story starts on April 27, 1913, when Mary Phagan's lifeless 13 year-old body was found within Atlanta's National Pencil Factory. The primary suspect was Leo M. Frank -- a 29 year-old, Ivy-League educated Jewish businessman, originally from Brooklyn, New York. Frank had been the last person to admit seeing the girl alive.
Atlanta police had immediately focused on Frank due to his still unexplained "nervous, strange" behavior. Yet two blood-soaked notes found at the crime scene suggested that, instead, a Black man was responsible.
Jim Conley, a Black janitor at the factory, became another suspect. But in the end, Conley was the state's star witness against Frank. This marked the first time in the South that the testimony of a Black man had convicted a White man.
Who really killed Mary Phagan? The book does not say outright. But in interviews, Oney has stated that he believes that it is 95% likely that it was Conley -- not Frank.
Oney's research led him to find that, in 1949, William Smith, the attorney who had represented Conley, wrote a deathbed note proclaiming Frank's innocence.
In addition, seventy years after Phagan was murdered, 85-year old Alonzo Mann, Frank's former office boy, revealed that he had seen Conley carrying her limp body. He said he had not come forward at the time because he had been told by his mother to stay quiet.
Based largely on Mann's revelation, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles considered a posthumous attempt to vindicate Frank. But in the end, the Board concluded that it was simply impossible to "decide conclusively the guilt or innocence of Leo M. Frank."
Since then, Frank's innocence has been proclaimed repeatedly -- in print and on television, and through Broadway plays and musicals, as well as movies. But none of these accounts can match Oney's attention to detail.
Who Lynched Leo Frank?
Frank, to no surprise to the Atlanta community, was convicted, and sentenced to death. On three different occasions, the trial judge refused to grant a new trial (though letters published after his death suggests he had concerns regarding the verdict). Subsequently, on five separate appeals, the Georgia and U.S. Supreme Courts upheld Frank's conviction.
In the end, however, John Slaton -- Georgia's outgoing governor, who was also a law partner of Frank's attorney -- commuted Frank's sentence to life in prison.
That decision set off a chain of events that led to Frank's lynching. On August 16, 1915, a mob of citizens from Marietta, Georgia (Phagan's home) -- many of whom were quite prominent in the community -- kidnapped Frank from Georgia's state prison farm at Milledgeville.
They then drove him 150 miles to a cotton gin. There, the next morning, they lynched him, by hanging. Southern justice had been done.
A grand jury was convened to investigate the lynching. But it didn't get far. At least seven of its members, and two of the lawyers, were revealed to have been participants in the lynching. Not surprisingly, none of the members of the lynching mob were ever prosecuted.
The only official solace for Frank came in 1986, when the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a weak finding that the State of Georgia bore responsibility for having failed to adequately protect Frank's constitutional rights, thereby causing his death.
A plaque, placed on the 80th anniversary of the lynching, now marks the spot where Frank met his end. It bears the inscription "Wrongly accused. Falsely convicted. Wantonly murdered."
Who participated in Frank's lynching? For the first time, as a result of Oney's book, the names of all those responsible have found their way into print.
Oney's perseverance and detective work is admirable: The men involved, and many of their family members, had desperately tried to take their dirty secret to their graves. And subsequently, the prominence in the community of the lynchers and their descendents ensured that the information remained buried.
Indeed, in the 1970s, a local newspaper editor obtained the information but did not publish it. He was himself a nephew of one of the lynchers, and could not bring himself to open wounds in a community that still had not healed.
Oney reveals that at least 26 people were involved in the lynching. They included Joseph Brown, a former Georgian governor; Herbert Clay, the son of a U.S. senator; and Newt Morris, a circuit judge and Democratic Party leader. It was former sheriff William Frey, who owned the farm where Frank was murdered, who set the noose around his neck.
The Larger Historical Importance of the Phagan-Frank Case
At the time, the Phagan-Frank case was a cause celebre for many. Adolph Ochs' New York Times frequently wrote editorials in Frank's favor. Meanwhile, William Randolph Hearst's Georgian newspapers unequivocally condemned Frank as a murderer.
From the point of view of history, the two murders came at a critical juncture - one marked by persistent racism, growing anti-Semitism and a noxious chasm between economic classes. They occurred just as Georgia was in the process of changing paths from the defeated Old South of the Civil War to the New South.
The events had further national historical repercussions, some of which continue to be relevant even today. The events that ultimately led to the death of Frank also breathed life into a revived Klu Klux Klan, which was reorganized at Stone Mountain, Georgia, on November 23, 1915. Yet at the same time, these events also gave a purpose and future to the newly created B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League.
The anti-Frank movement was primarily led by Tom Watson, a populist Georgia politician and editor of a weekly publication, the Jeffersonian. Watson denounced the free-Frank movement as nothing more than a creeping Jewish conspiracy. Watson had been was the Populist Party's 1896 vice-presidential nominee (when Williams Jennings Bryan was its presidential candidate). Ultimately, he used the Frank case to further his own power and political career, and went on to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate.
Even nine decades after the events, the souls of those involved in the Phagan-Frank murders still apparently walk the streets of Atlanta and its suburbs (Indeed, the owner of the house of the lynching ringleader advertises a ghost tour). As Oney discovered during his research and subsequent book tours, the actions of men long since dead still cause their descendants to bear a heavy load on their shoulders even today.
One book signing in Atlanta drew more than 800 people, many of whom quietly and shamefully approached Oney to tell them of their family connection to Frank's lynching. And hundreds flocked to hear Oney speak in Marietta, Georgia - Phagan's final resting place - where an armed guard was at the door, just in case.