The Lynching Of Leo Frank: The Murder of A Young Girl, A Trial Fueled By Antisemitism & The KKK
In 1913, Leo Frank was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl called Mary Phagan, however, no physical evidence linked him to the killing. Two years later, a mob lynched him for the crime.
On August 17, 1915, a mob from Georgia lynched Leo Frank, he was a Jewish man who had been convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan and had just had his death sentence commuted to life in prison by the governor.
Two years earlier, Leo Frank was sent to prison for the brutal murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, the young girl worked at the pencil factory that he managed. Police arrested six men for the horrific killing but their attention soon concentrated on Frank.
According to NAACP, at least 4,743 people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968. Out of these victims, 72% of them were Black, while the remainder included immigrants and religious minorities such as Leo Frank.
The lynching of Leo Frank is a stark reminder of how white Americans used terror to target those they defined as an outsider - including Jewish men like Frank.
Just three months after the lynching, many of those involved gathered at Georgia's Stone Mountain for a ceremony that established the modern Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, in the North, Leo Frank's brutal death led directly to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.
The Murder Of 13-Year-Old Mary Phagan
On April 26, 1913, 13-year-old Mary Phagan was handed her paycheck by Leo Frank. They both worked at the Atlanta factory of the National Pencil Company, where at the time, 29-year-old Leo Frank worked as a superintendent
Leo Frank was the last person to see Mary Phagan alive.
That same night, a watchman made the horrific discovery of young Mary Phagan's body. She had been sexually assaulted and hidden in the basement. Police found two handwritten notes next to her body.
The notes initially gave police the indication that the murderer was the night watchman, Newt Lee. After authorities arrested Lee, they began to suspect a different killer: Jim Conley, an almost illiterate Black janitor who was quickly arrested.
However, during police interrogation, Conley paved the way for suspicion to be brought on a third man, the factory superintendent, Leo Frank. Conley told police that Frank had called the factory that night to check if there had been any disturbances, something that he had never done in the past.
Authorities arrested another three men, a streetcar conductor, a bookkeeper at the factory, and one of the factory's elevator operators, but their focus quickly got aimed directly at Leo Frank.
Witnesses reported to the police that they saw Conley washing bloodstains out of his shirt several days after the murder, even with these eyewitness claims, Leo Frank was sent to trial for the killing, while Conley became the state's star witness.
Antisemitism Fuels The Trial Of Leo Frank
It was late summer when the trial of Leo Frank began. Before it even had a chance to start antisemitism was rife. One potential juror who was actually selected for the trial was heard saying, "I am glad they indicted the God damn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him. And if I get on that Jury, I'll hang that Jew for sure."
While on the stand, Jim Conley claimed that Leo Frank murdered Mary Phagan and forced the janitor to hide her body. The jury was never told that Conley signed four affidavits with different explanations for why he moved Phagan's body. Nor did they hear Conley's confession that he wrote the notes found at the murder scene.
Even though Conley's attorney told the judge that Conley had confessed to lying about Leo Frank's involvement, the judge allowed the trial to continue.
The all-white jury believed every word Conley said and convicted Leo Frank of the murder. Frank was seen as an outsider - he was the son of German Jewish immigrants raised in Brooklyn who relocated to Atlanta to work at the factory.
Leo Frank had the support of national newspapers, their editors wrote articles showing support and demanding a new trial, but their strategy didn't work. Georgians became adamant that Leo Frank was guilty and refused to hide their anti-Jewish sentiment.
A local newspaper published an article titled "When are the Northern Jews Going to Let Up On Their Insane Attempt to Bulldoze The State of Georgia?" the article finished with the line, "WOMANHOOD MUST BE, AND SHALL BE PROTECTED, and we mean to have that understood by lascivious young Jews."
Throughout the trial, the jury chose to believe everything Conley said. The prosecution used racial bias against both Frank and Conley - it wasn't possible that Conley wrote the murder notes, they argued, because they were written using proper grammar. Frank, however, was classified as a university-educated "Jewish Yankee".
Leo Frank's defense attorney, Reuben Arnold, called the trial a "complete sham". He exclaimed that Frank "comes from a race of people that have made money, if Frank hadn't been a Jew he never would have been prosecuted."
The prosecutor offered a rebuttal: "Gentlemen, do you think that I or these detectives are actuated by prejudice? Would we as sworn officers of the law have sought to hang Leo Frank on account of his race and religion and passed up Jim Conley? A negro!"
Why Did The Georgia Governor Review The Case Of Leo Frank
A Georgia court sentenced Leo Frank to death. A Jewish service organization, B’nai B’rith responded by establishing the Anti-Defamation League to try and help Frank fight the conviction. The case was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but the effort still failed.
By 1915, Leo Frank had already served two years behind bars, and his last chance of avoiding execution was a commutation from the governor. The Governor was Mr John M. Slaton who took this case very seriously, he visited the pencil factory and read 10,000 pages of documents relating to the case.
During Slaton's last few days as governor, he commuted Leo Frank's sentence to life in prison. The governor believed that Frank was an innocent man who had been wrongly convicted and that the first step towards freeing him was abolishing his death sentence. The announcement of the commutation triggered violent protests and riots.
An angry mob marched to the governor's mansion, resulting in Slaton calling the National Guard and declaring martial law. When his term as governor ended, police had to escort him to safety. Slaton would not return to Georgia for a further ten years. The mob, however, had much worse planned for Leo Frank.
The Knights Of Mary Phagan And The Lynching Of Leo Frank
On the night of August 16, 1915, a gang of 25 men ascended on Milledgeville prison where Frank was serving his sentence. They called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, the mob forced their way into the prison, kidnapped Leo Frank from his cell, and drove him back to the hometown of Mary Phagan.
The mob had planned their assault well in advance and came well prepared. They cut the phone lines in the prison ensuring no one could call for help. Other members of the group drained the gas tanks of police cars so the authorities couldn't pursue them. They also had lookouts in every town along the 150-mile route from the prison to Marietta, Georgia.
The mob took Leo Frank to the property of the town's former sheriff and lynched him, leaving his body hanging from a large oak tree.
Before they strung Frank from a tree, the mob allowed him to speak. With the rope tied tightly around his neck, Leo Frank said his final words: "I think more of my wife and my mother than I do of my own life."
His death was agonizing and slow as the drop hadn't been long enough to kill him quickly.
The following day, 3,000 people came to get a glimpse of the dead man hanging from the tree.
None of the mob involved in the murder of Leo Frank ever faced prosecution, and just three months after, on November 25, 1915, between 15 and 30 men, many of which had been involved in the lynching of Leo Frank, gathered at Stone Mountain for a ceremony where they announced the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan.
The men involved in convicting Leo Frank prospered. The prosecutor at his trial became the governor of Georgia, while Tom Watson, a media mogul who ran a smear campaign against Frank became a senator. Conley's own lawyer insisted after the trial that Frank was innocent and Conley was guilty - a move that ended his career.
In 1986, Leo Frank was posthumously pardoned on the grounds that the state hadn't protected him from a mob, however, no statement was given regarding his innocence, though it is now widely agreed that he was a completely innocent man. In 2000, a list of the lynchers was published which revealed numerous Atlanta elites.
So who killed Mary Phagan? Overwhelming evidence points toward Jim Conley. Ultimately, Leo Frank paid for a crime that he didn't commit with his life.