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The Lynching of Leo Frank

The crime of the century—the 20th century—feels unnervingly relevant today

Marjorie Ingall
March 11, 2016
Courtesy of the Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History at The Breman Museum
Lucille Selig and Leo Frank at Grant Park in Atlanta, July 17, 1909. Courtesy of the Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History at The Breman Museum
Courtesy of the Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History at The Breman Museum
Lucille Selig and Leo Frank at Grant Park in Atlanta, July 17, 1909. Courtesy of the Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History at The Breman Museum

The story of Leo Frank is a tale of murder, titillation, anti-Semitism, racism, tensions between the North and South, secrets and lies. If it were fiction, you’d be forgiven for thinking it over the top. How crammed with Big Issues can one narrative be?

But the Leo Frank story is true. In 1913, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan, an employee of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia, was murdered. Her body was found in the basement. Leo Frank, the factory’s superintendent, was soon charged with the crime. He was a Yankee Jew transplanted to the Deep South, “a bookish, Strauss-waltz-loving Ivy Leaguer in the land of the Georgia Bulldogs,” in the words of journalist Steve Oney, who spent 17 years writing And the Dead Shall Rise, the definitive book on the case. Frank was awkward, pale, nerdy—a Brooklyn Jew with a funny accent and a nervous demeanor. Despite an absence of physical evidence (and a plethora of evidence pointing toward the guilt of the factory’s janitor, Jim Conley), Frank was convicted. The governor of Georgia, who had doubts about the verdict, commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. But a group of men broke Frank out of prison, drove him into the countryside, and lynched him.

You’d be excused for not being familiar with this sad snippet of American history. Even folks from Georgia, where the tragedy happened, don’t all know the story. A newly opened exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, on view through Aug. 28, aims to correct that. It consists mostly of contemporary newspaper accounts mounted on the museum walls, along with objects like Frank’s factory desk, National Pencil Company pencils, the scrawled deathbed statement from a lawyer who worked to prove Frank’s guilt (in wavering block letters, it reads “I BELIEVE IN THE INNOCENCE AND GOOD CHARACTER OF LEO M FRANK”), a player-piano reel of an anti-Frank folk song, photos and souvenir post cards showing the lynching, and a grainy 20-second video of the crowd at the lynching site and at the funeral home.

“It was a taboo subject when I was a child,” said Georgia-born Jewish playwright Alfred Uhry, speaking at the museum last Monday night. “I used to ask, ‘What’s all this about Leo Frank?’ They’d all say, ‘Never mind.’ ” Uhry eventually did learn the full story and turned it into the book for Parade, which opened on Broadway in 1998 and won two Tony Awards. The musical toured the United States and played in London and was last year given a one-night-only performance at Lincoln Center.

For generations Southern Jews didn’t talk about Leo Frank.

Last Monday night, 101 years after Leo Frank was hanged from an oak tree, a panel gathered at the museum to try to find meaning in his death. The panelists were Uhry; Oney; Parade’s composer and lyricist, Jason Robert Brown; and moderator Julie Burstein. The auditorium was packed, mostly with rabid young theater fans. (I also saw the tiny, tufted head of Dr. Ruth.) Clearly most were there to see and hear songs from Parade performed live … but they also learned about the environment that fostered the real events that inspired the show.

The South in the early 1900s was still reeling from the Civil War. An agrarian way of life was dying. Northern industrialists and carpetbagging business owners were setting up factories. Black people wanted to exercise their right to vote and were often stymied. The postwar newspaper industry boomed, with tabloids playing to the fears of disenfranchised white Southerners. “Our grand old Empire State HAS BEEN RAPED!” wrote Tom Watson, publisher of The Jeffersonian. “Jew money has debased us, brought us, and sold us—and laughs at us.” Watson turned the Leo Frank case into an anti-Semitic crusade, massively increasing his readership and riling up the mob. After Gov. John M. Slaton reviewed thousands of documents and commuted Frank’s sentence to life, Watson urged his readers to lynch the governor as well as Frank. “Hereafter let no man reproach the South with lynch law,” he wrote ominously. “Let him say whether lynch law is not better than no law at all.”

In this climate of fear and anxiety, it’s no wonder that for generations Southern Jews didn’t talk about Leo Frank. Uhry noted that his grandmother’s brother-in-law owned the pencil factory, and his grandmother was a friend of Leo Frank’s widow. (“But when you’re a child, everyone who’s a friend of your grandmother’s is just another old lady,” he said with a rueful smile.) It took years for him to learn and understand what had happened. After he wrote Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, plays influenced by his Southern Jewish youth, the director Hal Prince asked him why Southern Jews were always so eager to blend in. Uhry told him the story of Leo Frank. Prince said, “That’s a musical.” So, Uhry decided to write it. After all, as Brown pointed out, musicals needn’t be sunny. “Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables are both miserable stories,” he said drily. “I mean, can you hear everybody sing, or can’t you?” Brown, then in his early 20s, had never even been to Georgia when Uhry asked him to collaborate. “Hal and Alfred could have asked me to write a musical about vacuum cleaners and I would have done it,” he said.

Even after Parade opened on Broadway and Oney’s exhaustively researched book was published, there were secrets in Marietta. In 2000, a research librarian at the Atlanta-Fulton public library and former history professor at Spelman College created a website listing the men who’d lynched Frank—he’d found it in the library in 1994, while researching the area’s anti-Semitic history. The list of names was pretty much an open secret, but all the local papers had refused to publish it. “I suspect that list was in the back of a lot of family Bibles,” noted Oney. The names included those of a former governor of Georgia, former and current mayors of Marietta, a Cobb County sheriff, a judge, an electrician to cut the wires at the prison, a medic, a preacher and several founders of the Marietta Country Club. The original compiler of the list, Mary Phagan’s great-niece Mary Phagan Kean, was not happy that librarian Stephen J. Goldfarb went public. She argued that no one could say which men had actually hanged Frank. (“There were three groups: the planners, the actual lynchers and a decoy group,” she told the Washington Post. “How do you know which group anybody was in?”) A local newspaper editor also knew about the list—he’d had his own copy for decades; he’d opted not to publish it. “For 50 years, I’ve had to live with this case,” Bill Kinney, a columnist at the Marietta Journal, told the Post. His uncle, Cicero Dobbs, was on the list. He didn’t publish it because the lynching was “a black eye on the community” and his mother had told him he was not to talk about it.

For last year’s centenary of Frank’s murder, Uhry attended a student production in Marietta, held a mile from where Frank was hanged. “I was frightened,” he said. “I knew that a lot of descendants of people who’d lynched him would be there. After the show, Mary Phagan [Kean] came up to me and said [Uhry affected a soft, feminine Georgia accent], ‘That was very niiiice, but I know he killed my aunt.’ I said ‘Thank you.’ What else could I say?” The museum audience listened in stunned silence. Brown broke the hush by chirpily noting, “She’s fun!”

The highlight of the museum program was the live concert performance of songs from Parade. Sebastian Arcelus (as Leo Frank) and Stephanie J. Block (as Lucille) powerfully sang “How Can I Call This Home?” “Leo at Work/What Am I Waiting For?”, “You Don’t Know This Man,” “Do It Alone,” “This Is Not Over Yet,” and “All the Wasted Time.” At the end of the beautiful last number—when the audience knows Leo is doomed, but the couple is full of hope—Arcelus left his podium, embraced Block, and kissed her passionately. When they parted, she had tears in her eyes. (Arcelus and Block are married in real life, which added extra resonance, and also made me feel less anxious about potential charges of sexual harassment.)

Brown said he saw the show as the story of a couple who fell in love only after they were married. Lucille was a genteel, assimilated Southern belle; Leo was a starchy, Yiddish-speaking, distant Northerner. In the show, she comes into her own as she fights to save her husband’s life; he comes to see her as a partner and a powerful person in her own right. In only six years, Oney pointed out, she went from ingénue to wife to widow. She never remarried. “Leo Frank was lynched, but Lucille served a life sentence,” he said. In real life, Oney said, Leo and Lucille’s relationship didn’t seem quite as theater-friendly. “Leo expressed very little warmth in his letters,” Oney noted. “I felt the relationship was … one-sided.” (Brown replied, “I like our version better.” Oney assured him that he understood dramatic license.)

The mob appeal of Donald Trump has historic antecedents.

The fact that Leo was so unsentimental and chilly does make the exhibit, originally mounted at The William Breman Heritage Museum in Atlanta, a little distancing. Looking at Lucille’s silver expo souvenir spoon or the front page of Leo’s prison diary (which contained only lists of visitors and the day’s weather) doesn’t make the case or the characters feel very immediate. For those truly interested in the details of the case and the identity of the probable murderer, reading And the Dead Shall Rise or the superb young-adult nonfiction book An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank by Elaine Marie Alphin (which I raved about in Tablet) might be more satisfying. The exhibit also doesn’t make clear just how committed some people today are to insisting that Frank was guilty. (Some of the furious, multi-screen customer comments on Oney and Alphin’s books on Amazon give you an idea. Frank was posthumously pardoned in 1986 by the Board of Pardons and Paroles based on the State’s failure to protect Frank from the hands of his lynchers, and after his former office boy came forward at the age of 83 to describe what he’d actually seen that night when he was 13. “When I was in the courthouse there were at least 500 people on the street, saying to each other ‘Kill the Jew! Kill the Jew!’ ” Alonzo Mann said in a taped deposition on view at the museum. “Some had pistols. Some had knives. They were crazy. I was afraid .. and I did what my mother and father told me.” An Amazon customer dismisses Mann’s testimony by saying that he and Leo Frank had had a sexual relationship. But let’s say Leo Frank had been a secret pansexual pedophile predator: Why would Mann come forward at age 83 to exonerate him?)

In sum, the exhibit is engrossing for those who are already interested in the Frank case. But it doesn’t take the important extra step of telling us why Leo Frank’s story is relevant today. We live in an age of Internet calumny, cowardly and opportunistic journalism, corrupt officials, politicians playing on people’s fears of foreigners, and systemic law enforcement biases. At the panel, Burstein asked, “Why should we continue to tell this story?” Brown snapped back, “I don’t know, are there any racist demagogues continuing to run around?” As the audience laughed knowingly, Uhry gave a big, theatrical, faux-mystified shrug. If only the exhibit had made it as clear that the mob appeal of Donald Trump has historic antecedents.

Finally, I’m troubled that the museum show doesn’t delve deeply into issues of race as well as religion. Some of the letters and documents that support Frank are full of nauseatingly racist stereotypes, language, and assumptions. And while it’s notable that Frank was the only Jew ever lynched in America, thousands of black people were strung up all over the South. There’s one song about that fact, “Strange Fruit,” but Leo Frank got an entire musical. Most of the black victims are nameless and unknown; Frank has a museum show. Of course this isn’t Uhry or Brown’s fault, but it feels … imbalanced. The trial itself played a black man and a white Jewish man against each other—and the exhibit doesn’t openly address all the nuances there, or the tensions between people of color and white Jews today. It feels like a missed opportunity. It also feels dishonest. At least, as Brown put it, “We wrote the truth. Some of it was fictional, but it was still the truth.”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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