The case of Leo Frank is incredibly disturbing.

Born in Texas, but raised in Brooklyn, NY, Frank moved to Atlanta in 1908. Although he married the daughter of a prominent southern Jewish family, Lucille Selig, the southern culture made little sense to Frank. Many of his neighbors were still pining for the glory of the Confederacy and cursing Northern industrialists.

The corpse of Mary Phagan, a 13 year old white factory worker at the National Pencil Company, where Frank was the manager, was found in the factory’s basement near the “negro bathroom” on April 26, 1913. From the outset, the police investigation was mishandled, evidence ignored or misplaced.

Eventually, suspicion fell on Frank (who had been working off hours). Most of the police’s case rested on circumstantial evidence and the accessory confession of Jim Conley, the janitor and an ex-con. Conley’s testimony was highly suspect (his story changed frequently) and most historians believe he was the true culprit (a sentiment later expressed by Conley’s lawyer).

Convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Frank would probably have received an acquittal were it not for sensationalist journalism that influenced and enraged the populace at the murder of a white girl, supposedly at the hands of a Northern Jew. The defense even asked for a mistrial due to jury intimidation by the mob.

On June 21, 1915, Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the outgoing governor of Georgia (since he was no longer under political threat).

The “public” was outraged. A group of prominent citizens, dubbing themselves the “Knights of Mary Phagan” decided to take the law into their own hands. On August 1, after being abducted from jail, Frank was strung from a tree and hanged.

In 1982, Frank’s office boy came forward and testified that he had seen Conley at the murder scene but had been threatened with his life if he spoke up. Frank received an official, if ambiguous pardon, in 1986.

In the aftermath of the lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia. The events of the Leo Frank case led both to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan as well as the creation of the B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation League.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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