Leo Max Frank. (Photo: Wikipedia)
One hundred years ago, on August 17, 1915, Leo Frank was kidnapped from prison in Milledgeville, Georgia by the Knights of Mary Phagan, a revitalized Ku Klux Klan group of prominent men from Cobb County, Georgia, where Frank was transported to nearly 170 miles away, and lynched.
Thousands of African-Americans were lynched throughout the south in the early 20th century without any sort of reprimand to those that committed these atrocities, often-authoritative leaders of their own communities. The case of Leo Frank was no different in that regard, yet the circumstances of Frank’s infamous murder and imprisonment were rife with anti-semitism, class warfare, sensationalism, and hysteria, which engulfed early 20th century America.
Born in Texas, raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Leo Frank received his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University, subsequently managing his uncle’s pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, quickly assimilating into the south’s largest Jewish community.
On April 27, 1913, a night watchman discovered the lifeless body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in the basement of Frank’s pencil factory. Phagan was one of the many child laborers from rural areas who worked in the industries of Atlanta for low wages under deplorable conditions while elite business leaders reaped enormous profits. Conditions in Atlanta at the time were perfect for the injustices that were to occur regarding Leo Frank. Resentment over the exploitation of children workers was at a boiling point; the police force of Atlanta was under pressure from criticism about a high unsolved murder rate; the prosecutor, Hugh M. Dorsey, was eager to make a name for himself; and local newspapers capitalized to rally support against the wealthy northerner Jew who ruthlessly tainted the innocence and honor of a southern belle.
The nearly unanimous consensus of contemporary researchers is that Frank was wrongfully convicted. “Leo Frank was a classic scaoegoat.The case came at a time when traditional agrarian Georgia was being threatened by the forces modernity represented by Atlanta. the changes inflicted on the south by industrialization helped incite the atmosphere of hysteria,” Thomas Doherty, Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, told the Observer in a phone interview. “Even compared to standards of the day, the forensic evidence was completely botched, leaving Frank’s guilty verdict relying solely on the testimony of John Conley.” Conley, an African-American janitor at the factory, represents a racial paradox that makes the case of Leo Frank even more of an anomaly. Conley was the first known African-American to testify against a white man in the southern United States. Frank’s defense lawyers pandered to racist sentiments in refuting Conley’s testimony to no avail, as popular demand called for the persecution of Leo Frank to pay for the sins of the elite northerners, sentiments crystallized in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, and by the ripples of Southern resentment from defeat in the civil war. After a highly publicized and controversial case, Leo Frank was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging on August 25, 1913.