On August 25, 1913, Leo Max Frank, a thin, slight-looking man who was the superintendent of a pencil factory in Marietta, Ga., and president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith, was convicted of the strangulation murder of Mary Phagan, a pretty, blonde 13-year-old employee.
Mary Phagan was murdered in the factory’s basement on Saturday, April 26, “Festival Day” in Georgia. Her body was discovered in the early morning hours of April 27.
There was no CSI back then. Marietta police trampled all over the evidence, destroying some and losing others (including a bloody fingerprint). As the investigation, such as it was, moved forward, suspicion eventually fell on Frank, the Yankee Jew who ran the factory. His trial ended in conviction and there was celebration in the streets of Atlanta, where it was held. The celebration included the chant, “Kill the Jew.”
It is hard to read the trial transcript and not conclude that Frank was convicted because he was a Jew, not because he was guilty. In fact, the defense presented an airtight alibi backed by several credible witnesses that the jurors chose to disregard.
Frank was sentenced to death by hanging. The appeals began. All failed. Even the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case, despite the strong advocacy of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who doubted the fairness of a trial “taking place in the presence of a hostile demonstration and seemingly dangerous crowd, thought by the presiding judge to be ready for violence unless a verdict of guilty was rendered.”
As the historian Harry Golden noted, as soon as the appeals process began, “a vicious anti-Semitic campaign was launched around it…[demanding] the execution of ‘the filthy, perverted Jew of New York.'”
Frank’s execution was set for early morning on June 22, 1915. Only hours earlier, Gov. John Marshall Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. Slaton believed Frank was innocent. Even the trial judge, who sentenced Frank to death, doubted Frank’s guilt. From his deathbed, he urged Slaton to grant Frank clemency. Slaton decided on commutation instead, because he saw it as the only way to save Frank’s life long enough for the man’s innocence finally to be proven.
Slaton was only five days away from ending his second term as Georgia’s governor. A distinguished political career was behind him but the commutation ended any hopes for its continuation, and he knew it. As he was quoted by Time magazine as saying, however, he acted because “I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience which would remind me that I, as governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right…. Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang…. I would rather be plowing in a field for the rest of my life than to feel that I had that blood on my hands.”
Time, in a 1955 article, described what happened next.
“In Atlanta, a mob marched up Peachtree Street to the Governor’s home, [and] had to be driven off by armed militiamen. In Marietta…, another mob of some 40 unmasked men was organized, drove off to Milledgeville penitentiary, where Frank was imprisoned. Brandishing guns, they forced their way inside and dragged Leo Frank from his bed. Then they drove the 150 miles back to Marietta and hanged Leo Frank from a pine tree near Mary Phagan’s lonely grave.”
Several months later, the Anti-Defamation League was founded in response to Frank’s murder. About half the 3,000 Jews living in Georgia soon moved out of state. Among those who stayed, many denied their Jewishness and some even converted out of fear.
The State of Georgia, citing the loss of all forensic evidence in the case, steadfastly refuses to declare Frank not guilty, even though the real murderer is known (and has been from almost the beginning). On March 11, 1986, however, it pardoned Frank – but only because it had let him die.
“Without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence,” it said, “and in recognition of the State’s failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the State’s failure to bring his killers to justice, and as an effort to heal old wounds, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, in compliance with its Constitutional and statutory authority, hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a Pardon.”
One hundred years after Leo Frank’s conviction, it is time for Georgia to do the right thing and exonerate Leo Frank completely.