The story is not simple

Around 7 a.m. on Aug. 17, 1915, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Department in Marietta, Ga., received the news. “Leo Frank’s hanging to a limb down here near Frey’s Gin,” announced the caller. “Retribution!” After two years of appeals, the convicted murderer of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was dead.

The Atlanta Journal reported: “Automobiles came careening, recklessly disregarding life and limb of occupants. Horse-drawn vehicles came at a gallop. Pedestrians came running.”

The sight that confronted the throng was horrible. Frank, clad in the nightshirt he had been wearing when he was abducted from the State Prison Farm the previous evening, dangled blindfolded from an oak tree. Yet to the several thousand people who eventually gathered at the scene, the body of a man who they believed had traded on his Jewishness to avoid the court’s sentence evoked little compassion.

“I couldn’t bear to look at another human being hanging like that,” one woman declared. “But this is different. It is the justice of God.”

Outside of Georgia, particularly in Northern and Western cities, word that Leo Frank had been lynched provoked an equally intense opposite reaction. Political and religious figures ranging from former President William Howard Taft to Rabbi Steven S. Wise, a leader of Reform Judaism in New York and an advocate of social justice, denounced the crime. So did Booker T. Washington. The nation’s newspapers were also condemnatory. .

“Georgia is mad with her own virtue, cruel, unreasoning, bloodthirsty, barbarous,” declared The San Francisco Bulletin.

Boycotts were threatened, investigations promised. But no one was indicted for Frank’s murder and his remains were brought home to Brooklyn and buried at the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens.

Now, 83 years after the lynching of Leo Frank, the director Harold Prince, the playwright Alfred Uhry and the composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown are revisiting the case in a musical entitled “Parade.” The show, starring Brent Carver as Frank and Carolee Carmello as his wife, Lucille, is in previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where it opens on Thursday.

The production is certainly the first attempt to exploit the lyric possibilities of the story. But a number of dramatic works have been inspired by the case.

Just four months after Frank’s lynching, Hal Reid, the father of the silent-movie star Wallace Reid, produced “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” a film based loosely on the subject.

In 1937, Warner Brothers released Mervyn LeRoy’s “They Won’t Forget,” a fictionalized version of the case, with Claude Rains and, in her first major role, Lana Turner.

More recently, NBC presented “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” a 1988 miniseries starring Jack Lemmon as John Slaton, the Georgia governor whose commutation of Frank’s death sentence was regarded in the North as an act of courage but in the South as one of betrayal.

Last year, David Mamet’s novel about the affair, “The Old Religion,” was published. In the critic Alfred Kazin’s estimation, the book “accuses the Gentile world of assisting in Frank’s destruction.” C URRENTLY in Chicago, the Pegasus Players are presenting “The Lynching of Leo Frank.” The play, by Robert Myers, who was born in Atlanta, examines the case from the perspective of Alonzo Mann, Frank’s former office boy, who came forward 70 years after the fact to assert Frank’s innocence.

That the story of Leo Frank has proved such a rich source is in part because the subject goes to the heart of some of the most polarizing divisions in American society: a few weeks after the lynching, a resurging Ku Klux Klan conducted its first modern-era cross-burning just 20 miles east of Marietta; meanwhile, in New York, the newly formed Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith opened a campaign against the underlying prejudice that had led to the lynching, setting a precedent for responses to anti-Semitic acts.

But in addition to its symbolic importance, the abiding appeal of the story arises from the richly populated backdrop against which it played out.

In the pre-dawn hours of April 27, 1913, Newt Lee, a black night watchman at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, discovered the battered body of Mary Phagan, a young employee. The dead girl, her underwear ripped and a length of cord knotted around her neck, lay sprawled on the basement floor. Though Lee told responding officers that he had nothing to do with the killing, they arrested him — and not solely because of his race. Near the girl’s body, the police found two handwritten notes that seemed to implicate him.

One read: “he said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it but that long tall black negro did boy his slef.”

Under any circumstances, Mary Phagan’s murder would have excited intense feelings in Atlanta, but emotions were exacerbated by the fact that she was killed on Confederate Memorial Day, when anxieties about the future ran close to the surface.

The old-money Bourbons and new-money boosters who ruled Atlanta embraced the coming industrialized age that was symbolized by the National Pencil Factory and its 29-year-old superintendent, Leo Frank. Frank, an aloof and somewhat arrogant mechanical engineer who grew up in Brooklyn and studied at Cornell University, had arrived in the city in 1908 and married into a respected local German-Jewish family.

At the same time, Atlanta’s largely agrarian populace chafed against the excesses of a manufacturing culture based on child labor. Here, too, the National Pencil Factory was emblematic. Like Mary, whose widowed mother had moved her family to the city from Marietta in 1907, most of the employees were teen-agers who earned just pennies an hour.

The genteel editors of the then rival newspapers The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal paid scant attention to the city’s underlying class tensions and did not sensationalize the killing. But the hired guns at William Randolph Hearst’s now defunct Atlanta Georgian saw the possibilities immediately and cranked out a stream of red-banner-headline extras.

A decade later, a former reporter at the Atlanta Georgian named Herbert Asbury wrote, “Had Hearst not owned the Georgian, the story probably would have died a natural death.”

From the moment Frank was informed of Mary Phagan’s murder, he exhibited what detectives regarded as a suspicious degree of nervousness. Even more worrisome to investigators was their sense that he was trying to pin the crime on a man they soon concluded had nothing to do with it — Newt Lee. And there was one troubling fact: Frank admitted to having been the last person to see the victim alive. While on her way to the Confederate Memorial Day Parade (the event from which the musical takes its title), Mary had stopped at Frank’s office to pick up her $1.20 in wages.

Yet in the beginning, Atlantans had doubts about Frank’s guilt. Plagued by a history of botched murder investigations, the city’s police department was known to be hungry for a high-profile arrest and willing to fabricate evidence to make one. Thus many of the clues and statements detectives worked up were questioned. Also problematic was the medical examiner’s information. Nine days passed before an autopsy was conducted. Whether the girl had been raped was never resolved, making motive difficult to establish. Also puzzling were the notes found near the body. The consensus was that the murderer wrote them, but handwriting tests exonerated Frank.

Not until a month after Mary’s death did the man who would become the case’s most controversial figure — a black, 27-year-old janitor at the pencil factory named Jim Conley — make the allegations that convinced Atlantans that Frank was the culprit.

In a series of increasingly detailed affidavits, Conley told detectives that Frank had killed Mary, then enlisted him to dispose of the body and take down the murder notes. According to Conley, he had written the notes at Frank’s dictation as part of an effort to point a finger elsewhere. Though skeptics countered that Conley concocted the affidavits to save himself, they were ignored. (Conley had himself been arrested in connection with the Phagan case after being caught washing what appeared to be bloodstains from a shirt.)

The trial of Leo Frank took place in a cramped, temporary courtroom across the street from the site where Atlanta’s present-day courthouse was then rising. Interest was so avid that the hundreds who could not get in stood atop construction sheds offering a view through the windows.

Representing the state was the Fulton County Solicitor General Hugh Dorsey, a shrewd but embattled prosecutor with a poor conviction record. Representing Frank were Atlanta’s premier defense lawyers, Luther Rosser and Reuben Arnold. Sitting with the bespectacled defendant were his 25-year-old wife and his mother.

At the start of the trial’s second week, Jim Conley, the state’s star witness, began his testimony by claiming that since the fall of 1912, he had regularly stood guard at the pencil factory so that Frank could “chat” with young girls in private. This suggested both a pattern of salacious behavior and a reason the accused would have entrusted Conley to perform a sensitive task. Dorsey asked the janitor to describe what he had seen on the day of the murder when Frank called him to his office. R EPLIED Conley: “Mr. Frank was standing up there at the top of the steps and shivering and trembling and rubbing his hands like this. He had a little rope in his hands — a long wide piece of cord . . . He asked me, ‘Did you see that little girl who passed here just a while ago?’ and I told him . . . she hasn’t come back down, and he says, ‘I wanted to be with the little girl, and she refused me, and I struck her and I guess I struck her too hard and she fell and hit her head against something.’ “

Throughout two subsequent days of cross-examination, Luther Rosser failed to get Conley to do much more than confess to a bad memory regarding dates.

At the trial’s final sessions, respected members of the Jewish community in Atlanta affirmed Frank’s good reputation. The tack was risky. By introducing the issue of character, the defense allowed the state to summon witnesses to testify to his bad reputation, and Dorsey took advantage of the opportunity, calling former factory employees, all female, none with anything positive to say about the accused.

When the defense put Frank on the stand, he made, as was once common in capital cases, an unsworn statement in his own behalf, concluding: “The statement of the negro Conley is a tissue of lies from first to last. I know nothing whatever of the cause of the death of Mary Phagan and Conley’s statement as to his coming up and helping me dispose of the body, or that I had anything to do with her or to do with him that day is a monstrous lie.”

By the time the trial reached its closing arguments, the mood in Atlanta was tense and hostile to the defendant. Rosser and Arnold acceded to a request from the judge, Leonard Roan, that neither they nor their client be in the courtroom when the verdict was read. Should Frank be acquitted, it was feared they would face physical danger. The precautions were unnecessary.

After just four hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Frank, provoking celebrations throughout the city. The next day, Judge Roan sentenced him to death.

The campaign to overturn the conviction began almost immediately and, not surprisingly, involved an effort to influence public opinion. Frank’s friend David Marx, the rabbi at the reform synagogue in Atlanta, visited New York and met with Jewish leaders to tell them that it was his belief that Frank was a victim of anti-Semitism. He recruited, among others, Louis Marshall, the president of the American Jewish Committee; Julius Rosenwald, the chairman of Sears & Roebuck; Albert Lasker, the Chicago advertising magnate, and Adolph S. Ochs, the publisher of The New York Times. The goal: to publicize and finance the effort to exonerate Frank.

The initial test for the supporters came in the spring of 1914. The condemned man had hopes for a just-filed extraordinary motion for a new trial predicated on fresh evidence dug up by William Burns, a celebrated detective the defense could suddenly afford.

Burns and his men had reinvestigated the murder, producing seemingly persuasive results. Not only did they get several prosecution witnesses to sign affidavits stating that their testimony had been coerced, but they located a crucial cache of obscene letters that Jim Conley had written to a jailhouse love. What interested Frank’s defenders was the fact that the same linguistic tics appeared in these letters as in the notes found next to Mary Phagan’s body. The inference seemed plain: Conley had composed and written the notes and was the killer.

Yet Burns’s findings were tainted by his conduct. Debouching grandly from Atlanta’s best hotel each morning to issue reports to the press denouncing the city’s police as incompetent, he appeared to be flaunting the wealth that was behind the defense. Still, he might have got away with such behavior had he not stumbled at the hearing on the extraordinary motion. First, one of the witnesses he had promised to produce backed out, charging that the detective had bribed him to change his story. Then, Burns confessed ignorance to parts of the trial transcript. The judge denied the motion.

Around this time, a new and, for Frank, fatal figure appeared: Tom Watson, a populist firebrand and former Congressman from Georgia’s rural 10th district. On March 19, 1914, in the pages of his weekly newspaper, The Jeffersonian, Watson published an editorial with the headline: “The Frank Case: When and Where Shall Rich Criminals Be Tried?” In the text, he posed two questions that in varying forms he would ask repeatedly in the days ahead: “Does a Jew expect extraordinary favors and immunities because of his race?” And, “Who is paying for all of this?”

Watson would subsequently go further in his publication, writing of Frank: “Here we have the typical young libertine Jew who is dreaded and detested by the city authorities of the North for the very reason that Jews of this type have utter contempt for law, and a ravenous appetite for the forbidden fruit — a lustful eagerness enhanced by the racial novelty of the girl of the uncircumcised.” For roughly a year, Watson bombarded Georgians with such sentiments. The Jeffersonian’s circulation increased from 25,000 to 87,000.

In December 1914, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on the grounds that Frank had not been in the courtroom when the jury’s verdict was received. But on April 19, 1915, the argument was rejected by a vote of 7 to 2, Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes famously dissenting. Wrote Holmes: “Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury.”

The Supreme Court’s decision left Frank with one recourse: to seek executive clemency from Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, who was nearing the end of his term. In 1913, however, Slaton and Luther Rosser, Frank’s lead counsel, had become partners — a fact that appeared to Frank’s accusers to jeopardize Slaton’s neutrality.

On June 20, 1915, after reviewing the case, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison. Soon after, he told a luncheon audience: “Two thousand years ago, another governor washed his hands of a case and turned over a Jew to a mob . . . If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands.”

Tom Watson did not view Slaton’s decision so charitably. In the first issue of The Jeffersonian after Frank’s sentence was commuted, he wrote: “At last, one partner got before the other — Rosser before Slaton — and one partner gave what the other partner wanted . . . Hereafter, let no man reproach the South with Lynch law: let him remember the unendurable provocation; and let him say whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.”

Within two months, Frank was dead. Seventy years later, Alonzo Mann, the onetime office boy, came forward. Now an old man, he offered testimony that seemed to implicate Jim Conley in Mary Phagan’s murder. Mann’s assertion prompted the State of Georgia to posthumously pardon the lynched man. The decision, however, amounted to little more than an apology by the state for failing to keep Frank out of the hands of his abductors; Georgia never ruled on his guilt or innocence. And so, the case ended.

The tale, though, refuses to die. Stories like this endure not because of what they tell but because of what they ask.

One reply on “The story is not simple”

  1. Stop making my world so goddamned incestuous! šŸ™‚

    (Tesse, to whose Brent Carver page you linked, is one of the theatre friends.)

    Oh yes, and as much as I adore Parade (and I do so a great deal), it needed – still needs – a book rewrite. They try to cover too much without a concrete POV.

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