Mobs in the South also occasionally lynched Jews. The most infamous case being that of Leo Frank, who was lynched purportedly for murdering a 13 year old white girl at the Factory which he managed. Didn’t really matter whether Frank was guilty…He was different.
Down past the Big Chicken, the 56-foot-high, steel-beaked beacon of extra crispy that may be this town’s most prized landmark, the wedge of dirt hard by Interstate 75 is notable only for its lack of notability. Stopping here, Rabbi Steven Lebow leaves the engine running and car door open.
Nearly ever since the South Florida native came to this Atlanta suburb three decades ago, this spot – or, more specifically, the tale of murder and vengeance that has stained its ground and local history for 100 years – has weighed on him.
But with transportation crews readying to build over the place where Marietta’s leading citizens lynched a Jewish factory superintendent namedLeo Frank a century ago, Lebow talks only of what’s worth preserving.
“There’s nothing to see here,” Lebow says. “That’s why we need to be the memory.”
As this community prepares to revisit that tale, though, there are reminders that it remains unsettled as well as unsettling.
In 1913, Frank was convicted of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked in his Atlanta factory. The case, charged with race, religion, sex and class, exploded in a national media frenzy. When Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s death sentence, citizens took matters in their own hands.
The case established the Anti-Defamation League as the country’s most outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism. It also fueled the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Until ADL lawyers pressed officials to posthumously pardon Frank in the 1980s, the case was hushed in Atlanta’s synagogues, the homes of Old Marietta, and among Phagan’s descendants.
Though granted, the pardon was less than conclusive. Now, in a summer that has seen Southerners wrangle with the best-known symbol of the region’s embattled past, Lebow and others want to re-open a chapter some would prefer to let be.
But their effort to right history, as they see it, has renewed charges that, in doing so, they are unfairly trying to rewrite it…
Frank, raised in New York, ran a factory in industrializing Atlanta. In 1913, Phagan, her hair in bows, stopped to collect her pay.
That night, a watchman found her bloodied body in the basement. Police arrested several men before settling on Frank, who proclaimed his innocence. His conviction rested on the testimony of a custodian, Jim Conley, a rare case of a black man’s word used against a white defendant.
Frank’s lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a climate of anti-Semitism had resulted in an unfair trial. The court upheld the verdict, 7-2. In 1915, Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life. A furious crowd hanged the politician in effigy.
Months later, a group of Marietta men took Frank from prison. On Aug. 17, they hanged him outside town. Nobody was ever charged.
“The Frank case was like a lightning strike,” says Steve Oney, who wrote “And the Dead Shall Rise,” a 2002 book on the case. “Everything in the South stood briefly in relief and then it was dark again.”… More…