The Battle for Leo Frank
Between Frank's conviction in 1913 and his lynching in 1915, a national pro-Frank media campaign met with a backlash of antisemitism.
In the weeks following Leo Frank’s conviction for the murder of Mary Phagan, two separate campaigns to free the condemned man began to take shape.
The first was a legal battle conducted by defense attorneys Luther Rosser and Reuben Arnold, who would appeal the case to the trial judge, the Georgia Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. All of these proved to be of no avail.
The second battle, which was both more successful and more incendiary, would take place in the court of public opinion with the news media as its principle combatants. It was in this arena that the issue of anti-Semitism, hitherto no more than a smoldering ember, would be fanned into full blown animosity.
The likelihood of this was foreseen by those who feared it the most.
On Labor Day, 1913, following the verdict in the case, Rabbi David Marx boarded a train from Atlanta to New York. His goal was to plead the case of Leo Frank before the nation’s most influential Jewish leaders.
First on his list was Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times. Ochs was a long shot for he had intentionally safeguarded the Times from becoming a “Jewish” newspaper and preferred to avoid controversy that might indicate otherwise. Nevertheless, as Ochs was out of the country, his assistant telephoned a Times correspondent in Atlanta to get his take on the case.
The correspondent was less than encouraging, warning that the potential for anti-Jewish sentiment was so great that it would be the “worst thing” for Frank if Jews were seen to rally behind him as Jews.
Marx received a similar caution from the second man on his list, Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee. While Marshall agreed that the case deserved his involvement, he insisted from the start that the movement to exonerate Frank must not be seen as a movement by Jews to save a fellow Jew without regard to the merits of the case.
“Whatever is done,” wrote Marshall, “must be done as a matter of justice, and any action that is taken must emanate from non-Jewish sources.”
But these cautions were in some ways too late and too limited. Certain smaller publications, also Jewish-owned, had proceeded with less caution, publishing editorials condemning Frank’s conviction as an act of anti-Semitism. By the time Adolph Ochs and the New York Times agreed to get involved, there was already a growing backlash in Georgia against a perceived “outside interference” that was both Yankee-based and Jewish-led.
This belief was deepened by an incident that occurred in April of 1914.
Rev. C.B. Ragsdale, pastor of Atlanta’s Plum Street Baptist Church, submitted an affidavit swearing that he had overheard Jim Conley confess to the murder of Mary Phagan. Days later he retracted his statement, saying that he had been bribed by detectives working for William J. Burns, who had been retained by Frank’s supporters to uncover evidence of Frank’s innocence. Ragsdale, who reportedly accepted the $200 bribe because he was in poor health and had piled up medical bills, resigned from the pulpit in humiliation.
The incident led not only to Burns being dropped by Frank’s supporters but also to formal charges against Burns for suborning perjury. Although the Frank camp denounced these actions and did what they could to distance themselves from Burns, the damage was done: Georgians were increasingly convinced that Frank’s Northern Jewish supporters were trying to subvert justice by whatever means and without scruple.
Throwing fuel on the fire at every turn was Tom Watson, the outspoken Populist, former Congressman and one-time presidential running-mate of William Jennings Bryan. Watson published The Jeffersonian, which he used as his mouthpiece for Populist ideology, white supremacy and the myths of the agrarian South.
Watson’s inflammatory, racist rhetoric was blatant and unabashed. He frequently made reference to “Jew money” and made numerous threats, only slightly veiled, against those whom he saw as interfering. In response to a pro-Frank article in Colliers, Watson declared:
“Big Money is now using C.P. Connolly as its megaphone…the purpose is to divide public opinion, create mawkish sentiment and manufacture a sympathy, which will influence the authorities.”
Elsewhere, in a piece entitled “The Leo Frank case still raging in Northern papers,” Watson insisted that the outsiders “cannot or will not weigh the facts which prove Frank’s terrible crime,” adding that “if Frank’s rich connections keep on lying about this case, something bad will happen.”
But Watson was becoming an increasingly isolated voice. By 1915, even as the last of Leo Frank’s appeals was failing, the pro-Frank media campaign had succeeded in turning public opinion throughout the nation against not only the verdict but against the state of Georgia itself. Georgians, for whom the memory of the Civil War was no more than 50 years old, now felt themselves embattled once again.
By June of that year, the fate of Leo Frank lay finally in the hands of Georgia governor John M. Slaton. Slaton, who was in his final days of office, had a conflict of interest that has often been ignored in retellings of the story: He was a partner in the law firm that had represented Frank. Nevertheless, Slaton heard Frank’s application for clemency and, furthermore, made his own inquiry into the trial transcripts along with a visit to the murder scene.
In the end, Slaton harbored doubts. In a 29-page statement dated June 21, 1915, Slaton reiterated the strength of the case against Frank and rebuked interference from outside parties. Nevertheless, he concluded that he could not “stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience,” adding that “this case has been marked by doubt.”
Slaton concluded his statement by commuting Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison.
Throughout the state, Slaton’s decision met with public outrage. He was hanged in effigy in numerous places. In Atlanta proper, a mob of 5,000 marched on the governor’s mansion, overwhelming city and state police and being turned back only when the National Guard took up the governor’s defense.
In response to this, Tom Watson declared in The Jeffersonian that “Jew money has debased us, bought us, and sold us,” and that Mary Phagan “lies at Marietta, unavenged by the Law.” He further predicted Frank’s supporters would engineer his escape “in less than thirty days.”
But in Marietta, something extraordinary was occurring—something that haunts the city to this very day.
In an unknown location on Marietta Square, a secret meeting took place. Among those attending were some of the most influential men in the state of Georgia, including a former governor, both the current and former mayors of Marietta, a superior court judge, a member of Georgia’s General Assembly, the sheriff of Cobb County and two former sheriffs.
To them, the issue was clear: a Jewish-led, New York-based conspiracy had spent over a half million dollars, some of it bribe money, and had waged an all-out media campaign with one aim in mind: to subvert justice in the state of Georgia and rescue a fellow Jew whose conviction had been upheld all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In doing so, they had also denied justice to the little girl whose grave lay near at hand.
The plan they proposed was audacious in scope—a paramilitary operation from beginning to end. A group of hand-picked men (the actual organizers were too high-profile to go on the mission themselves) would travel more than 250 miles round trip from Marietta to the state prison in Milledgeville and back again in a single night, using back roads to avoid the State Police. An electrician would be waiting in Milledgeville to cut the phone lines once they arrived. Multiple contingencies had been planned for; the party even included an auto mechanic in case one of the vehicles might break down.
Thus on the night of August 16, 1915, Frank was abducted from the state prison farm without a single shot being fired. At sunrise the next morning, a crowd in Marietta gathered round his body, hanging from a tree on the property of former sheriff William Frey.
A historical marker stands at the spot today, mostly obscured by trees near the intersection of Roswell Road and Frey’s Gin.
The aftermath and implications of the Leo Frank case are too vast and far-reaching to be covered here. It is worth noting that, in response to Frank’s death, nearly half of Georgia’s Jewish population is said to have left the state. The Leo Frank case led directly to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League as well as, ironically, the “second incarnation” of the Ku Klux Klan.
Leo Frank, who died at age 31, is buried in Queens, NY.
Mary Phagan, who died at age 13, is buried in the Marietta City Cemetery. Her grave receives frequent visitors, many of whom leave toys and stuffed animals.
Tom Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920. He died two years later of a cerebral aneurysm. A bronze statue of Watson stands prominently in front of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta with the inscription "A champion of right who never faltered in the cause." There have been several attempts to have the statue removed.
Jim Conley, believed by many to be the actual murderer, was convicted as an accessory after the fact and sentenced to a year on Georgia’s chain gang. In the decades that followed, he had numerous run-ins with the law. The last documented sighting of him was in 1941, but his final whereabouts are unknown. The Bureau of Vital Statistics lists no death certificate for James Conley, but he is commonly believed to have died sometime in the mid 1960s, having lived well into old age.
William Manning Smith, the attorney who initially defended Conley, reversed his position in 1914 after concluding that his own client was the guilty party. He campaigned ardently for Frank’s release and, after the lynching, threw his support behind efforts to clear Frank’s name. In a deathbed note written in 1949, Smith stated, “I believe in the innocence and good character of Leo M. Frank.”
In 1986 Leo Frank received a posthumous pardon, although the wording stops short of declaring his innocence.