In 1913, a young girl was brutally murdered. The trial pitted a Jewish man against a Black man, both of whom had to convince a white jury that they were innocent. Antisemitism and racism would shape the course of the trial, which ultimately ended in the lynching of Leo Frank at the hands of a white mob.
What happened to Leo Frank? He was a 29-year-old superintendent of a pencil factory, but when one of his teenage workers was found dead in the basement, Frank became a murder suspect. And even though many believed he was innocent, Frank was kidnapped from jail so that an angry mob could lynch him.
The lynching of Leo Frank emboldened powerful Southerners to revive the Ku Klux Klan. Like the deadly 1921 Tulsa race riot and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, the men who wanted Leo Frank dead were never brought to justice—in fact, one of them became governor and another became senator. The truth about Leo Frank and the KKK is part of our country's long, horrific history of white supremacy.
A Mob Of Prominent White Georgians Kidnapped Frank From Prison
Leo Frank had been in prison for two years, but he was certain he would be released. Governor Slaton believed Frank was innocent, and he recommended that the next governor grant him a full pardon. Frank ignored the protestors who burned Slaton in effigy, including a dummy hanged with the sign, "John M. Slaton, King of the Jews and Georgia's Traitor Forever."
But on August 17, 1915, a mob descended on the prison where Frank was being held. They were led by a former governor, a respected judge, and state legislators. The mob also included clergymen and an ex-sheriff. The mob overpowered the guards and seized Frank, driving him 150 miles away to Marietta, Georgia, Mary Phagan's hometown. On the drive, the men tried to force Frank to confess. But he swore his innocence, causing some to question whether they had made a mistake. Others, though, pressed on with the plot to lynch Leo Frank.
Leo Frank Died An Agonizing Death For A Crime He Didn't Commit
With a manhunt already underway to find Leo Frank, the mob placed a rope around his neck. They led Frank to a large oak tree. Just moments before they killed him, the mob gave Frank a chance to say his final words. Instead, he took off his wedding ring and asked that someone return it to his wife.
The mob then lifted Frank on top of a table under the tree. With the rope secure, they kicked the table out from under Frank's feet. But the drop didn't kill him. Instead, Leo Frank's death was slow and agonizing, as the drop hadn't been long enough.
When word spread that Frank had been lynched, hundreds of people flocked to Marietta to see his body. They tore off pieces of his shirt to save as souvenirs. Two days later, an unidentified man returned Frank's wedding ring to his wife.
Frank's Lynching Led To The Revival Of The Ku Klux Klan
The men who lynched Leo Frank were prominent, powerful Georgians. None of them ever stood trial for the murder. In fact, a month after lynching Leo Frank, many of the murderers carried out more lynchings. With Tom Watson egging them on, they decided to revive the Ku Klux Klan.
On November 23, 1915, a crowd of 30 men, including some who had lynched Leo Frank, gathered at the top of Stone Mountain and lit an enormous cross. The burning cross could be seen for miles, a signal fire that the KKK was back. The so-called Second Ku Klux Klan promoted white supremacy throughout the 1920s, growing to as many as 5 million members by 1925. In addition to terrorizing Black populations, the KKK targeted Jews, Catholics, Mexicans, Asians, and other non-white immigrants.
In 1925, more than 50,000 KKK members paraded through Washington, D.C., their faces unmasked for all to see. Some of them might have even carried a picture of Leo Frank's lynching—it was turned into a postcard after his death.
A Vice Presidential Candidate And Future Senator Told A Mob To Lynch Frank
Tom Watson was the vice presidential candidate alongside William Jennings Bryan in 1896, uniting Midwestern farmers with Southern workers under a populist banner. By the early twentieth century, Watson was arguing that Black people should be disenfranchised, and that Catholics and Jews were dangerous to America.
Watson also owned a popular paper, which tripled circulation during the Frank trial. Watson's paper portrayed Leo Frank as a greedy, lecherous Jew. He supposedly preyed on young white girls, using his "unlimited money and invisible power," according to the paper. And when Frank's sentence was commuted to life in prison, Watson called for Frank to be lynched. "Lynch law is a good sign," Watson wrote, "it shows that a sense of justice yet lives among the people."
On August 17, 1915, a group of white men took up Watson's call. And four years later, many of the same men would elect Watson to be Georgia's senator.
The Murder Victim Was A 13-Year-Old Child Laborer
Mary Phagan was only thirteen years old when she was brutally raped and murdered in an Atlanta pencil factory. Mary's horrific death, discovered on April 27, 1913, shocked Georgia and became a national news story.
Mary dropped out of school and began working in a factory to support her family. The pencil factory wasn't her first job; Mary had been working in factories since she was ten years old, first at a textile mill and then at a paper manufacturing plant. At the pencil factor, Mary spent day after day attaching erasers to pencils. She made ten cents an hour, and most weeks she worked 55 hours.
On April 26, 1913, Mary went to the factory to pick up her paycheck––it was $1.20. But before she could leave to meet her friends at a parade, Mary was strangled to death.
The Police Suspected Leo Frank Right Away—And Antisemitism Drove His Trial
Within days of Mary's death, the police narrowed in on five potential suspects. They included two Black men who worked at the factory named Newt Lee, who found Mary's body and identified her, and Jim Conley, a sweeper.
On April 29, the police arrested Leo Frank, the Jewish owner of the factory. Frank was raised in Brooklyn and graduated from Cornell. He moved to Georgia and got married in 1910. By 1913, he was working as the superintendent of a pencil factory. Frank had just celebrated his 29th birthday the week before Mary Phagan was murdered.
Antisemitism played a role in Frank's trial from the beginning; one of the jurors was overheard saying, “I am glad they indicted the goddamn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him. And if I get on that jury, I'll hang that Jew for sure.”