Revisionist take on Leo Frank
In order to turn this ' Perverted
killer' into a Martyr - The Jewish crowd has:
Anti - Semitism in the old South
||A truly moving story of hatred
and Anti-Semitism in the Old South.
As a judge, a
lawyer and an historian I had heard about the Leo Frank case but did not know the details.
Leonard Dinnerstein does an excellent job of relating the story of Leo Frank in a fair and
unbiased manner. He also puts the entire affair in a historical context. This would be an
excellent read for any student of racism in America and of the New South. It is easy to
read and has an excellent bibliography.
||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."
In 1915 Leo Frank, after being convicted of a crime he did not commit, was
kidnapped from his jail cell and lynched by a bloodthirsty mob. Two years earlier, when
Mary Phagen was raped and murdered in the Atlanta, Georgia factory that Frank managed, he
was tried and sentenced to death despite the fact that there was no evidence against him.
Anti-Semitism raged and economic tensions boiled over during the investigation and
subsequent trial, and when Frank's death penalty was commuted to a life sentence, some
angry citizens took matters into their own hands. This well-documented case has had
important ramifications in United States history and inspired the formation of both the Ku
Klux Klan and the Anti-Defamation League.
Leo Frank is a young Jewish man, intellectual, hardworking and involved in the Atlanta
Jewish community, although rather acculturated, when he is accused of the murder of
13-year-old Mary Phagen.
Movies, plays and books rewrite history
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.
|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.
Shalt Not Kill,"
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
| "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
"The Lynching of Leo Frank."
|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.
|Jason Brown's Parade is,
to put it bluntly, a musical about a lynching.
In 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish
accountant, was arrested without evidence in Atlanta for the murder and rape of
14-year-old Mary Phagan. When the judicial branch failed to string him up, local citizens
took him out of jail and finished the job. Frank was pardoned in 1986 by the Georgia
Supreme Court, but it was a mixed blessing: He'd been dead for 74 years, and, in the end,
the pardon did not absolve Frank of the murder itself. His lynchers, meanwhile, got a much
better deal--they were never arrested in the first place.
MUSICAL? ABOUT LEO FRANK?
If anything seems less likely to lend itself to musical
treatment, it's the 1913 murder of a 12-year-old factory girl in Atlanta and the lynching
of her Jewish employer two years later in Marietta. The events were so polarizing that
they're credited with solidifying the then newly formed Anti-Defamation League and
contributing to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. It's a story that incites heated debate
||Jason Brown's Parade is, to put
it bluntly, a musical about a lynching. In 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish accountant, was
arrested without evidence in Atlanta for the murder and rape of 14-year-old Mary Phagan.
When the judicial branch failed to string him up, local citizens took him out of jail and
finished the job. Frank was pardoned in 1986 by the Georgia Supreme Court, but it was a
mixed blessing: He'd been dead for 74 years, and, in the end, the pardon did not absolve
Frank of the murder itself. His lynchers, meanwhile, got a much better deal--they were
never arrested in the first place.
So this musical has some great numbers, but it
also has the impact of an intense, and sometimes funny, play.
Fortunately, Brown avoids turning Parade into a politically correct tearjerker.
In the tradition of his mentor Stephen Sondheim, he ratchets up the dark humor, which he
uses to create a colorful confederacy of misfits: good, ol' boys, Southern-belle wannabes,
corrupt politicians, Bible thumpers, crusty Civil War veterans, chain gangs, and, at the
bottom, blacks and Jews.
In the proud Southern tradition, none of these people like each other much, except when
they find somebody nearly everyone can hate. Leo Frank (Matthew Bowerman) is a Yankee Jew
who fits the bill perfectly. When the city needed a scapegoat for the murder of a Southern
girl, all eyes turned to him.
Bowerman has a tough job. He has to portray a guy the audience can sympathize without
sentimentalizing him. Bowerman's character is likable, but he's also an outsider, which
leaves him temperamental and a little arrogant. The locals can take it from there: In
short order they cast him as a lascivious, penny-pinching, butt-pinching child molester.
Howard Turner III offers a magnificent portrayal of a black bootlicker who revels in
his role as puppet for the prosecution. If you've been wondering whatever happened to Newt
Gingrich, you'll find him in Jeff Burch's semi-courageous, politically doomed Governor
Peter Crews as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey is a refined sleazeball who is willing to send
Frank to the hangman for personal gain, but who approaches the whole affair with curious
disdain. Josh Singer has a show-stopping moment as a frustrated, whiskey-guzzling reporter
in a backwater where no news is good news. And the list goes on.
In the foyer after the show, while a hard rain fell outside, several
non-umbrella-carrying minglers were debating possible parallels between old-fashioned
Southern justice and some of the more recent post-Sept. 11 variations on the Kangaroo
It makes sense to look for those parallels, but anyone who goes to watch Parade
can find their own spin. Jason Brown, who took this show to Broadway in 1999, would
probably say that the message is in the title itself: When it comes to politically
motivated race baiting, marchers come and go, but the parade goes on.
MUSICAL? ABOUT LEO FRANK?
anything seems less likely to lend itself to musical treatment, it's the 1913 murder of a
12-year-old factory girl in Atlanta and the lynching of her Jewish employer two years
later in Marietta. The events were so polarizing that they're credited with solidifying
the then newly formed Anti-Defamation League and contributing to the rebirth of the Ku
Klux Klan. It's a story that incites heated debate even today.
But if anyone
can successfully transform the Leo Frank story into a theatrical event, it's Atlanta
native Alfred Uhry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Driving Miss Daisy and
Last Night of Ballyhoo, who has made a career of exploring the nuances of the
Southern Jewish experience. His musical, Parade, co-created with director Hal
Prince and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, premiered this week on Broadway at
Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. It proves to be a sensitive, engrossing
interpretation of one of the more tragic chapters in Atlanta history.
The facts of the case have been duly
reported, thanks to a newspaper war going on at the time (portrayed in the musical by a
trench-coat-and-fedora-wearing chorus encouraging their news sources with the refrain,
"Go on! Go on!"). Two days after her death on April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan's
partially clothed body was found in the basement of the National Pencil Factory on Forsyth
Street. Her supervisor, Frank, was tried, found guilty and sentenced to hang, based
primarily on the testimony of Jim Conley, the factory janitor. But two years later, Gov.
John T. Slaton commuted Frank's sentence to life, and on Aug. 16, 1915, Frank was abducted
from the State Prison Farm in Milledgeville and hanged from an oak tree in Marietta. He
was pardoned in 1986, and the consensus today is that Conley murdered Mary Phagan.
Parade is driven by the horror of a
man wrongly accused of a despicable crime in a hostile environment. But Uhry, who spent
his formative years growing up in Druid Hills with one foot firmly planted in Southern
culture and the other in Jewish heritage, shows his sensitivity to the Southern point of
view by placing that hostility in the context of the region's social and economic
upheaval. That context is eloquently conveyed in the musical's first scene by a young,
idealistic Confederate soldier who's preparing to go to war. Moments later he returns to
the stage, an old, embittered veteran who's lost his leg in battle.
"If you believe in a cause that
much," Uhry says, seated in the Beaumont's lobby for an interview with Creative
Loafing, "and you lose and you go back home, find your brothers and a lot of
people dead -- you've lost a leg and eventually you lose your land to a mortgage that the
Yankees have run up the taxes on, and you're forced to move to town and put your children
to work, and a little girl is working six days a week, 10 cents an hour, and she's killed
... It's a horrible, horrible thing. You can understand the outrage. I do, completely.
"The one thing I did not want to do was
write this story about this righteous Jew that was torn apart by stupid rednecks, because
I don't feel that way," Uhry says. "I'm torn. My heart breaks equally for
everybody. I mean, the murder of that little girl was a horrifying tragedy. And I think
what's equally sad for Leo Frank is that he would have been such a good candidate to [have
committed the murder]. The trouble is, he just didn't do it. He was an unpleasant man, he
was a Jew, he was a Yankee. I think the Yankee part was worse than the Jew part in those
days. I think the anti-Semitism flared up during the [trial]. And I think a big, huge part
of why it was so wrenching for the Jews of Atlanta, those German Jews, was that they had
been so assimilated and all of a sudden they were outcasts. That was heartbreaking."
Another significant aspect of Parade
is the portrayal of the relationship between Frank and his wife, Lucille, which Uhry
believes blossomed during their ordeal.
"I realized that probably Leo and
Lucille ... had a chilly sort of an arranged marriage in which, you can tell from the tone
of their letters, their love deepened after this happened. I find that incredibly
moving," Uhry says. "And I think that she certainly did become his voice. She
was 23 when it happened, 25 when he died. She was a proper Southern girl. The other thing
I found moving was that after it was all over, she wrote an open letter to the public, and
in the first sentence -- I put it in the show -- she said, 'I am a Georgia girl.' There's
so much heartbreak and pride in that. If you love the South, you don't get over it."
Parade isn't the first time the Mary
Phagan/Leo Frank story has been given artistic treatment -- both by those who believed
Frank was guilty and by those who believed he was innocent. Soon after the girl's murder,
Fiddlin' John Carson wrote "The Ballad of Mary Phagan," a little ditty that
implicates Frank; Uhry's mother remembers jumping rope to it as a child. Three weeks
before Frank was lynched, a documentary film featuring footage of Frank and his wife
debuted at the Loew's Lincoln Square Theater in New York. In 1936, Lana Turner starred as
the doomed factory girl in a movie called They Won't Forget. In 1967 Atlanta's
now-defunct Academy Theatre staged Night Witch, a play about the case by local
playwright Frank Wittow and Barbara Halpern, and currently there is a play running at the
O'Rourke Center for the Performing Arts in Chicago called The Lynching of Leo Frank.
Countless books have been written about the murder and the lynching, as well. A resume
like that begs the question: What is the fascination with this case?
"It's a riveting story," Uhry says.
"It draws you into it, the combination of horror and curiosity. It's got this sweep
to it, and it's very unsettling. I've been haunted by it all my life."
Part of Uhry's intrigue stems from the taboo
treatment the topic got in his family. Uhry's great-uncle owned the National Pencil
Factory, where Phagan and Frank worked. His great-aunt used to take dinners to Frank while
he was jailed. But the message the inquisitive young Alfred got was that the Frank case
was a part of history best forgotten.
"The subject was avoided, which probably
is what made me so interested in it. I couldn't get much out of anybody about it, and I
didn't know why," he says. "I knew it had been devastating. I think what really
got to me the most -- except for Tom Watson [the race-baiting publisher and politician]
and Hugh Dorsey [the politically driven prosecuting attorney who later became governor],
everybody was a victim. Everybody. And that moves me ... a lot. I think I wanted to write
about this all my life," Uhry says, then pauses and adds, "I didn't know it was
going to be a musical."
The concept for Parade grew out of a
conversation about four years ago between Uhry and director/producer Hal Prince, a name
synonymous with Broadway musicals. Prince's credits include The Phantom of the Opera,
Show Boat, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, West Side Story and Damn
Yankees, among many others.
"Hal was looking for something for us to
do together, and I mentioned Ballyhoo, and he said, 'Why do you think the Atlanta
Jews you write about were so big on rushing into assimilation and ashamed of being
Jewish?' And I said, 'I guess because of the Leo Frank case.'" Prince asked Uhry to
tell him the story. When he finished, Uhry recalls, Prince "jumped up out of his
chair and said, 'That's the musical we're going to do.'"
Parade originally was set to premiere
at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where Driving Miss Daisy and Ballyhoo
debuted, but negotiations broke down when the production company, the now-financially
shaky Livent Inc., demanded a bigger investment from the Alliance than the theater was
willing to make, says Stephanie Lee, communications director of the Alliance.
Despite his affection for the Alliance and
its artistic director, Kenny Leon, Uhry was relieved Parade didn't debut here.
"It's not that I'm afraid of it going to Atlanta, I just didn't think that was the
right place to test it out. It's fine if it goes [to Atlanta] after it's [opened]. But
it's going to start up stuff again."
Start up stuff, indeed. Inflammatory subject
matter aside, Parade may strike a nerve among some local theater patrons with its
occasional jabs at the South. Asked how he thinks Atlanta audiences would respond, Uhry
predicts, "Not so well. You get boos on things like that, but I wouldn't change. What
I tried to do was write everybody's points of view and where my heart is, is with everyone
but Tom Watson and Hugh Dorsey."
Uhry is a playwright uniquely qualified to
represent those different perspectives because of his dual heritage as a Jew and a
Southerner, and his plays have all examined that clash of cultures to some degree. In Parade,
Frank's character has a particularly telling line that reveals his frustration with life
among assimilated Southern Jews. "For the life of me," he says, "I can't
understand how God created people both Jewish and Southern." That statement could sum
up a concept with which Uhry has wrangled as well -- in his life and his plays.
"I think there is a dichotomy that's
always bothered me," he says. "I was brought up to be a Southern boy with a
Jewish face. I went to school that didn't have very many Jewish kids. There were three in
my class, and we were different. But I didn't feel different. If I could have turned into
a Baptist, I would have, because I wasn't brought up with much Jewish identity. I married
a girl who was Episcopalian, my children are nothing. And I have grandchildren who are
one-quarter Jewish who are Christians. So I feel at cross purposes, so that's where that
"The thing about the South," he
continues, "is that there's such a strong heri-tage in being Southern. And I was just
as Southern as anybody else ... but not quite. And that's probably what's rankled me all
these years. It didn't seem hard at the time, but in thinking about it, it was a little
tricky. Because what you were, and what you felt like, were slightly different."
Now Uhry lives in New York, his home since
graduating from Brown University and a place rich in Jewish heritage. Is he finally home,
"Noooo! I'm an Atlanta boy who lives
here," he says.
"Well," he hedges, "I'm sort
of a New Yorker. I'm betwixt and between again. I always was."
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
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
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
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
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.
Y ET 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
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
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. S EVENTY 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.