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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 753

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This is the grave of Leo Frank.

Born in 1884 in Cuero, Texas, Frank grew up in Brooklyn. His family seems to have, rightly, decided that it made more sense as a Jewish American to live in Brooklyn than rural Texas. He was a talented young man who did well in school, went to Cornell, and graduated in 1906 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Frank’s uncle was based in Atlanta. He was attracting investors to build a pencil factory there and invited his talented nephew to join them. Frank went south and agreed. He then lived in Germany for nearly a year, studying at a pencil factory there. He returned to Atlanta, the factory opened, and Frank became superintendent of it. He married a woman named Lucille Selig shortly after they moved there. Her family had played a key role in building the first synagogue in the city. In 1912, Frank was elected the head of the Atlanta of B’nail B’rith.

In April 1913, a worker at the factory named Mary Phagan was raped and murdered when she returned to collect her last paycheck after she was laid off. Frank paid her and was the last known person to see her alive.

What happened to Phagan remains unknown. But it’s extremely unlikely Frank killed her. A janitor is the most likely suspect. In any case, the murder of Phagan became a huge cause in Atlanta. That this factory was owned by Jews and northern Jews for that matter made the outrage reach a fever pitch. Suspicion fell on Leo Frank. He was charged with murder based on no evidence. The janitor was kept in isolation for six weeks and then told to testify against him, despite telling wildly different stories all the time about how Frank had him help hide the body. Mobs surrounded the courthouse, demanding a conviction. The entire city of Atlanta wanted to see the Jew pay for killing that nice white girl.

A leading musician known as Fiddlin’ John Carson, who later would become one of the first recording stars of country music, helped raise the stakes here, writing songs about Mary Phagan. When Frank was found guilty, Atlanta celebrated.

Meanwhile, Jews around the nation were aghast. Frank had incompetent defense lawyers. When the leading Jewish lawyer Louis Marshall gave advice to his lawyers, they ignored him entirely. There were appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, but they were all on procedural grounds, not on the point that he was not guilty and it was a farce. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes did vote to throw out the convictions based on the fact that it was a trial held in a mob atmosphere, but they were the only justices to do so.

Pressure grew to commute the sentence and let Frank free. The Georgia governor, John Slaton, was on the fence. But here came Tom Watson. The former Populist had now turned full on race-baiter and anti-Semite. He used his powerful newspaper network to demand justice for Phagan, which meant the death sentence for Frank. Slaton stayed on the fence despite the pressure. Although he was convinced of Frank’s innocence, he commuted the sentence to life in prison, assuming that once feelings cooled a bit, Frank would be found completely innocent and let free. Fiddlin’ John Carson was on the statehouse steps performing his new songs about Phagan in protest of the commutation in front of large crowds.

Frank was sent to a prison farm. He was nearly killed by another inmate who slashed his throat with a knife. On August 16, 1915, 25 citizens of Marietta, where Phagan was from, arrived at the prison farm and took him. It does seem that the guards did anything at all to even pretend to prevent this. They drove him to Marietta. And they lynched him from an oak tree. He was dead at the age of 31. Fiddlin’ John Carson then wrote another song about the oak tree and celebrating the murder. A crowd of 3,000 people gathered around the tree the next day and took pictures of themselves with the body.

In 1982, an 83 year old man who had worked as an office boy all the way back in the day testified that he had seen the janitor move the body of Phagan to the factory’s basement after he had presumably murdered her. This led the state of Georgia to pardon Frank in 1986, a mere 71 years after his lynching.

Leo Frank is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Queens, New York.

This memorial marker for Frank is also at the cemetery, though near the entrance and not next to his grave.

This grave visit was paid for by LGM reader contributions. Thanks, even if this is a depressing, if necessary, topic to cover in this series. If you would like this series to visit some of the people who inspired this horrible murder, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Fiddlin’ John Carson is in Atlanta and Tom Watson is in Thomson, Georgia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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