Leo Frank Trial: 1913

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Leo Frank Trial: 1913

Defendant: Leo Max Frank Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Reuben Arnold, Herbert Haas, Stiles Hopkins, and Luther Z. Rosser
Chief Prosecutors: Hugh Dorsey, Frank Arthur Hooper, and Edward A. Stephens
Judge: Leonard Strickland Roan
Place: Atlanta, Georgia
Dates of Trial: July 28-September 26, 1913
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging, commuted by Georgia Governor John Slaton to life imprisonment (After his commutation, Frank died at the hands of an angry lynch mob.)

SIGNIFICANCE: The Leo Frank trial was a national scandal, which exposed the double standard of Southern justice: one for whites and one for minorities such as Frank, who was Jewish. Not only was Frank hung by a lynch mob after his death sentence was commuted, but the Ku Klux Klan experienced a period of renewed growth for years afterward due to the racist feelings brought on by the trial.

Leo Max Frank was born in Paris, Texas, in 1884. His family moved to Brooklyn, New York while he was still a baby. Frank's family was Jewish, and he was raised in New York City's extensive Jewish community. Frank was a quiet, shy man, but he had exceptional mechanical aptitude and he graduated from Cornell University with an engineering degree. After working for brief periods with several companies, Frank went to work for his uncle, Moses Frank, who was the principal owner of the National Pencil Company. The National Pencil Company had a factory in Atlanta, Georgia, and in 1907 Frank was appointed the superintendent and moved to Atlanta.

It probably never occurred to Frank that, since he was moving to the South, racism might be a problem. Atlanta's Jewish community was small by New York standards but nevertheless significant and had deep roots in the city's history. In 1911, Frank married Lucile Selig, whose family was also Jewish and well-off. Frank spent most of his time supervising the pencil factory, avoided politics and racial issues, and was honored by the Jewish community as one of Atlanta's most promising young businessmen. By 1913 Frank was one of Atlanta's leading citizens and was enjoying a successful career.

Little Mary Phagan Murdered

As was common at the time, Frank's factory employed women and children, who were capable of performing the light labor necessary to manufacture pencils and who could be paid lower wages than men. One such worker was Mary Phagan, a blond 13-year-old girl who lived in nearby Marietta. She was one of several workers caught in a temporary layoff, and on April 26, 1913, she came to collect her final wages from Frank. Frank paid her and thought no more of the matter after she left. Shortly before he left for the day, Frank had another encounter with a former employee, this time with John Gantt, who asked if he could retrieve some shoes he had left in his locker. Frank allowed Gantt to get his shoes, but Frank's nervous personality made him afraid of Ganrtt, who had a reputation as a drunkard and who Frank had fired for stealing.

That night, Frank called the night watchman, a black man named Newt Lee, several times to ask if there was any trouble. Frank probably feared some sort of action by Gantt, but there was none. In the early hours of the morning, however, Lee discovered the bound and brutalized corpse of Mary Phagan in the basement. Someone had raped and killed her after she collected her pay that day. Afraid that he would be blamed for the crime, Lee went straight to the police and reported the crime. His honesty did him no good: After the police arrived at the factory and investigated the scene of the crime, they threw Lee in jail anyway, to be held without charges for months.

The police then went to Frank's house, took him to the scene of the crime for questioning, and then to the police station for several days of further interrogation. Meanwhile, the murder had become a local sensation, and the Atlanta newspapers were filled with lurid headlines describing the details of the crime and calling for justice. Hugh Mason Dorsey, the chief prosecutor for that portion of Atlanta, had political ambitions and seized on the meek, Jewish Frank as an easy target. On April 29, 1913, Frank was formally arrested for the murder of Mary Phagan.

Frank's lawyers were Reuben Arnold, Herbert Haas, Stiles Hopkins, and Luther Z. Rosser. In addition to Dorsey, the prosecutors were Frank Arthur Hooper and Edward A. Stephens. The judge was Leonard Strickland Roan, and the trial began on July 28, 1913.

Prosecutors Emphasize Frank's Nervousness

Newt Lee, still in prison "under suspicion," was one of the first prosecution witnesses. Frank's telephone calls to Lee on the night of the murder came back to haunt him, because the prosecutors made it look as if Frank was checking to see if the body had been discovered that Saturday night. Lee Testified:

Mr. Frank phoned me [the first time] that night about an hour after he left, it was sometime after seven o'clock. He says, "How is everything?" and I says, "Everything is all right so far as I know," and he says, "Goodbye." No, he did not ask anything about Gantt. Yes, that is the first time he ever phoned to me on a Saturday night.

The prosecutors then turned Frank's nervous disposition to their advantage, and using the testimony of the police officers who had taken Frank to the scene of the crime on the morning of Sunday, April 27, to create suspicion in the mind of the jury. First, officer John N. Starnes testified:

I reached the factory between five and six o'clock on April 27th. I called up the superintendent, Leo Frank, and asked him to come right away. He said he hadn't had any breakfast. He asked where the night watchman was. I told him to come, and if he would come, I would send an automobile for him. I didn't tell him what had happened, and he didn't ask me.

When Frank arrived at the factory, a few minutes later, he appeared to be nervous, he was in a trembling condition. Lee was composed at the factory, he never tried to get away.

Another officer, one who had gone to pick up Frank at Frank's home, confirmed Starnes' testimony:

Mrs. Frank came to the door; she had on a bathrobe. I stated that I would like to see Mr. Frank and about that time Mr. Frank stepped out from behind a curtain. Frank's voice was hoarse and trembling and nervous and excited. He looked to me like he was pale. He seemed nervous in handling his collar; he could not get his tie tied, and talked very rapid in asking what had happened. He kept insisting on a cup of coffee.

When we got into the automobile, Mr. Frank wanted to know what had happened at the factory, and I asked him if he knew Mary Phagan, and told him she had been found dead in the basement. Mr. Frank said he did not know any girl by the name of Mary Phagan, that he knew very few of the employees.

The implication from this testimony was that Frank's nervousness was the result of a guilty conscience. Next, the prosecutors tried to prove that Frank had deliberately planned to get Mary Phagan to come to the factory that weekend. For example, a factory employee named Helen Ferguson testified that she had been Mary Phagan's friend and had in the past picked up Phagan's pay for her, but on the day before the murder, Frank suddenly refused to let Ferguson pick up Phagan's final pay:

[I went to] Mr. Frank Friday, April 25, about seven o'clock in the evening and asked for Mary Phagan's money. Mr. Frank said, "I can't let you have it," and before he said anything else I turned around and walked out. I had gotten Mary's money before.

Prosecution Clinches their Case

The prosecutors saved their best witness for last: Jim Conley, a large black man who was the factory janitor. Despite some very suspicious circumstances that tended to implicate Conley as the actual murderer, the prosecutors put him on the stand. It has even been written that Dorsey deliberately chose to prosecute a "Yankee Jew" rather than a "nigger" for purposes of sensationalism, regardless of Frank's innocence. The gist of Conley's lengthy testimony was that he had been at the factory on the day of the murder and that Frank had confessed to the murder:

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 and a long wide piece of cord. His eyes were large and they looked right funny. He looked funny out of his eyes. His face was red. After I got up to the top of the steps, he asked me, "Did you see [Mary Phagan] who passed here just a while ago?" I told him she hasn't come back down, and he says, "Well, that one you say didn't come back down, she come into my office awhile ago and wanted to know something about her work in my office and I went back there to see if the little girl's work had come, and 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, and I don't know how bad she got hurt."

The defense lawyers cross-examined Conley for several days but were unable to impeach his testimony. The defense lawyers also had to contend with the presence of spectators in the courtroom who constantly made catcalls and racist commentssuch as "Hang the Jew!"while the defense attempted to make its case. Although Judge Roan had once been defense lawyer Rosser's partner in private practice, he made no serious effort to curb these distractions.

At the conclusion of the defense's case, Frank himself took the stand. For nearly half a day he spoke, and unequivocally denied murdering Phagan. He explained his apparent nervousness as the natural result of being dragged out of his home so early on a Sunday morning and being confronted with such a gruesome crime:

Now, gentlemen, I have heard a great deal, and have you, in this trial, about nervousness, about how nervous I was that morning. Gentlemen, I was nervous, I was completely unstrung, I will admit it; imagine, awakened out of my sound sleep, and a morning run down in the cool of the morning in an automobile driven at top speed, without any food or breakfast, rushing into a dark passageway, coming into a darkened room, and then suddenly an electric light flashed on, and to see that sight that was presented by that poor little child; why, it was a sight that was enough to drive a man to distraction; that was a sight that would have made a stone melt.

Further, Frank bluntly called Conley a liar:

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 that I had anything to do with her or to do with him that day, is a monstrous lie.

Frank Convicted, Commuted, and Lynched

On September 26, 1913, after one of the longest trials in Georgia history, the jury found Leo Frank guilty of the murder of Mary Phagan. Judge Roan sentenced Frank to be executed by hanging on October 10, but the execution was stayed by the defense lawyers' appeals. On February 17, 1914, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Frank's conviction, although two judges dissented. The defense lawyers, however, did not give up. They pursued evidence that Conley had committed the murder: Witnesses had seen Conley washing his bloody clothing at the factory after the murder, Conley's girlfriend gave testimony concerning Conley's perverted sexual tendencies, and Conley's own lawyer told Judge Roan that Conley had confessed to the murder to him.

Despite the evidence of Conley's guilt and therefore Frank's innocence, Judge Roan refused to overturn the verdict and the Georgia Supreme Court again affirmed on October 14, 1914. On December 9, 1914, Frank's execution was rescheduled for January 22, 1915, but it was again stayed, this time by the defense lawyers' habeas corpus petition (release from unlawful confinement) to the U.S. Supreme Court. On April 19, 1915, the Court denied the petition, despite the strong dissents of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes.

Frank's last chance was an appeal to the governor of Georgia, John Slaton, for commutation of his sentence. This appeal began with a hearing on May 31, 1915, before the Georgia Prison Commission. On June 9, 1915, the Commission voted 2-1 against recommending commutation to the governor. Slaton, however, was an independent man, and had on several occasions used his power to grant clemency when in his opinion justice demanded it, regardless of the unpopularity of his decision. On June 21, 1915, Slaton commuted Frank's sentence to life imprisonment, citing the widespread national criticism of Georgia justice and the many doubts raised over the evidence against Frank.

This case has been marked by doubt. The trial judge doubted. Two judges of the Court of Georgia doubted. Two judges of the Supreme Court of the United States doubted. One of the three Prison Commissioners doubted.

As he probably foresaw, Slaton's decision was instantly unpopular in Georgia. There were demonstrations in Atlanta and in Marietta, Phagan's home town, and sporadic acts of vandalism against Jewish homes and stores. On August 16, 1915, a vigilante group drove from Marietta to the Milledgeville Prison Farm outside Macon, Georgia. They overpowered the skeleton crew of prison guards and took Frank from his cell. The vigilantes drove back to Marietta, a seven-hour trip, with Frank. Once back in Marietta, a lynch mob of local citizens gathered and watched as Frank was hung from a tree limb on the morning of August 17, 1915. The racist hatred stirred up by the Frank trial did not end with Frank's lynching. For decades, the "vindication" of Mary Phagan was a rallying cry for the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

In 1982, an old black man named Alonzo Mann, who had worked at Frank's pencil factory as a child, publicly declared that he had seen Jim Conley drag Mary Phagan's corpse to the basement but had kept silent because Conley had threatened to kill him. On March 11, 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles posthumously pardoned Frank.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Dinnerstein, Leonard. The Leo Frank Case. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Liebman, James S. "Lesson Unlearned." The Nation (August 1991): 217.

Lindemann, Albert S. The Jew Accused: Three Anti-Semitic Affairs (Drevfus, Beilis, Frank), 1894-1915. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

MacLean, Nancy. "The Leo Frank Case Reconsidered: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Making of Reactionary Populism." The Journal of American History (December 1991): 917-948.

Oney, Steve. "The Lynching of Leo Frank: Two Years Ago, and Seventy Years Too Late, a Witness Came Forward to Prove That Frank's Only Crime was Being a Stranger in the Old South." Esquire (September 1985): 90-98.

Phagan, Mary. The Murder of Little Mazy Phagan. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press, 1987.