Frank, Leo Max

views updated


FRANK, LEO MAX (1884–1915), engineer and the only Jew ever to have been murdered by a lynch mob in the United States. Frank, who was born in Cuero, Texas, of an immigrant German family, was raised in Brooklyn, and studied mechanical engineering. In 1907 he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where his uncle, Moses Frank, owner of the National Pencil Company, offered him a job as plant superintendent. Here he became president of the local chapter of B'nai B'rith. On April 27, 1913, a 14-year-old employee of Frank's, Mary Phagan, was found murdered in the factory basement. Frank was arrested the next day and charged with the crime. The chief witness for the prosecution at his trial, which lasted for nearly two months, was a black employee of the factory, James Conley, who was suspected by many observers both at the time and subsequently of having been the true culprit. Despite the flimsy nature of the evidence, the dubious character of many of the prosecution's witnesses and Frank's own eloquent testimony on Aug. 23, 1913, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

The issue of Frank's Jewishness was first raised at his trial by his own lawyers, who claimed that he was a victim of prejudice, a charge that the prosecution vigorously denied. Whether or not this denial was sincere, it became clear as the trial progressed that the mobs in and out of the courtroom that continually called for Frank's blood were inspired by antisemitic passions, which undoubtedly influenced the decision of the jury. It was only when the case was already being appealed, however, that a vicious antisemitic campaign was launched around it by the ex-populist and racist politician Tom Watson, who in his weekly Jeffersonian Magazine repeatedly demanded the execution of "the filthy, perverted Jew of New York." Watson helped found the "Knights of Mary Phagan," an antisemitic society which sought to organize a boycott of Jewish stores and businesses throughout Georgia.

Frank's lawyers fought his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court on the grounds that he had not been given a fair trial, and it became a cause célébre which enlisted the support of prominent Jews and gentiles. On May 18, 1915, however, the Court turned down Frank's final appeal. On June 21, shortly before his scheduled execution, his sentence was commuted to a life term by Governor John Slaton, who was personally convinced of his innocence. Slaton's decision, which was to cost him his political career, inflamed emotions in Georgia and did not save Frank's life for long: he was dragged from jail by a mob on Aug. 16, 1915, and lynched. There can be little doubt that Frank was innocent or that he would never have been brought to trial in the first place, much less convicted, had he not been a Jew.

In March 1986 Leo Frank was pardoned by the governor of Georgia.


H. Golden, A Little Girl Is Dead (1965, republished in England as Lynching of Leo Frank (1966)); L. Dinnerstein, Leo Frank Case (1968); idem, in: aja, 20 (1968), 107–26. add. bibliography: S. Oney, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (2003)

[Harry Golden]