The Arts : An Exhibit in Search of Justice
The trial and murder of Leo Frank left deep scars in the American South. A show at The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum explores Frank’s story and its aftermath.
The South has its demons. After all, the past suffuses the living with memories. And here, there is plenty to reckon with. The clenched fist of slavery released its grip with a show of bitter resentment by lynch mobs and kangaroo courts that lasted decades.
And so, the South, aware of its roots, has worked to rebrand itself: The New South, the land of more land, the civil rights movement, big business and opportunity! And yet, Jews could be forgiven for recalling how it was for one of their own. They remember Leo Max Frank—even if they don’t want to.
That is partly why it has taken this long for The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, an affiliate of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, to mount the 167-piece exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited.” The exhibition documents, with photographs, court records, letters and newspaper clippings, the circumstances that led to the 1915 lynching of Frank, a 31-year-old Jewish factory superintendent accused of raping and killing Mary Anne Phagan, a 13-year-old female employee. The exhibit also discusses the repercussion of the lynching—it led to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and galvanized the Anti-Defamation League.
“It had such a lasting effect on the Jewish community here,” said Sandra Berman, museum archivist and show curator, who spent over 20 years collecting material for the exhibit. “People didn’t talk about it for generations.”
German Jews landed in Atlanta as early as 1845, taking on respected and entrenched roles such as shop owners, lawyers and civic leaders. So the campaign against Frank, who was part of Atlanta’s Jewish establishment, rocked the community.
“They stopped really running for political office,” said Berman. “[The community’s] whole sense of self changed.”
The Breman exhibit opens with an attempt to re-create the era. Inside the first room, a round wooden structure serves as a boundary between fact and fantasy and conveys the context for what follows. The prop’s exterior walls boast the ideal of the New South, a beacon of racial harmony and industrial progress, with a panoramic photograph of that vision incarnate—the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.
It is the picture of elegance. Ladies with parasols lean over the balconies of a stately, columned building, and men in hats mingle by white-picket fencing. There is a horse-drawn carriage, a clock tower and a gazebo. Dotting the walls are mementos of the affair—the South’s “coming-out party,” said Berman—front-page stories in Harper’s Weekly and postcards along with a souvenir spoon and matchbox owned by Lucille Selig Frank, Leo Frank’s wife. Hers was a prominent family, and the Atlanta Jewish federation building, The Selig Center, is named for them.
Inside the structure’s curved walls, a different picture emerges: race riots, a population surge and industrialization rending the city apart. Photographs of Atlanta’s black neighborhoods in the 1920s reveal a dirt road sandwiched behind flimsy homes, common outhouses and a makeshift playground. According to a nearby text panel, several sewer lines spilled waste into the neighborhoods. Another placard details Atlanta’s 1906 race riots. A white mob attacked blacks in their homes and on the streets after gubernatorial candidates called for disenfranchising blacks amid sensationalized reports of black men assaulting white women.
Jews were singled out during the riots, too, marking the first inkling of anti-Jewish sentiment in the city. Their pawnshops and saloons were faulted for giving black men cheap booze and weapons; an image depicts Mike Shurman’s saloon, where a mustachioed man keeps an ornate bar, and the Greenblatt Bros. Pawn Shop, whose owners helped equip the sheriff with guns to quell the uproar.
In 1880, Atlanta had 612 Jews, most of them German in origin, writes Andy Ambrose, executive director of the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Georgia, in the show catalog. Thirty years later, the German Jewish population had climbed to 1,400, while Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe numbered 2,400 and accounted for a third of Atlanta’s immigrants. The Shurmans and Greenblatts were among the new wave of immigrants whose lives are documented here, for example, in a 1917 photo of the Yiddish Progressive Dramatic Club.
Colliding with the Jewish population were newcomers from the rural South who, in the wake of the Civil War, had come to the city in search of work. Atlanta’s largest employer was then Jewish-owned Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills. This new world, in which women and children were working in factories with no enforced labor laws, upended Southern social order.
“Fathers and husbands, guilt-ridden by an inability to support their families, were demoralized by the loss of authority and control over their wives and daughters,” states an exhibit text panel. “In the alien world of the factory, they saw a place where a woman’s virtue was in jeopardy. Factory bosses, particularly if they were Northern or ‘foreign,’ were viewed by these men as dangerous and even predatory.”
The Leo Frank case seemed to exemplify all the fear and rage of the moment. It was “the perfect storm,” noted Rosalind Marcus Spector, great-niece of Lucille Selig Frank, in a video interview, played in one of the final rooms of the show.
The exhibit’s first room gives way to a hall flanked by small galleries, the museum equivalent of a railroad apartment. The rooms mark the start of the story of Phagan’s murder and the introduction of the main characters.
To the right, a room wallpapered with an ivory print resembles Leo Frank’s childhood home in Brooklyn. Here are his white leather baby shoes, a rattle with charms dangling from a ring and snapshots of the Frank family. Even in early photographs, Frank looks stoic and bookish.
To the left, a square space with a ruffle-curtained window serves as the quarters for Phagan. A photograph shows her head cocked coyly to one side, framed by billowing bows tied around her pigtails. Phagan came from a working-class family—though she only kept her job at the pencil factory while waiting for space to open up at the local public school.
On the day of her death, Saturday, April 26, 1913—Confederate Memorial Day—she stopped by the factory to claim her paycheck (which was given to her by Frank) before heading to the Peachtree Street parade; a short video shows footage of the festival.
The next room re-creates Frank’s office at the National Pencil Company: wood-paneled walls, his decorative wooden desk, his 1906 Cornell University diploma, a hat rack and a pair of pencils produced by the factory. He moved to Atlanta to manage the factory at the request of his uncle, Moses Frank, the company owner.
Across the hall are the details surrounding Phagan’s murder. Her beaten, soot-covered body was found early Sunday morning in the factory basement by Newt Lee, the night watchman. Next to her were two notes, referring to a “long tall black negro”—meant to implicate Lee.
During the trial, handwriting comparisons were made among the suspects—Frank, Lee and the janitor, Jim Conley, who was also black. On display is the front page of The Atlanta Journal with published samples of the analysis: “He said he would love me laid down play like the night which did it…,” reads Frank’s careful cursive.
Conley’s writing, however, is the clear match. At first, he claimed illiteracy, but later, on the witness stand, said that Frank dictated the notes to him—although it would not seem plausible that the formally educated Frank devised the murder notes. The strategy of the defense team, led by attorney Luther Rosser, was to blame the murder on Conley, while the prosecution used witnesses to paint Frank as a lecherous man who used Conley to cover up exploits with female employees. Efforts to blame Conley did not work. The local press had tilted against Frank. And, according to Berman, the jury felt that Conley’s story seemed so good that he hardly could have invented it; no one believed that a black man could have thought up an alibi and maintained it under cross-examination.
Along with a photo of the solemn, well-dressed Phagan family at Mary’s funeral, Conley is pictured in the room describing Phagan’s murder. In the image, Conley looks caught off guard, his head tilted back and a pencil tucked behind his ear.
Frank’s trial and lengthy appeals process, which landed in the United States Supreme Court, is related through placards in an open room. Spaced across one side of the room are front-page clippings from The Atlanta Constitution, which detailed the trial, attempting to slake—and create—a thirsty public.
In fact, the hoi polloi flocked to the courthouse as if it were a month-long show. And Atlanta’s newspapers at the time—The Atlanta Journal, The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Georgian—splashed stories about the case on their front pages, even publishing extras during the trial with up-to-the-minute reports.
Where racism helped Conley, anti-Semitism may have worsened Frank’s plight. With the windows opened to allow air to circulate into the courtroom, those inside would have heard the gathering crowds chanting “Kill the Jew! Kill the Jew!”
In less than two hours, the jury determined Frank’s guilt. He was sentenced to hang.
After the trial, rushed appeals were made—legal ones and public ones by media heavyweights, among them German Jewish immigrant Alfred Ochs, owner of The New York Times.
Photos of a number of Frank’s advocates are presented, including his rabbi, David Marx, chief rabbi of The Temple. Marx traveled to New York to ask influential Jews, such as Ochs, to help Frank. Anchoring the open gallery is a glass display case with bound copies of the court records, including a writ of habeas corpus to the United States Supreme Court.
Two front-page stories from The New York Times covering the case are shown in the gallery, as are copies of Tom Watson’s The Jeffersonian. The former populist political leader used his publication as a platform for anti-Semitic railing. Attempts to appeal Frank’s sentence, he argued, reflected a Jewish hijacking of Georgia justice: “The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have seldom forked over so much filthy lucre to one of the uncircumcised….”
Additional artifacts include Frank’s diary from jail and the trial notes and deathbed statement of attorney William Smith who, after representing Conley, turned against him. “In articles of Death, I believe in the innocence and good character of Leo Frank,” state his shaky, block letters.
Frank hired a new defense team for the appeals process, including Henry Alexander, a prominent Atlanta Jew and college roommate of Hugh Dorsey, who was the prosecutor. A photo of Alexander and Dorsey lounging beneath a tree on the University of Georgia campus is on view.
After exhausting their appeals, Frank’s lawyers turned to the Georgia Prison Commission’s Pardons and Paroles for clemency from Governor John M. Slaton. The commission was not swayed, but Slaton, after studying over 10,000 pages of case documents, commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison. The governor had latched on to a piece of evidence known among those who follow the case as the “shit in the shaft,” according to Berman.
Conley testified that he had defecated in the factory’s elevator shaft the morning of the murder and that he and Frank used the elevator to take Phagan’s body to the basement. If that was true, the feces would have been crushed, but inspectors found it whole.
Before announcing his conclusion, Slaton ordered Frank moved overnight for his safety from the downtown jail to the Milledgeville prison, about 100 miles away. Thousands stormed the governor’s mansion in reaction to Slaton’s decision; an image shows them hanging him in effigy.
Slaton became the first governor in United States history to enlist the National Guard for his own defense; “Our grand old Empire State HAS BEEN RAPED!” Watson wrote in an editorial, calling for Slaton and Frank to be lynched: “Jew money has debased us, bought us, and sold us…. Hereafter let no man reproach the South with Lynch law…let him say whether lynch law is not better than no law at all.”
Shortly thereafter, frank’s throat was slashed by a fellow prisoner—so relates an article in The Atlanta Constitution, which is on display. Frank recovered, but a group of 25 men, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, were plotting his end.
The gang, which included a former Georgia governor, a state legislator and chairman of the House Penitentiary Committee and a judge, worked a deal with the prison commission. They wouldn’t reveal the unsanitary conditions in the Milledgeville prison, which had led to an unreported typhoid epidemic, if prison officials handed over Frank.
The door to the infirmary, where Frank was recovering, did little to hold back the gang. Frank was only wearing a nightshirt and asked that they cover his lower half. They agreed to this along with his requests to write his wife a note and deliver it to her together with his wedding ring.
A large photograph captures the scene of his murder. Surrounded by the folded arms and smug expressions of men who felt they had answered duty’s call, Frank hangs with his ankles bound and wrists cuffed.
Lynchings in Georgia were commonplace. Only Mississippi can claim more victims than Georgia, where, between 1882 and 1930, 458 people were lynched, 435 of them black. Most were caught up in the spontaneous eruptions of violence. The point is underscored at the entrance to the exhibition, where a placard prints part of the 1937 poem “Strange Fruit,” about Southern lynchings, penned by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher in New York:
Southern trees bear
Blood on the leaves
And blood on the root,
Swinging in the
Strange fruit hanging
From the poplar trees….
Frank’s murder was different, not only because he was white and a Jew, but also for the spectacle: the media frenzy, the mobs and even the coordinated lynching. And even after, the crowds returned to the scene where Frank was hanged—for a strip of his nightshirt, a piece of bark.
After the murder, media coverage dried up. Local publishers were too close to people involved in the murder, writes Steve Oney, author of And the Dead Shall Rise (Vintage), a history of the case, in the show catalog. For his part, Ochs felt foiled. After The New York Times submitted an editorial on the lynching to Georgia’s newspapers, the editor of The Macon Telegraph wrote to Ochs. His response, summarized by someone close to Ochs, stated: “For the sake of the decent people of Georgia and especially the sake of the Jews in Georgia, would Mr. O not stop this offensive propaganda. It was the outside interference of the Jews, led by the Times, that had made it necessary to lynch Frank.”
The exhibit’s final room shows the legacy of the affair—the empowerment of the Chicago-based Anti-Defamation League and, in Georgia, at Watson’s behest, of the Ku Klux Klan. A postcard of riders in white cloaks atop horses commemorates the group’s 1915 reorganization. That year, The Birth of a Nation, a play based on a book that romanticizes the Klan, was performed in Atlanta; a theater program is displayed.
At the end of the exhibit is a video with interviews of descendants of those involved in the affair. Many described the secrecy shrouding the case: Mary Phagan Kean only learned about her great-aunt and namesake when her eighth-grade teacher inquired about her name after roll call; Spector clued in to the past of her quiet aunt, Lucille Selig Frank, after a history class during her senior year at the University of Georgia.
Also recorded is the 69-year-old secret of Alonzo Mann, who, as a 14-year-old, worked in the pencil factory. At the age of 83, Mann confessed that he had seen Conley carry Phagan’s body on the day of her murder. Conley said he would kill the boy for tattling, and his parents told him to keep quiet.
“I was afraid of the crowd outside, and I did what my mother and father told me to,” he said in the video. “They never thought [Frank] would be found guilty.” Mann’s admission prompted the ADL and Atlanta’s Jewish community to ask the Board of Pardons and Paroles for Frank’s post-humous pardon. It came via a loophole. The state hinged its response on its own failure to protect Frank from the lynch mob. The pardon, a copy of which is shown here, leaves open the question of whether Frank was culpable in the murder.
For its part, The Breman exhibit charges visitors with seeking out their own answers. Souvenir pencils made to resemble those from Frank’s factory carry the commandment from Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”
“Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited” is at The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta (678-222-3700;www.thebreman.org) through December 31, 2008. The exhibit opens at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (646-437-4202; www.mjhnyc.org) in late spring, 2009.