The People V. Leo Frank

The People V. Leo Frank

Mon, 11/02/2009 - 10:00pm

Pictured: Leo Frank, a Jewish supervisor of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, was convicted of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old laborer in the factory.

Credit: Courtesy of BLPI, Inc.

The 1913 murder of a child laborer leads to the fascinating criminal case of Leo Frank.

The People V. Leo Frank, airing Monday, November 2 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable1011/cable11), brings to vivid life one of the most fascinating criminal cases in American history: the 1913 murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a child laborer in an Atlanta pencil factory, and the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish factory supervisor from “up North” accused of her murder. Shot in Atlanta, the film illuminates the scandalous trial and its shocking aftermath with dramatic sequences created verbatim from transcripts, documents and letters. The cast is led by Will Janowitz (“The Sopranos”) and Seth Gilliam (“The Wire”).

In addition, a remarkable trove of rare historic images and new interviews with authors, historians, politicians and descendents of the participants infuse nearly century-old events with a special resonance. Set against the backdrop of an American South struggling to shed its legacy of bigotry and xenophobia, the story is both a first-rate murder mystery and a thought-provoking look at racial, religious, regional and class prejudices in the early years of the 20th century.


The Murder

Early in the morning on April 27, 1913, the night watchman at an Atlanta pencil factory discovered the murdered body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a white worker at the factory. She had apparently been robbed and possibly raped. The case made headlines, and several arrests were made, including Jim Conley (Gilliam), a black janitor at the factory who was seen three days later washing red stains out of his work shirt. Also arrested was Leo Frank (Janowitz), the factory’s superintendent and the last person to admit to seeing Phagan alive.


Suspicion of Frank soon mounted, based largely on his nervous behavior. A Jew raised in Brooklyn, Frank quickly became prosecutor Hugh Dorsey’s prime suspect. On the fourth try, Dorsey coaxed Conley to confess that he had helped hide Phagan’s body, but the janitor insisted that Frank, his boss, was the killer. “POLICE HAVE THE STRANGLER” blared a local headline, effectively convicting Frank before he ever faced the jury.

The Trial

Frank’s trial lasted a month. Each day, spectators packed Judge Leonard Roan’s sweltering courtroom, with hundreds more waiting outside to catch the latest news. The proceedings descended into a free-for-all of hearsay testimony, lurid details, shoddy police work and mind-boggling contradictions on the witness stand. Frank’s nervous and rambling testimony did nothing to help his case. Despite Conley’s conflicting statements and the lack of any physical evidence linking Frank to the murder, the all-white jurors accepted the word of the Southern black janitor over that of the Northern Jewish factory superintendent. Frank was pronounced guilty and sentenced to death.

The Lynching

Most Atlantans celebrated the verdict, but observers around the country grew enraged at what they deemed a mockery of justice. Editorials from New York to San Francisco decried the verdict and called for a new trial, but the meddling of outsiders only further steeled Southern pride and Frank’s detractors.

The most vocal of these was Tom Watson, a populist newspaper editor who inflamed public sentiment with vicious anti-Semitic articles. In issue after issue of his paper, The Jeffersonian,Watson painted Phagan as a “pure little Gentile victim” defiled by a money-grubbing, sexually perverted New York Jew.

Frank’s lawyers appealed the conviction, but were rebuffed at every step, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their last hope was to petition Georgia’s outgoing governor, John Slaton. Slaton weighed the evidence and concluded that Frank had notreceived a fair trial. In an astounding turn of events, and after some personal agonizing, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison.

The governor swiftly transferred Frank from his Atlanta jail cell to a state penitentiary 150 miles away, where Frank could safely serve out his sentence. A mob, enraged by the governor’s actions and whipped into frenzy by Watson’s Jeffersonian, descended on the governor’s mansion, hanging him in effigy with signs labeling him “King of the Jews.”

Meanwhile, out of the public eye, an elite group of influential Georgians — including a former governor and judge — made plans to quietly carry out their own sentence. On a hot August afternoon, 25 men loaded up seven cars and drove from Marietta to the state prison in Milledgeville where Frank was being held. They walked into the prison and — without breaking a lock or firing a shot — abducted the prisoner.

They drove Frank to an oak grove near Phagan’s childhood home. A noose was placed around his neck. The judge read the charges and proclaimed the sentence. Then the small table on which Leo Frank stood was kicked out from under him.

The Legacy

The most famous lynching of a white man in America inspired two conflicting legacies. Some of Frank’s lynchers joined members of the original Ku Klux Klan, which had all but faded out after Reconstruction. On Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, they formed the modern Ku Klux Klan, partly in Phagan’s honor. Its mission would expand from intimidating Southern blacks to spreading hate against Jews, Catholics and others across the country.

Meanwhile, a fledgling organization found its mission in the Frank case. The Anti-Defamation League became a powerful defender of civil rights and social justice for all in America and continues to this day.

Pictured: Leo Frank, a Jewish supervisor of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, was convicted of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old laborer in the factory.

share