(JNi.media) August 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank on Elul 6, 5675, August 6, 1915, a case that expressed the hostility of Southern gentiles for Northern Jews that had long been boiling under the surface. it also symbolizes anxieties of the worst case scenario happening again, even as the United States is seen as a country that has been historically kinder to Jews than Europe. The miscarriage of justice and the degree of prejudice involved in the trial and in the media and the mob mentality that reigned at the time remain a stark reminder that, in spite of Jewish achievement, the peace and relative prosperity can be precarious if certain elements come together to cause unrest and anti-Semitic violence.
Leo Frank was born in 1884 to German Jewish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn and attended Cornell University. He moved to Atlanta to run a pencil factory and married Lucy Selig. Frank became quite active in the Jewish community of Georgia, which at that time was the largest in the south.
Also employed at the pencil factory was a 13-year-old girl by the name of Mary Phagan, who was the child of tenant farmers. In 2013, Phagan dropped by the pencil factory after hours to pick up her wages from Leo Frank. She was later found dead in the cellar, bruised and bloodied, and it was said that she had been sexually assaulted prior to her death. A few notes were found alongside the body, presumably written by the murderer. Leo Frank, who was working late in his office, had no alibi. A black janitor named Jim Conley, who had been found washing red stains from a shirt, told police that he had been told by Leo Frank to dispose of the body, but gave three accounts that directly contradicted this statement. Still, the first of Conley’s stories is what stuck.
Georgia erupted into fury over the incident and the papers had convicted Leo Frank even before his trial began. Anxieties of Northern encroachment that were prevalent since the end of the Civil War were intensified by the fact that Leo Frank, as a Jew, was perceived as a Yankee meddler and an exploiter of gentile labor, in addition to the readiness of the public to see him as the murderer. In Leo Frank was the conflation of classic anti-Semitic canards, that of the rapacious, unscrupulous businessman, a criminal who lusted after Christian women and resorted to murder, which, despite the absent the ritual imagery, connoted a blood libel in the imagination of Georgians.
The conviction of Leo Frank was based solely on the testimony of the janitor Jim Conley who had been held for six weeks on orders from the Solicitor General Hugh Dorsey. Crowds gathered outside the courthouse in Atlanta cheering the prosecutors on with slogans such as “Hang the Jew!” The announcement that Frank was found guilty was greeted with wild cheers. Frank’s attorneys filed three appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court and two more to the US Supreme court, on the grounds that Frank was absent at the time of the verdict and the public pressure surrounding the trial influenced the judge and jury. On the Supreme Court, the only dissenters were Charles Evans Hughes and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote, “Mob law doesn’t become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury.”
Thomas Watson, publisher of the Jeffersonian, waged the public opinion campaign against Leo Frank, and, along with Frank, found the Jews of America guilty of other “crimes” that went far beyond the death of Mary Phagan. The paper published outright incitement to violence, with statements like “This country has nothing to fear from its rural communities. Lynch law is a good sign. It shows a sense of justice lives among the people.” Sales of the newspaper increased, and the venom continued to flow from its pages. In a decision that would end his career in public office, Governor John M. Stanton reviewed the 10,000 pages written on the case, visited the pencil factory and decided Frank was innocent. Partly out of fear of the vengeful masses if he released Frank and hoping the prisoner would eventually be released once the rage died down and cooler heads prevailed, he commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. Riots ensued, and there was a march on the governor’s mansion in violent protest. Stanton resigned, left the governor’s mansion and, with a police escort, boarded a train out of the state with his family.