Mob Injustice

AND THE DEAD SHALL RISE: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, by Steve Oney. Pantheon, 742 pp., $35.

Newsday, November 16, 2003

On the morning of Aug. 20, 1915, Leo Frank’s widow, his parents and a couple dozen friends joined the family rabbi at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Cypress Hills, Queens, to bury the 31-year-old pencil-factory superintendent. The private funeral came two years after Frank was accused of killing Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee at the Atlanta plant who collected her wages from him one Saturday and within hours was found dead. The courtroom drama overflowed into the streets of Atlanta and onto front pages around the country, making Frank a national figure. As muckrakers and editorial writers decried his conviction, citing shaky circumstantial evidence, unreliable testimony and far-fetched prosecutorial theories, many Georgians insisted on enforcing a death sentence even if the trial judge’s ruling were reversed. So when John Slaton, Georgia’s outgoing governor, commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison, Frank was abducted from prison, whisked through the night along back roads and hanged at dawn from a tree outside Marietta, Phagan’s hometown.

The plot’s guiding spirit was Tom Watson, the populist Georgia politician and editor whose vicious exhortations to vengeance in his weekly, the Jeffersonian, painted the free-Frank movement as a creeping Jewish conspiracy. But until recently, the people of Marietta maintained an impenetrable silence, protecting the local men who, as they saw it, served justice by taking it into their own hands. In Atlanta, where the German Jewish community had been accepted more or less as the equals of other whites, discussion of Frank’s lynching also has been a lingering taboo.

Now Steve Oney, a former reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has painstakingly reconstructed the lynching and identified 25 Mariettans involved, including Joseph Brown, a former governor; Herbert Clay, son of a U.S. senator; and Newt Morris, a circuit judge and Democratic Party leader. Former sheriff William Frey, who owned the farm where Frank died, readied the noose. Watson’s indignation about perceived conflicts of interest (the pardoning governor was law partner to one of Frank’s defense attorneys) did not extend to the inconclusive investigation of the lynching, in which seven grand jurors and two lawyers were conspirators. Later, jewelry store owner George Daniell gave participants a set of silverware for “a job well done.”

Oney’s ventilation of the plot against Frank comes at the end of his swollen, disappointing explication of this notorious episode in American history. Oney’s accumulation of detail helps illuminate the secrets of Frank’s lynching, but in the 17 years he spent on the book, Oney seems to have gotten lost in the volume of trial transcripts, newspaper accounts and other secondary sources. Readers may, too; if “And the Dead Shall Rise” were a movie, all the spinning headlines would make anyone faint from dizziness.

Oney devotes 150 pages to Frank’s trial, awarding points for each skirmish won by the prosecutor or defense as if it were a boxing match, but too much back-and-forth of conflicting testimony frays the narrative thread. A paragraph devoted to advances in air conditioning technology might seem charming, if only he had conveyed why spectators mobbed the courtroom and waited outside, and why it devolved into a spectacle akin to professional wrestling, with Frank cast as the heel.

His bald expression of the Southern social contract did not help. “No white man killed Mary Phagan,” Frank reportedly said before he was arrested. Despite his confidence that jurors would see things the same way, the prosecution’s star witness was Jim Conley, a black janitor at the pencil plant who was questioned about the murder. Conley, who had a criminal record, went on to concoct three inconsistent statements, each more elaborate than the previous, eventually claiming that Frank paid him to move Phagan’s corpse to the factory basement and write out the notes found at the crime scene. At first, Conley told police he couldn’t write but quickly admitted that this was a lie. “Not since Uncle Remus had a black man’s story so enthralled Atlanta,” Oney quips in his gratingly folksy way.

In a time and place when a black person’s testimony against a white person had little impact – an unjust state of affairs, but this is the way things were – why did the jury buy Conley’s story? In his closing statement, the lead defense lawyer introduced the idea that “religious prejudice against the factory superintendent had permeated the case.” Oney uses this to broach the topic of anti-Semitism, as if to suggest that it might be no more than a desperate ploy by Frank’s lawyers. Other kinds of animus may help explain why he wasn’t accorded the usual privileges of whiteness in Georgia – he was an outsider, a northerner and a plant manager, a symbol of the urban industrialism that was devouring country girls like Phagan – but the case against Frank has enough coded expressions of anti-Semitism, from Conley’s pre-trial statement that Frank said, “Why should I hang, I have wealthy people in Brooklyn” to the painting of Frank as an Old Testament-style “Sodomite,” ascribing all manner of deviance to him because he was “unlike other men” (i.e., circumcised). Press reports that Frank’s mother called the prosecutor a “Christian dog,” a statement she denied making, fed anti-Semitic feeling. But the animus mostly was implicit, just as the looming crowds outside the court didn’t have to tell the jurors they expected Frank to be found guilty and hanged.

Then, in his account of the legal and public appeal, Oney almost seems to share some of the nativist hostility toward the national Jewish organizations that stepped in to defend Frank, and the generous individuals among them, such as Chicago ad man Albert Lasker, who funneled cash to Frank’s wife to cover expenses. Special disdain is reserved for Adolph Ochs, the Chattanooga-born editor famous for bending over backward to avoid any appearance of parochial bias in the New York Times, who responded to Leo Frank’s conviction by what former executive editor Howell Raines might have called “flooding the zone.” Even in the swirl of yellow journalism around Frank – Watson’s venomous Jeffersonian; Hearst’s sensationalism in the Georgian, stirring Atlanta’s newspaper wars – Ochs’ intense editorial interest in Frank, and what he represented, is treated as an outsider’s outrageous impertinence, much as detractors dismissed Raines’ recent campaign against discrimination at the Augusta National Golf Club. Frank’s defenders may have played their hand poorly and their persistence may have had the opposite of the desired effect – Watson grew shriller by the week – but they weren’t responsible for his murder.

The Leo Frank case lies at a nexus of nerves still sensitive today: racial tensions, anti-Semitism, class, regionalism, politics and the behavior of the press, which explains why it has attracted writers from David Mamet to Alfred Uhry. Oney is clearly a dogged researcher, and there are some fine stretches of writing here – his passages on Conley’s lawyer, William Smith, who declared his belief in his one-time client’s guilt during the appeals process and spent many years living in a sort of exile from Georgia, stand out. But it fails as interpretive history; the tone is off. It’s hard to put a finger on the source of the dissonance; perhaps he finds Frank an unappealing victim, or recoils at the implications of exonerating him, which would leave Jim Conley as the prime suspect. Whatever the reason, “And the Dead Shall Rise” gets wrapped up instead in the whirlwind of events and strays from the grandeur it so clearly aches to attain.

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