Whether the case of Leo Frank deserves more than a footnote in our history, I am not competent to judge. I believe it does, and think it still bears a timeless lesson coming to us now from our past.
But then I am admittedly biased and have a personal, though very remote, stake in this tale of tortured consciences and perverted justice now exhumed after nearly three-quarters of a century of uneasy rest.
For years I kept a growing file of newly published material on Frank's trial and death so long ago. After coming to Washington, I spent hours in the newspaper room of the Library of Congress reading old papers from Atlanta about the still almost unbelievable circumstances surrounding his ordeal there. The thought was to write a book on the Frank case, but I finally concluded that everything had been said that could be.
Over the years books enough about Leo Frank had filled library shelves, and what else could I add? I was, of course, wrong.
My interest was more than academic. My grandfather, whom I never knew, had been one of the many lawyers who defended Frank. He helped carry Frank's case through the appeals process of the state of Georgia and on up to the U.S. Supreme Court before no less a personage than Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
And the Frank case had a profound effect on my father. He repeatedly talked about it. Even in the days just before his death he recalled how his father had made speeches denouncing the Ku Klux Klan, which had its modern rebirth in the filth spewing out of the Frank case, as "nothing but the shell of a rotten un-American organization." As he also recalled, his father went to his grave in 1918 convinced that Frank was innocent and had been framed, a judgment he also came to share.
In college my father was so obsessed by the case that he obtained the entire long court record, covering several years of trial and appeal. After reading it, he too concluded that Frank had been a classic American victim of hatred and prejudice. I'm certain that his feelings about this prompted him to write the articles, exposing Klan depredations in Georgia in the mid-1920s, that led the governor to offer him protection when his life was threatened by the Klan, and to a job in New York, where I was born.
For such reasons, it was understandably with more than casual interest that I stepped off a plane last week to learn that an eyewitness had just come forward, after a silence of nearly 70 years, to say that he had been living all these decades with the certain knowledge that Leo Frank was innocent.
In a sworn statement, Alonzo Mann said he had confronted the real killer of blonde, curly haired little Mary Phagan carrying the 14-year-old girl's body toward a partly opened trapdoor leading to the basement, where she later was found with her clothing ripped and a cord tied around her neck, in Frank's pencil factory in Atlanta on April 26, 1913. Mann, a black, then 14, was working as Frank's office boy. Mary Phagan also worked there. Mann said the murderer, another black named Jim Conley, threatened to kill him if he ever told what he had just seen.
These are dramatic enough events to stir memories, but the Frank case always involved more significant elements than those merely familiar in so many sensational murder trials. At the heart of the Frank case lay nothing less than fundamental questions about American justice, tolerance and the search for truth.
Leo Frank went south with his young wife, determined to make good in their chosen new community. He was an earnest young man of culture and education, a graduate of Cornell, and quickly became a leading member of his church and president of one of its religious societies.
For all of his personal attributes, Frank had a handicap for that time in that place. He came as an northerner when many southerners held deep suspicions about such outsiders, and he was a Jew. That fact was at the center of his tragedy; he becameTRUTH 6 a victim of mindless vicious prejudice inflamed by demagogues and bigots just as did another Frank, Anne, decades later, during the Nazi era.
From the beginning it was reaction against Frank's faith that led inexorably to his violent death. "Developments seemed to fasten the crime upon a Hebrew, Leo M. Frank by name, an employe of the factory, then holding the office of superintendent," a contemporary account said. "Frank had recently come to Atlanta from Brooklyn."
All of the evidence against Frank was circumstantial, with one exception. The state's most important witness, the man upon whose testimony Frank's conviction rested solely, was a convicted felon described even at the time as "a notorious criminal and a self-confessed liar who had repeatedly served sentences in jail."
That was Jim Conley, the man believed by countless authorities familiar with the case down through the years as the real murderer, and now so named by the new witness, Mann.
Space permits only the briefest summary of the Frank case here. These must suffice:
The trial led to demagogic appeals to prejudice, with hatred of Jews as the centerpiece among them. Mobs demonstrated outside the court. Inside, the room was rent frequently with loud applause at the prosecutor's remarks. These conditions bred a national reaction, and then an international one. The case was termed the American Dreyfus Affair. Frank's cause was taken up by leading northern intellectuals and liberals of the day, many of them Jewish, producing an even more violent reaction in Georgia. There was widespread talk about a Jewish plot to subvert justice from being done to Mary Phagan's murderer.
"To rescue Frank from the clutches of the law," according to another written account then, "it is said that an organization existed among the Jews, reaching from ocean to ocean, the object of which was to put a continent under tribute in an effort to raise a pyramidal fund with which to buy Frank's way to freedom."
The jury convicted him and he was sentenced to death. The presiding judge never believed Frank guilty and said so in a written statement to Frank's lawyers only days before his death. (The sentence was imposed by his successor on the bench.) Lawyers carried the case step by step up the ladder of American justice: to the Supreme Court of Georgia, to the U.S. District Court, to the U.S. Supreme Court, to the State Prison Commission. Each tribunal was divided, thus each appeal was denied.
The final appeal was to Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton. In an act of great courage, Slaton, in a midnight decision before Frank was to die and in the face of what he knew would be a firestorm of reaction, commuted Frank's sentence from death to life imprisonment.
This unleashed a torrent of hatred scarcely matched in American history. An impassioned mob, incited by inflammatory words of demagogues, assembled on the steps of the capitol, threatening Slaton's life. Another mob moved into the state's House of Representatives.
At the state prison farm at Milledgeville, where Frank was transferred after his commutation, another prisoner slashed Frank's throat with a knife. He lay near death, but recovered. Then, on the night of Monday, Aug. 16, 1915, a mob of 25 men overpowered the prison guards, seized Frank, manacled him, drove him at gunpoint to the cemetery of Mary Phagan in nearby Marietta, and lynched him. Dawn found him dangling from an outstretched tree limb. He was in his nightshirt, and the noose was seen to have opened the healing wound around his throat. He was asked repeatedly to confess, and maintained his innocence to the end.
Lessons, all self-evident.
Mob rule prevailed against the weight of the supposedly more enlightened citizens.
Despite all those convinced that Conley was the murderer, the case was not pursued legally after Frank's death.
After an initial period of silence, in which he rebuffed questioners, apparently no one ever tried to interview Mann, who had been asked only a few perfunctory questions at the trial.
No one was ever convicted for the murder of Leo Frank, though the 25 members of the Klan boasted that their identities were widely known. Extraordinarily, one of them wrote anonymously in The Atlanta Constitution: "The public will never know the identities of the 25 brave and loyal men who undertook to execute the sentence of justice which Gov. Slaton tried to annul . . . . The chosen 25--but this was not the entire number available--were men whose worth was known, collectively and individually. I doubt if you would find anywhere a body of men more loyal, faithful, obedient and determined."
Some of them may be alive even now.
Case closed. It could never happen again. Or could it?