Revelations about a 69-year-old murder case have revived painful memories in the Jewish community here and sparked fresh debate over a long-silent witness who might have saved Leo Frank from a lynch mob and Georgia from a date with injustice.
In the sensational 1913 murder trial, 29-year-old Jewish pencil factory superintendant Frank was convicted of strangling teen-aged factory worker Mary Phagan on such flimsy evidence that the governor commuted his death sentence two years later.
Now Alonzo Mann, Frank's former office boy, says his boss was innocent. He claims he saw James Conley, the plant's black janitor and chief prosecution witness, struggling with the body, and believes Conley, now dead, was the killer. Mann, then 14, obeyed his mother and kept quiet. At 83, he wants to get right with the Lord before he dies, so he's talking.
"If he had come forward back then and found people willing to listen, Leo Frank would have been cleared," says Mark Bauman, a history professor at Atlanta Junior College.
But author and city historian Franklin Garrett, 76, disagrees. "I doubt his testimony would have affected the outcome of the case, given the temper of the times. There was just too much blood lust to avenge Mary Phagan's murder."
For some members of the Jewish community who lived through a time that reminded some of East European pogroms, the incident is almost too traumatic to talk about. In some minds, Leo Frank, despite his innocence, is considered a "stain" on the reputation of Jewish immigrants who were striving for acceptance in the Old South.
Some even fear just talking about the incident will provide today's Klansmen with fresh ammunition for anti-Semitic attacks. Such emotions are widespread among many of Atlanta's prominent Jewish families, and one relative of Leo Frank not only requested anonymity, but argued that the lineage was "so damn distant, I don't really consider myself related."
But most people close to the case at the time believed Leo Frank was railroaded as a scapegoat in time of poverty and frustration. Indeed, Gov. John Slaton sacrificed his political future when he commuted the sentence in the final days of his term, an act of compassion that sparked an angry mob of thousands to march on the governor's mansion with guns, dynamite and a hanging rope. When Conley's lawyer announced that he, too, believed Frank innocent, a mob chased him to the railroad station with bullwhips. He escaped on the train.
Leo Frank was not so lucky. A vigilante group that called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan kidnaped him from a prison farm and hanged him from a sturdy oak tree in Marietta, where Mary Phagan's grave had become a kind of shrine for Klansmen.
For white tenant farmers just moved to the city in search of work, Mary Phagan embodied the essence of southern womanhood defiled. Her factory job--topping pencils with metal erasers for 12 cents an hour--was considered tawdry for womenfolk. But times were hard and women and children worked. Some earned as little as 22 cents a week, and their plight was blamed on northern industrialists like Leo Frank.
And for three newspapers locked in a bitter circulation war, Leo Frank was made to order. The furor helped revive an ailing Ku Klux Klan and sparked the formation of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League.
Historians say it never could happen again. Atlanta's economy is too broad-based; blacks have a piece of the pie. Racial and religious prejudices have mellowed in the town that calls itself "The City Too Busy to Hate." There is no current version of Tom Watson, a demagogue publisher who tripled circulation of his newspaper, The Jeffersonian, by parlaying the insecurities of the masses into hatred of Jews, and then rode that hatred to a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Letters from the every state in the union poured into Georgia, begging the governor for mercy. Watson called them an affront to southern pride, meddling from the North.
Even now, the venom makes Ethyl Myers, a spry, 102-year-old veteran of those days, wonder as she once did, "Why are we Jews so hated? We've helped build the world with our noted philosophers, medical men and so on. We are law abiding people, for the most part."
She was delighted over fresh evidence bolstering Frank's innocence, something most historians have believed for years. "I hate to see anyone unfairly maligned," she says.
"A horrible injustice was done and the facts should be developed and brought out," says Albert Mayer, a young lawyer at the time. "When a terrible wrong has been committed, any effort to right it is acceptable." He "regrets" Alonzo Mann didn't testify to what he knew at the time, though he doubts it would have done much good.
Some think it's not to late to made amends, however. ADL regional director Stu Lewengrub wants Tom Watson's statue removed from the state capitol grounds, and a coalition of Jewish groups, armed with Alonzo Mann's affidavit, is exploring a posthumous pardon for Frank.
"He should be pardoned," reflects State Court Judge Thomas Moran, a history buff familiar with the case. "The whole trial was conducted in an arena of fear."
"They wanted the blood of the man who was on trial," recalls Clarence Feibelman, 86, a retired salesman who walked past the "seething" crowd on his way to high school. "There were a bunch of rednecks and rabble rousers out there. You could feel the passion and the prejudice. The jury couldn't bring in any verdict but guilty."
The pogrom spirit from the Frank case destroyed the Jewish community's sense of security, says professor Bauman. Jews were warned to get out Marietta, where the lynching took place. Jewish businesses were boycotted. Children were hustled out of town.
As a trial witness, Mann never revealed what he'd seen the day Mary Phagan came to the factory to collect $1.20 in back pay. Frank testified that he paid her, then she left. It was April 26, 1913. The next day, she was found in a pile of sawdust, a rope about her neck, a bloody gash on her head, and her underclothes torn.
Conley testified that Frank killed the girl after she rejected his advances. They disposed of the body together, he said. But Mann says now he saw Conley alone with the body. Conley got one year in prison as an accessory to murder. After the trial, Conley confessed to his girlfriend and his lawyer, William Smith, who told the trial judge. The judge recorded their conversation as a note in the trial transcript, then had a nervous breakdown.
Yet there are still men like de Bernie Dukehart, 83, a retired printer and ex-Klansman, who believe Frank deserved to hang. He can still recite the ballad of Mary Phagan without a blink, and takes pride in fact that his father and brother may have been among the lynch mob.
"Leo Frank had his eye on Mary Phagan, and after he killed her, he got Conley to take the body downstairs," he contends. "That's when Mann saw him, so it's still logical Frank did it."