In a June 20 article, the address of an Internet site listing people allegedly involved in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank inadvertently contained a hyphen where the address came to the end of a line of type. The address is www.leofranklynchers.com on the Web. (Published 06/29/2000)
The shadowy men who kidnapped Leo Frank from a prison bed and lynched him here in 1915 are all long dead, their identities hidden cistern-deep under a code of secrecy.
But for years there have been rumors and hushed talk among close kin that some aging conspirators had bared their souls to outsiders, made deathbed confessions, and named names. People wrote the names down, and now one of those lists has surfaced amid the tell-all anarchy of the Internet and opened an old wound from one of the South's most infamous murder cases.
A Jew with a Yankee education, Frank was convicted in 1913 in the grisly murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked in the pencil factory where he was the manager. The chief witness against him was a janitor. The Georgia governor, persuaded that the trial was tainted, defied community passions by commuting Frank's death sentence to life in prison.
The names of some of the alleged vigilantes match those on many of the street signs, office buildings, shopping centers, storefronts, law offices and mastheads in this Atlanta suburb of about 60,000 people. And now their grandchildren and grand nieces and nephews, members of some of Marietta's most famous families, have been asked to answer publicly for the actions of relatives who in many cases were unknown to them, in a crime they learned never to discuss.
Charles "Chuck" Clay, a Marietta attorney and chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, said he did not know until he was an adult that his great uncle Herbert--in 1915, the county prosecutor--might be implicated in the crime. "I'd be surprised if somebody in his position were not explicitly or implicitly involved," at the very least probably helping to protect those who carried out the crime, he said.
But Clay sees no connection between him and whatever his grandfather's brother might have done. "To suggest that somehow I'm a caretaker of a secret, or have any interest in somehow denying the truth or changing the truth, or am somehow afraid of the truth, would be absurd," he said. And, he added during a chat in his office last week, if Herbert Clay is indeed culpable, "he's the one that will pay the universal and eternal price."
Herbert Clay, son of a U.S. senator and older brother of four-star general Lucius D. Clay, the allied high commissioner of Germany after World War II, was perhaps the most prominent person on the list. He was identified as one of the lynching's "planners," as were Moultrie McKinney Sessions, a lawyer and banker, and John Tucker Dorsey, a Georgia legislator and prosecutor. Others named as among the lynchers were Gordon Baxter Gann, later mayor of Marietta and a state legislator; Cicero Holton Dobbs; a grocer and barber; and Bolan Grover Brumby, owner of a local chair company. In all, there were 26 names on the list, some of whom may never be adequately identified.
For the descendants of those who have been named, the reaction to the list runs the gamut--embarrassment, shame, anger at the "sensationalizing" media, and finally indifference and the fervent hope that public fascination with this haunting case may finally dissipate. It was so long ago, they say, and the town has changed. And besides, nobody alive knows the real truth.
Recounted in dozens of books, in Hollywood films, TV movies and two current plays, the Frank case is notorious not only because it begins and ends with brutal murders and is fraught with gothic intrigues. It richly, and sometimes ironically, intermingles issues of antisemitism, racism, the industrialization of an agrarian land, and the xenophobic culture of the defeated South. The issue of Frank's fate helped reinvigorate the Ku Klux Klan and became a rallying point for the fledgling Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
Twenty-two people were lynched in Georgia in 1915, the Atlanta Constitution noted recently, "all but one of them black." Most rated little attention. Frank's hanging got a three-line banner across the front page.
Most historians are convinced that Frank was railroaded, although some people here remain certain of his guilt. Many of the facts are in dispute. And in 1982, The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville broke a story that reinforced suspicions that it was the janitor who was the murderer.
But one thing is clear. The lynching that August dawn was not a mob action, driven by inflamed passions. It was by all accounts coldly calculated, planned well in advance with military attention to detail, with help from people in high places, and carried out over prolonged time and distance by at least two dozen and perhaps as many as 40 men, absolutely confident of their cause and their fellow conspirators. And, unlike most lynchings, this one was not fueled by liquor.
The plotting began after Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank's sentence--an act of heroism in many versions of the tale. But Slaton was a partner of Frank's defense attorney, a detail that aggravated community outrage and suspicion over what many saw as an arbitrary subversion of justice. A group of Cobb County civic leaders secretly organized an abduction. There were false starts. An inmate slit Frank's throat but failed to kill him.
On the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1915, with Frank still healing in an infirmary bed, as many as eight cars in two separate caravans formed up around Marietta for the raid, bound for the prison at Milledgeville, some 175 miles away on bad roads. The vigilantes made sure they had an auto mechanic and a telegraph operator along. Arriving just before midnight, they cut the telephone wires, subdued the guards, and disabled their cars.
"This was set up through the courthouse, judges, lawyers and prison guards," said Dan Cox, a former city councilman and printing company owner who created the Marietta Museum of History, which includes artifacts from the Frank case.
Waking Frank, the raiders handcuffed him in his nightshirt and drove him for about six bumpy hours through the night back to Marietta. The vigilantes apparently had planned to hang him near Mary Phagan's grave, but they stopped short in a grove of oaks just outside Marietta at a place called Frey's Mill, a farm with a cotton gin (or mill) belonging to former county sheriff William Frey, who may have also served as the hangman.
Frank, granted a last request, took off his wedding ring and asked that it be returned to his wife Lucille, a member of one of Atlanta's prominent Jewish families.
The lynchers had intended to get their grim work done before the break of dawn. But by the time somebody kicked a table from under his feet, the sun was up.
Word of the lynching spread quickly. The Marietta Journal praised the locals that thronged to the lynching site for their civilized restraint and reported that there was "no mark of violence" on the body. But according to historian Leonard Dinnerstein, once Frank's body was dropped to the ground, a vengeful bystander intent on mutilating and burning the body settled for stomping on the face.
A Marietta judge, Newton Morris, whose name is on the Internet list of alleged lynchers, was credited in contemporary news accounts with convincing the mob to release the remains to Frank's parents for a decent burial.
The New York Times reported three days after the lynching that it had been accomplished by "leading citizens in the community, men prominent in business and social circles, and even in church." But they were unlikely to be punished in Cobb County, the paper said, because the people there regard them "as men who prevented a miscarriage of justice and saved the law from being set aside and mocked by a man who happened to fill the Governor's chair. . . . They are known to many of the citizens of Marietta, who would die rather than reveal their knowledge."
The vow of secrecy remained in force for decades. But as the perpetrators died, some, either riven with guilt or anxious to leave a record, bared their souls to their families, who made notes. Some of these notes and oral remembrances passed into other hands further removed from the circle of conspirators.
Still, the information stayed within the expanding circle of the trusted few, including at least one journalist.
"For 50 years, I've had to live with this case," said Bill Kinney, a columnist and editor for the Marietta Journal, whose own uncle, barber Cicero Dobbs, is on the Internet list. "It's not anything I'm proud of."
Kinney has had his list for decades, he said, passed to him by a friend--a judge--who had heard one of those deathbed testimonials, but Kinney has never published it. "As my mother used to tell me, [the lynching was] a disgrace and a black eye on the community and I was not to talk about it. . . . Has it made me feel uncomfortable" not to make the names public? "Course it has."
Mary Phagan Kean, 46, a special education administrator and the great-niece of the murdered girl, started compiling her list when she was 15. People would sometimes confide in her about their relatives' role in the lynching. She shared a version of it with the grandson of Tom Watson, the fiery Georgia Populist politician and publisher whose crusading diatribes had contributed to Frank's doom. The grandson passed it on to a friend at Emory University, where it ended up in a special library collection.
In 1994, Stephen Goldfarb, a former history professor at Spelman College and now a reference librarian at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library, was doing research into the nature of antisemitic activity in the region when he came across the Kean document. The names meant nothing to him until he located a three-volume indexed reference work on the cemeteries of Cobb County.
Armed with dates of death, he was able to look up obituaries that provided descriptions of the men in question--a Cobb County sheriff, a financier, the owner of a mercantile company on the square, a mayor of Marietta, a judge. A friend supplied him with an article listing the founders of the Marietta Country Club, at least three of whom were on his list.
Goldfarb tried and failed to find a publisher for the resulting document--a list of names with his analysis of their identities. Finally, in January he decided to post the information online at www.leo- franklynchers.com, though he didn't announce it publicly until last month. Meanwhile, he continued to expand the list of those he feels have been verified as having had a role, recently adding a former governor, Joseph M. Brown.
His motivation has nothing to do with his being Jewish, Goldfarb said. "I don't feel vindictiveness toward these people. . . . I'm a historian. This is an intellectual puzzle to work out and not a particularly challenging one."
Prilla Glover Ottley, a distant cousin of Bolan Glover Brumby, the chair company owner, welcomes the disclosures. Justice was "totally obstructed" in the case, she feels, and the lynchers should have been tried for murder. But, she adds, "I do think a lot of these families have been knocked out of the water by the publishing of these names . . . especially some who didn't know."
Kean is one of those unhappy with Goldfarb for publishing the list. She says the names on it cannot be proven accurate or verified. "What everybody forgets," she said, "is there were three groups: the planners, the actual lynchers and a decoy group. How do you know which group anybody was in?"
"If we waited till we knew everything for sho 'nuff, there would be very little history written," Goldfarb responds.
The site of the hanging is now marked by a plaque on the corner of a squat brown-brick office building. It sits across from a Long John Silver and over the rise from a Kmart, and cars clatter under a parkway overpass out in front--all reminders of the fast new world that has transformed greater Marietta and surrounding Cobb County from an early 20th-century farm area to an upscale bedroom community and office center, maker of advanced warplanes, headquarters of Home Depot and the Weather Channel, and the hub of a county with the fastest-growing Jewish population in the greater Atlanta region.
The plaque reads: "Wrongly accused. Falsely convicted. Wantonly murdered."
It was put there at the direction of Rabbi Steven Lebow, of Temple Kol Emeth, on the 80th anniversary of the lynching. He, too, has a list. "I personally struggled with the issue" of going public. "I didn't want to hurt the innocent descendants."
But maybe enough time has passed, he mused. "Amnesia is the one disease that Jews don't suffer from."
Staff writer Nancy Lewis and researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report from Washington.