Nearly 50 years after the 1915 lynching of Lucille’s husband, Leo Frank, the family was terrified that a public burial might reawaken the hostilities that had sparked what at the time was the worst outbreak of anti-Semitism in American history. The best course, they decided, was to act in secrecy. They filed no record with the city, erected no monument. They consigned their aunt, the widow of a Jewish martyr, to an unmarked grave.
When it was clear after Georgia’s runoff elections earlier this month that Democrat Jon Ossoff had been elected to the U.S. Senate, making him the first Jew since 1974 to win statewide national office in the South, I thought of the haunting story of Lucille Frank’s interment, which Alan Marcus had shared with me while I was researching a book on the Leo Frank case. The two events are utterly dissimilar — the one fearful and furtive, the other triumphant and public — but they are inextricably linked. They connect the past and by most indications the future of Jewish life below the Mason-Dixon Line.
It is hard to overstate this lynching’s impact on Southern Jews. A Cornell-educated Atlanta factory superintendent, Frank was convicted in 1913 of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old child laborer, and sentenced to death. Although the trial occurred amid great hostility inside and outside the courtroom and the defense raised serious doubts about the defendant’s guilt, the conviction was upheld all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the 11th hour, Georgia Gov. John Slaton, convinced that a miscarriage of justice had occurred, commuted Frank’s death sentence.
Today, Frank’s lynching would be termed an act of domestic terrorism. Tom Watson, a populist firebrand and former U.S. representative from Georgia, launched a vicious anti-Semitic campaign against Frank, who was soon abducted from a state prison in Milledgeville, driven to the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, the home of Phagan’s family, and hanged.
The men who carried out the crime were referred to as a mob, but the designation doesn’t quite fit. The organizers included a former Georgia governor, a state prosecutor and a legislator who chaired the general assembly’s penitentiary committee. These worthies recruited armed vigilantes and paid off prison officials to look the other way. Afterward, they covered everything up. No one was arrested or prosecuted.
The Frank lynching frightened and intimidated Southern Jews. At Atlanta’s chief Reform synagogue, the Temple, where both Franks were members, Rabbi David Marx began discouraging outward displays of Judaic faith. Immediately after the lynching, several hundred Atlanta Jews voted against pursuing an independent probe — a crime with such powerful backers was best left alone. A pattern was set. In 1922, one of Frank’s lawyers persuaded the Atlanta Constitution not to publish a story that might have exonerated him. In the 1940s, another of Frank’s lawyers convinced a fellow attorney to destroy a piece of potentially valuable new evidence.
Then, in 1982, Atlanta lawyers Dale Schwartz and Charles Wittenstein sought a posthumous pardon for Frank. They based the application on the late-in-life assertions of Alonzo Mann, Frank’s former office boy, who earlier that year said that on the day of the Phagan murder he’d seen a janitor, who had been a key witness against Frank, carrying the girl’s body. In 1986, after rejecting this initial request, which asked for Frank’s exoneration, the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles granted a second, less sweeping bid. Without addressing Frank’s guilt or innocence, the state apologized for failing to protect him. Only at that point did the case become a topic that many Southern Jews felt comfortable discussing.
Georgia today is becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse. Cobb County, of which Marietta is the seat, has a growing Jewish population. Ossoff’s election seems less an anomaly than an inevitability. Like Frank, who was 31 when he was lynched, Ossoff is young (33) and well-educated (Georgetown University). Unlike Frank, who grew up in Brooklyn, Ossoff was born in Atlanta.
True, Georgia still has a way to go. The campaign literature of Ossoff’s opponent, Republican then-Sen. David Perdue, caricatured him as a big-nosed elitist. Anti-Semitic incidents have increased in the state in the past few years, as they have across much of the country. Yet Ossoff’s triumph suggests that in the South a new day has come. The lynching of Leo Frank will not be forgotten, but just maybe it will loosen its grip on the psyche of the region’s Jews. That would be a fitting memorial to Lucille Frank.