Read Daniel Levitas’ review in the Jewish Book World of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, the groundbreaking new book by journalist Steven Oney on the 1915 lynching of Atlantan Leo Frank published by Pantheon Books.
“And the Dead Shall Rise. The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank”
Steve Oney, Pantheon Books, 2003. 742 pp. $35.00 ISBN:0-679-42147-5 Reviewed by Daniel Levitas for the Jewish Book World.
The 1913 murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta, and the subsequent brutal lynching of her factory boss, Leo Frank, has been the subject of countless articles and several books, as well as movies, plays and even the 1998 Tony Award-winning musical, Parade. But it has taken nine decades for a definitive account of the tragedy to emerge. Finally, journalist Steve Oney has provided readers with a riveting account as exhaustive as it is well-written.
A Los-Angeles based writer, Oney was raised in Atlanta and educated at the University of Georgia before receiving a Nieman fellowship at Harvard in 1982. A longtime journalist, he worked as a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution’s Sunday magazine and his articles have appeared in numerous national magazines.
Oney tells the story of the Phagan murder and Frank’s lynching as only a seasoned reporter could. His commitment to the facts is unshakeable; he has a sharp eye for detail, and he balances the narrative perfectly with color and context.
Leo Max Frank, 29, was the Texas-born, Brooklyn-reared and Cornell-educated superintendent of the National Pencil Company of Atlanta, Ga., when young Mary Phagan was beaten, strangled and murdered on April 26, 1913. Initial reports declared that the girl was raped but, as Oney reveals, it is unlikely she was violated – robbery was probably the motive.
Oney carefully recreates the facts surrounding Phagan’s death and chronicles the police investigation that followed by revealing how the story was covered – and wildly sensationalized – in the local press. It was in the pages of William Randolph Hearst’s Georgian and its rivals, the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, that the search to find Phagan’s killer transfixed all of Atlanta, and took the story far beyond the state’s borders.
As a result, Atlanta police were under tremendous pressure to solve the case. Suspicion soon centered on several Pencil Company employees: a black night watchman, Newt Lee; Jim Conley, a black sweeper with a drinking problem and a long record of petty crimes as well as armed robbery; and Frank. Lee was quickly dropped as a suspect, and all eyes turned to the Jewish factory owner, assigning Conley the role of Frank’s ignorant Negro accomplice.
Oney traces the vicious arc of racism and illuminates the role it played in every aspect of the investigation and trial, especially in the coaching of Conley who, as the state’s star witness, “confessed” to helping Frank dispose of Phagan’s body, while blaming Frank for the crime that he most likely committed, himself. Not only does Oney highlight how antisemitism greatly contributed to the suspicion and hostility that was directed at Frank, he also ably demonstrates the other factors at work.
This was not simply a case of “Good Jews vs. bad `yahoos’,” Oney told a packed Atlanta audience of nearly 800 on October 7, 2003. The murder of Mary Phagan outraged Southern populist sensibilities which saw child labor and the industrialists who embraced it as powerful obstacles to social progress.
According to Oney, the murder investigation was “contaminated with the stench of local politics [and] exacerbated [by] religious and class tensions.” In sum, it was a “calumnious rhubarb pitting faction against faction, class against class, faith against faith.” A battle raged between Atlanta’s leading newspapers, and, as Oney dramatically demonstrates, an intense rivalry between Fulton County Solicitor Hugh Dorsey and Atlanta police chief Newport A. Lanford led both men to ignore crucial evidence that should have derailed their pursuit of Frank. The authorities falsified affidavits, made threats to witnesses, mishandled evidence and were responsible for an unending series of leaks to the press that prejudiced virtually every aspect of the case. Despite the bias and blindness that characterized the Phagan murder investigation, there was disturbing circumstantial evidence that reinforced suspicion about Frank: he appeared unduly nervous when police first questioned him the morning Phagan’s body was discovered and a number of factory employees – all of them teenage girls – soon came forward with unsettling allegations about improper touching, lecherous stares and lewd remarks they attributed to Frank.
Unflinching in his denunciation of the antisemitism of the Frank era, Oney told his Atlanta audience that, “In the end, the verdict is mixed as to whether antisemitism was a deciding factor in the jury’s decision to convict Frank,” and he corrected an important historical myth when he stated, authoritatively, that there is no evidence that crowds shouted “Hang the Jew or I’ll hang you,” through the open windows of the steamy Atlanta courtroom where Frank stood trial in the August heat of 1913. Leo Frank was, however, still the first white person ever convicted in the Southern United States on the testimony of a black man, and it was decades before that phenomenon was repeated. In other words, had Frank not been Jewish, he probably would never have been indicted in the first place.
Oney’s account of the Phagan murder and all that followed reflects the 17 years he devoted to researching and writing the manuscript. In crisp and artful prose, he tells the profoundly disturbing story of Frank’s prosecution and conviction; the commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment; the resulting political demise of Georgia Governor John Slaton; the well-planned abduction of Frank from the fortress that was the State Prison Farm in Milledgeville and the grotesque lynching that followed.
On August 16, 1915, Frank, “the most well-known convict in America at the time,” according to Oney, was removed from prison under cover of darkness by a lynching party that included no fewer than seven automobiles, and then driven hundreds of miles over a circuitous route, finally arriving in Marietta, the Phagan family’s ancestral home, immediately north of Atlanta. It was there, early the next morning, that Leo Frank, the one-time president of Atlanta’s 500-member B’nai B’rith lodge, was suspended by a length of thick manila rope from a sturdy oak. Unlike the victims of more “humane” hangings, whose necks were broken after they plunged through a gallows’ trapdoor, Oney reminds us that Frank slowly suffocated to death, his shirtfront soaked with blood from where the hangman’s noose tore open a neck wound that Frank had sustained in a prison assassination attempt just the month before.
Oney scrupulously identifies the men responsible and comprehensively describes the chilling details of Frank’s abduction, exposing both its meticulous planning and flawless execution. The cast of characters included some of Georgia’s most influential men – powerful judges, politicians and business owners – who not only orchestrated Frank’s capture and murder, but saw to it that nobody responsible was ever brought to justice despite the fact that their identities were widely known.
But Oney does more. He analyzes the complex personality and motives of Tom Watson, the once progressive Populist firebrand and former U.S. Congressman from Georgia’s rural 10th district, who evolved into a hardened bigot and used his weekly broadsheet, the Jeffersonian, to attack Catholics, blacks, Jews, carpet-bagging Northerners, industrialists and Leo Frank. More than most members of the lynch mob themselves, few men were as responsible for Frank’s death as Watson, whose statue still towers over the west steps of Georgia’s capitol in Atlanta.
Oney has both praise and criticism for Atlanta’s Jewish leaders who campaigned courageously to defend and exonerate Frank, but whose fears of vulnerability in the wake of Frank’s death drove many of this “thoroughly assimilated minority” into silent retreat.
Oney also delves deeply into the psyche and actions of Conley’s chief defender and attorney, William Smith. A one-time University of Georgia debating star and the son of a Confederate veteran, Smith was a racial progressive who chose to apply his considerable rhetorical and legal skills on behalf of many of Atlanta’s Negro freedmen. Unfortunately, however, Smith chose Conley as one of his clients. And it was through Smith’s skillful lawyering, and Conley’s exceptional talent for lying, that Frank’s main accuser was rendered “impervious to cross-examination” when he testified against Frank in the summer of 1913. Thirty-six years later, while lying on his death bed in Atlanta’s Crawford Long Hospital, a guilt-ridden Smith concisely but fully committed to paper the conclusion he had come to many years earlier: “IN ARTICLES OF DEATH, I BELIEVE IN THE INNOCENCE AND GOOD CHARACTER OF LEO M. FRANK.”
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