Leo Frank Is Lynched

Falsely accused of murdering a girl, a Jew is killed by a mob while imprisoned in Georgia.

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Though Jews found freedom and opportunity in America, they also found anti-Semitism. The following article describes one such instance. Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Historical Society from "Chapters in American History."

In 1913, Leo Frank was convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee of the Atlanta pencil factory that Frank managed. After Georgia's governor commuted his death sentence, a mob stormed the prison where Frank was being held and lynched him. Leo Frank thus became the only known Jew lynched in American history.

The case still spurs debate and controversy –it even inspired a Broadway play. What are the facts of the Frank case?

The Case Against Frank

"Little Mary Phagan," as she became known, left home on the morning of April 26 to pick up her wages at the pencil factory and view Atlanta's Confederate Day parade. She never returned home.

The next day, the factory night watchman found her bloody, sawdust-covered body in the factory basement. When the police asked Leo Frank, who had just completed a term as president of the Atlanta chapter of B'nai B'rith, to view her body, Frank became agitated. He confirmed personally paying Mary her wages but could not say where she went next. Frank, the last to admit seeing Mary alive, became the prime suspect.

Georgia's solicitor general, Hugh Dorsey, sought a grand jury indictment against Frank. Rumor circulated that Mary had been sexually assaulted. Factory employees offered apparently false testimony that Frank had made sexual advances toward them. The madam of a house of ill repute claimed that Frank had phoned her several times, seeking a room for himself and a young girl.

In this era, the cult of Southern chivalry made it a "hanging crime" for African-American males to have sexual contact with the "flower of white womanhood." The accusations against Frank, a Northern-born, college-educated Jew, proved equally inflammatory.

The Exonerating Evidence

For the grand jury, Hugh Dorsey painted Leo Frank as a sexual pervert who was both homosexual and who preyed on young girls. What he did not tell the grand jury was that a janitor at the factory, Jim Conley, had been arrested two days after Frank when he was seen washing blood off his shirt. Conley then admitted writing two notes that had been found by Mary Phagan's body. The police assumed that, as author of these notes, Conley was the murderer; but Conley claimed, after apparent coaching from Dorsey, that Leo Frank had confessed to murdering Mary in the lathe room and then paid Conley to pen the notes and help him move Mary's body to the basement.

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Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.