Leo Frank Is Lynched

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

Print this page Print this page

Even after Frank's housekeeper placed him at home, having lunch at the time of the murder and despite gross inconsistencies in Conley's story, both the grand and trial jury chose to believe Conley. This was perhaps the first instance of a Southern black man's testimony being used to convict a white man. In August of 1913, the jury found Frank guilty in less than four hours. Crowds outside the courthouse shouted, "Hang the Jew."

Historian Leonard Dinnerstein reports that one juror had been overheard to say before his selection for the jury, "I am glad they indicted the God damn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him. And if I get on that jury, I'll hang that Jew for sure."

Facing intimidation and mob rule, the trial judge sentenced Frank to death. He barred Frank from the courtroom on the grounds that, had he been acquitted, Frank might have been lynched by the crowd outside.

Frank Is Saved, Briefly

Despite these breaches of due process, Georgia's higher courts rejected Frank's appeals and the U. S. Supreme Court voted, 7-2, against reopening the case, with justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes dissenting. Frank's survival depended on Georgia governor Frank Slaton. After a 12-day review of the evidence and letters recommending commutation from the trial judge (who must have had second thoughts) and from a private investigator who had worked for Hugh Dorsey, Slaton commuted Frank's sentence to life imprisonment.

That night, state police kept a protesting crowd of 5,000 from the governor's mansion. Wary Jewish families fled Atlanta. Slaton held firm. "Two thousand years ago," he wrote a few days later, "another Governor washed his hands and turned over a Jew to a mob. For two thousand years that governor's name has been accursed. If today another Jew [Leo Frank] were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice."

On August 17, 1915, a group of 25 men--described by peers as "sober, intelligent, of established good name and character"--stormed the prison hospital where Leo Frank was recovering from having his throat slashed by a fellow inmate. They kidnapped Frank, drove him more than 100 miles to Mary Phagan's home town of Marietta, Georgia, and hanged him from a tree.

Frank conducted himself with dignity, calmly proclaiming his innocence. Townsfolk were proudly photographed beneath Frank's swinging corpse, pictures still valued today by their descendants. When his term expired a year later, Slaton did not run for reelection and Dorsey easily won election to the governor's office.

In 1986, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles finally granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon, not because they thought him innocent, but because his lynching deprived him of his right to further appeal. Mary Phagan's descendants and their supporters still insist on his guilt.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.