Saturday, May 21, 2005

Mary Phagan and Leo Frank

Need a break from the "nuclear option" debate? So do I, so please allow me talk about, and recommend, a truly remarkable book I just finished reading.

When Steve Oney's massive book, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, was published in the fall of 2003, I made a mental note to read it but didn't get around to buying it until a couple of weeks ago, when I stumbled on a paperback copy in New Orleans.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Phagan/Frank saga, these are the basic facts: in Atlanta in 1913, on Confederate Memorial Day, a 13-year-old pencil factory worker named Mary Phagan was gruesomely murdered at her place of work. Within days, the factory's manager, an Ivy League-educated member of Atlanta's hyper-respectable German Jewish community, Leo Frank, was arrested for the murder, and ultimately convicted and sentenced to death by hanging after a trial that revolved around the testimony of an alleged accomplice-after-the-fact, an African-American janitor at the factory named Jim Conley.

During a long and unsuccessful series of legal appeals of the conviction, Frank's case became a national and international sensation, and a source of bitter sectional and religious animosity. At the last possible moment, Frank's execution was commuted to life imprisonment by an outgoing Governor with close links to the defense attorneys, sparking widespread public outrage in Georgia. And finally, in August of 1915, a group of men from the Phagan family's ancestral home in Marietta, Georgia, kidnapped Frank from a state prison farm, drove him halfway across to state to a spot near Marietta, and lynched him--an event that was met with wild celebrations in many parts of Georgia and much anger up north, especially among New York's rapidly growing Jewish immigrant population.

This story is generally remembered as an American Dreyfus Case, with Frank being framed and then lynched primarily because he was Jewish. But as Oney explains, in his painstakingly detailed but lively account, there was a whole lot more going on than simple antisemitism. Among the many dimensions of the case he illuminates, there were these:

(1) Journalistic competition. As it happens, the Phagan murder coincided with an intense newspaper circulation battle in Atlanta, sparked by the appearance of a Hearst paper called The Georgian, which initially viewed the case through the prism of Hearst's nationwide battle against child labor abuses. With The Georgian and its Atlanta rivals, The Journal and The Constitution, all hyping the case with constant extras, the police and legal authorities were under enormous pressure to make a quick arrest even before the evidence had been sifted. Much later in the saga, journalism again became a big factor, with many northern papers, most especially The New York Times, leading a crusade for Frank's release and/or commutation.

(2) Primitive criminal investigation procedures. Oney's account provides a shocking demonstration of the shortcomings of criminal investigations and forensic science in the early twentieth century. Most of the physical evidence in the Phagan case was ignored or mishandled. Some of Georgia's best physicians could never conclusively determine whether the child was raped or violated in any way, though the prosecution's case completely relied on a sexual motive for the murder. Frank's (and for that matter, Conley's) guilt or innocence basically came down to conflicting circumstantial evidence and the credibility of the two principals' eyewitness testimony. Ultimately one piece of physical evidence--"murder notes" admittedly written by Conley in the guise of an accusation by the victim, but which Conley claimed were composed by Frank--became the centerpiece of the case for Frank's commutation, and years later, for his posthumous vindication--but was not central in the trial or the appeals.

(3) Race. Oney also untangles the racial aspects of Frank's conviction and lynching. At the time, a big part of the sensation surrounding the Frank trial was that a respectable white man was being convicted primarily on the testimony of a disreputable black man--in Jim Crow Georgia. And there's no question Frank's attorneys, and some of his journalistic supporters, played the race card aggressively, describing the murder as a classic "Negro crime." But racist assumptions about Jim Conley also hurt Frank, because jurors believed Conley incapable of conceiving, executing, and covering up the murder, or of composing the "murder notes." The central figure in Oney's account of the racial implications of the case, and the book's only real hero (other than Governor Slaton) is Conley's attorney, William Smith. Smith signed onto the prosecution team out of an unusual but lifelong concern for racial equality for African-Americans, and a fear that Conley would become a convenient scapegoat for the murder. But after brilliantly defending Conley by prosecuting Frank, Smith realized that his client was a very intelligent and relatively well-educated man who was entirely capable of hiding his crime and framing Frank. This soon led Smith to re-investigate the case on his own and passionately advocate Frank's innocence.

(4) Sex. Although the physical evidence of a sexual motive for Phagan's murder was botched, Oney leaves no doubt that everyone involved assumed such a motive was central. And despite widespread stereotypes about the sexual interest of African-American men towards white women, Conley was able to deflect this suspicion elsewhere by explicitly suggesting that Frank's sexual proclivities were "unnatural,"--i.e., not revolving around "normal" intercourse. That was a "vice" that was associated not with African-Americans but with "cosmopolitan" sybarites from alien places like France or New York, and thus, with men with backgrounds like Leo Frank's. The belief that Frank was a sexual predator with outsized and perhaps perverse appetites was reinforced by questionable but not completely refuted testimony at his trial by a number of Phagan's "factory girl" peers that he sometimes took occasion to enter their dressing room without notice or otherwise press his attentions on them. In a long and interesting interview with WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi during his book tour, Oney acknowleges that although he is fairly certain Frank was innocent of the murder, the factory manager may have been guilty of what we now think of as sexual harrassment.

(5) Class. Long before race became a factor in the Phagan/Frank case, economic class loomed very large. Phagan was a living example of the extent to which Atlanta's entry into the Industrial Age depended on cheap child labor; she began working full-time at the age of ten. And there's little question that the big villain in inciting Frank's lynching, the aging paragon of radical southern populism, Tom Watson, first treated the Frank trial as a parable of rich capitalists seeking to escape responsibility for the physical, as well as economic, exploitation of poor southerners forced off the land into factories. Eventually, Watson descended into blatant antisemitism, but his constant attacks on the rich northern Jews fighting for Frank's freedom generally emphasized the adjectives rather than the noun. And Watson's fury was really directed at Frank's defenders in Georgia--men like Frank's temporary savior, Governor Slaton--who in his view represented a long and dishonorable tradition of "scalawag" surrender to the Northern Capitalism that defeated the Confederacy and dominated Reconstruction.

(6) The Conspiracy of Silence. The most original contribution of Oney's book is his excavation of the plot to lynch Leo Frank, and his explanation of why, after all the furor, the case vanished from the public eye for many decades. As he makes plain, the lynching was the product of a well-coordinated plan involving many of the leading citizens of Marietta, encompassing a takeover of the state administration of prisons, and utilizing a series of threats and bribes to secure the passive complicity of Frank's custodians. And the plan included the subversion of the only forum in which the lynchers could have been brought to justice: a Marietta grand jury on which seven members of the lynch mob served, guided by a prosecutor who helped design the whole scheme.

Oney documents the rich political rewards earned by many of those who worked to hang Leo Frank, from the chief prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, who was soon elected governor, to Tom Watson, who ended his erratic career as a U.S. Senator, to suspected lynch mob participant John Wood, who survived into the 1950s to serve as chairman of the notorious U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. But he also explains why Frank's defenders fell silent. The New York Times stopped publishng articles and editorials on the case when publisher Adolph Ochs became convinced his earlier crusade had contributed to the climate that produced the lynching. And in Georgia, virtually everybody--the lynch mob's supporters and abbetters, the chastened Atlanta newspapers, and a deeply traumatized Jewish community--agreed to put the case behind them.

The Phagan/Frank case would probably have become a mere historical footnote, and an occasional source of grievance for Jewish Americans, except for the fact that in the early 1980s a previously unknown witness appeared: another African-American employee of the pencil factory named Alonzo Hall. In a near-deathbed disclosure, Hall confessed that on the day of the murder he had seen Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan's body towards the factory basement, where it was later found.

The Hall confession led to a resurgence of interest in the case, and ultimately, to an unsuccessful 1983 effort to get the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to posthumously pardon Frank. While the Board ultimately decided that the Hall revelation was insufficient to clearly establish Frank's innocence (in part because much of the original evidence had been lost or destroyed), it did later issue an official apology for the State's failure to protect Frank from lynching. But Hall's testimony had another effect: it convinced a Georgia-bred Southern California journalist named Steve Oney to get obsessively interested in the case.

Now I admit my fascination with this book is partly parochial. I spent nearly four decades living near or in Atlanta, where most of "my people" still live. My mother recently told me my grandmother used to sing "The Ballad of Mary Phagan"--a protest song against the commutation of Leo Frank's death sentence, and later, the anthem of pro-lynching advocates across Georgia. I graduated from high school in Cobb County, not far from the lynching site, at a time when the community was just beginning to abandon the rural pineywoods heritage Oney vividly describes. My in-laws hail from the mountain town of Dahlonega, where William Smith began and ended his quixotic lifelong search for justice, equality and honor. And I have long been very interested in the career of Tom Watson as a cautionary tale about the dangers of assuming that economic populism is inherently a progressive impulse.

But even if this saga did not call up so many familiar ghosts, I'd be tempted to write about this book and the 17-year struggle of its author to research and write it. It's the kind of tribute that we unreflective and impulsive bloggers ought to occasionally pay to those who say not a word until they've got the story right.
-- Posted at 5:45 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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