ArtsATL > Books > Q&A: 100 years after Leo Frank arrest, expert on tragic case will speak at Georgia State

Q&A: 100 years after Leo Frank arrest, expert on tragic case will speak at Georgia State

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Leo Frank with his wife, Lucille.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the arrest of Atlanta businessman Leo Frank for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan. Two years later, a mob descended on the Milledgeville prison where Frank was being held, kidnapped him and brought him to Marietta, where he was lynched.

Frank’s lynching had national repercussions, which still resonate today. To mark the anniversary, Steve Oney, author of And the Dead Shall Rise, the definitive book on the incident, will speak about the Frank case in Speaker’s Auditorium at Georgia State University at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, October 3. His talk, sponsored by the GSU Jewish Studies Program and the Southern Jewish Historical Society, is free and open to the public.

Oney spent 17 years working on the book, which received the National Jewish Book Award for history. Oney is a former staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday magazine, and his work has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, GQ and The New York Times.

ArtsATL recently conducted this interview with Oney, who lives in Los Angeles, by email.

ArtsATL: It’s been 100 years since Leo Frank’s arrest for the murder of Mary Phagan. In 1915, Frank was lynched. What makes these events resonate even now?

Steve Oney: The Frank case will always excite interest because it is ground zero for polarizing forces still alive in American culture. The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, was galvanized by the Frank lynching. A second group also emerged from the case: the modern Ku Klux Klan. Three months after the lynching, the hooded fraternity held its first 20th-century cross burning atop Stone Mountain.

Quite apart from the larger issues, the lynching is simply fascinating and will remain so. Frank wasn’t strung up by a mob. A group of powerful Georgians orchestrated a takeover of the state prison, then in Milledgeville, abducted Frank and drove him across a dozen counties in the dead of night, hanging him the next morning in Marietta. These men lynched the most celebrated prisoner in America, essentially spitting in the eye of state authorities — and the whole country. It was a perfect crime. The audacity of it still takes my breath away.

ArtsATL: When did you first hear about the Leo Frank lynching?

Author Steve Oney
Steve Oney

Oney: Shortly after I got out of the University of Georgia, I worked for a year as a reporter in the North Georgia bureau of The Anderson (S.C.) Independent. The paper ran me ragged covering 15 counties, from Lincoln in the south to Rabun in the north. That meant I drove up and down State Highway 17 six or seven times a week.

In a lonely part of Elbert County, the road passes through a tiny town called Bowman. There’s a well shelter in Bowman, and in the mid-1970s a dozen or so old men gathered there every afternoon to swap tales and play Rook. Whenever I could, I pulled over and joined these fellows in conversation. Most were at least 80, a couple 90, and they talked to me about the Frank case, particularly about Tom Watson, the agrarian rebel who was Frank’s chief antagonist. Several of the men had seen Watson on the stump in the 1920s when he ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat. They initiated me into this primal Southern mystery, and I never forgot it.

ArtsATL: What sparked your interest in writing a book about the case?

Oney: In 1985 I wrote an article for Esquire based on the late-in-life revelations of Alonzo Mann, Frank’s long-ago office boy. Mann’s story — that on the day of the murder he saw Jim Conley, the janitor at the pencil factory Frank managed, carrying the body of Mary Phagan — spurred the Southern counsel for the Anti-Defamation League and a partner at the law firm of King & Spalding to file a posthumous pardon application for Frank.

My piece generated some interest from New York publishers, but I was uncertain if I wanted to write a book. My fear was that any telling would degenerate into a “good Jews versus bad yahoos” stalemate. But while reporting the article I had learned about William Smith, the lawyer who’d represented Jim Conley. Smith initially believed Frank was guilty, but slowly he changed his mind, coming to the conclusion that his own client murdered the Phagan girl. Smith offered me the opportunity to write about the Frank case in a fresh way. Almost as important, Smith’s children were still alive, and his son had kept his father’s papers about the case. So I banged out a proposal and sold it.

ArtsATL: And the Dead Shall Rise received the National Jewish Book Award for history and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. It also went where no one had gone before, naming the people — many of them well-known politicians, including a former governor and a sitting judge — behind the lynching. How have their descendants reacted?

Oney: By and large the descendants of those involved in the lynch party have been OK with what I wrote. They appreciate that I tried to present the story in context. Nearly everyone in Marietta was involved on some level in the lynching. The elite planned it. The farmers and merchants carried it out. Afterward, they all pulled together to cover it up. Former Governor Roy Barnes’ wife’s grandfather was in the lynch party. When Roy told her, she was shocked. He replied that it would be more shocking to learn that her grandfather was not in the lynch party. Of course, 50 years ago, when many of the principals were still alive, no one would have talked about this blithely. It was a dangerous subject.

ArtsATL: In charging Frank, the white Atlanta police chose to believe a black man over a Jew, even though he too was white. What does that say?

Oney: Southern historians, in a view best stated by W.J. Cash in “The Mind of the South,” generally believe that Dixie was immune from class consciousness because rich whites and poor whites shared mastery over all blacks. But for a brief moment in the early 20th century, this alliance between rich whites and poor whites crumbled. White workers began to sense that industrialists were exploiting them, and they were receptive to what they had in common with black workers. This was the dynamic at play in the prosecution of Frank. Middle-class white police officers and, in fact, most Georgians saw Frank as a sweatshop manager who took advantage of child laborers. They felt more aligned with Jim Conley than with Frank.

ArtsATL: In your book, you make a strong case for who really murdered Mary Phagan. What was the political climate that allowed Frank to be convicted of murder? 

Oney: I’m pretty sure that Jim Conley murdered Mary Phagan. But for the reasons I just mentioned, a white jury was prepared to believe Conley’s word over Frank’s. Maybe more important, Conley was a charismatic guy and a winning witness. On the stand, he was at once sympathetic and titillating. In a word, he was mesmerizing. In contrast, Frank gave an evasive and wooden statement. Liars, however, are often charming, while truth tellers are often awkward. But people don’t realize this until it’s too late.

ArtsATL: What do you think drove the hysteria that fueled the lynching?

Oney: In the early years of the 20th century, the times seemed out of joint to many Georgians. The agrarian age was ending, the industrial age was emerging, and sexual mores were changing. The murder of a child laborer in a child-labor factory brought the resulting anxieties to the surface. Tom Watson played on those anxieties with diatribes in his influential paper, The Jeffersonian. One other thing: In 1913, the Civil War was not yet 50 years in the past. Southerners resented Yankees, and Frank was a Yankee.

ArtsATL: What were the immediate and long-term repercussions in Atlanta’s Jewish community?

Oney: For me, the best illustration of the damage done to Atlanta’s Jews can be seen in the story of the burial of Frank’s widow, Lucille. She died in the late 1950s and was cremated. The family stored her ashes at the funeral home, but in the 1960s they decided to inter them. Fearful of holding a public ceremony that might resurrect interest in the Leo Frank case, Lucille’s nephews, Harold and Alan Marcus, met at dawn at Oakland Cemetery. Using garden tools, they buried their aunt’s remains in an unmarked plot between her parents’ tombstones. No one was told. For me, this says just about everything.

ArtsATL: A hundred years later, what have we learned about racial and religious tolerance?

Oney: We’ve made terrific strides, and everyone living in the South sees that daily. There is relative racial harmony. But society is tearing apart in other ways. Not only are there economic gulfs, but there’s so much distrust — of government and of expertise. Technology, while uniting us on some fronts, is dividing us on others. 2013 and 1913 are different but eerily similar. I’m not saying Leo Frank would be lynched today, but I believe a racially or religiously charged legal case could get out of hand.

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