The Lynching of Leo Frank
A New View of the Tragedy
(A Review of And the Dead Shall Rise, by Steve Oney)
Many famous crimes have elements of tragedy. However, no case equals the accelerating gloom produced by the murder of Mary Phagan, and the subsequent conviction and lynching of her purported killer, Leo Frank. It is a terrifying, numbing, and depressing tale, with a number of victims, a great many villains, and a few heroes.
Of all the accounts of this case, a recent telling of the story by Steve Oney (And the Dead Shall Rise, 2003, Pantheon) is the most chilling, and, with all due respect to the compelling books by Leonard Dinnerstein and Robert Frey and Nancy Thompson-Frey, the most thorough. It follows the bigotry of Atlanta through the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, the breakdown of the system of justice, and the lives and fortunes of the principal characters in a carefully documented way. The words of the participants are produced so that the atmosphere and circumstances of the time are clear and chilling. The reader knows how this story will end, but Oney piles on detail after detail until the burden of what occurred becomes almost stifling in its horror.
Little new ground about solving this case is broken in this book by Oney. What is different from previous works is that the context of the case and its aftermath is presented so that what happened to Leo Frank can be better understood --- if not understood, then at least felt.
Jim Conley, the shiftless sweeper at the pencil factory, as in earlier books, is once again presented as the probable murderer of Mary Phagan. His damaging testimony against Frank, an account that was ready to be believed by the incensed citizens of Atlanta and the jury, was, of course, the pivotal event that doomed the accused. The testimony of Alonzo Mann, an office boy at the time, given seventy years after the fact, still is convincing that Conley was the murderer. There are few villains in the annals of true crime that meet the standard of Jim Conley. While he only murdered once, the havoc he wrecked on countless lives is emotionally equivalent to the effect achieved by mass murderers.
But Oney's fine book presents another, more insidious villain in greater detail than ever before, one who might even be described as the real murderer of Leo Frank. That is the famed politician, Tom Watson. Oney uses not only Watson's reprehensible actions as a newspaper and magazine publisher to inflame opinion against Frank, but presents Watson's very words to demonstrate how absolutely evil Watson was. In effect, Watson, former vice-presidential candidate and eventually a United States Senator, represented the darkest side of Georgia society, the side that was not only virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Black, but fundamentally blood-thirsty. Oney shows how important his role was in the formation of a culture already predisposed to hatred and vengeance.
Other villains appear. The respectable citizens who lynched Leo Frank, the politically ambitious prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, the immoral and irresponsible journalists of Georgia, particularly William Randolph Hearst (whose paper was, at first, pro-Leo Frank) --- all of these contributed in major ways to this hideous miscarriage of justice.
A few heroes appear. The courageous governor of Georgia, John Slaton, who, recognizing a possible injustice, commuted Leo Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment, only to see his compassionate act thwarted by the bigoted citizens of Marietta, Georgia, is one hero. Another is the principled editor of the Augusta Chronicle, Thomas Loyless, who challenged Tom Watson and the perverted Establishment of Atlanta. A third is the well-meaning and guilt-ridden attorney of Jim Conley, William Smith, who spent the years after the trial doing good works to atone for his expert coaching of the probable actual murderer, Jim Conley.
But, as it turned out, the heroes lost. While they survive in history and Oney's book with admirable dignity, they were no match for the forces loose at the time. Their futility heightens the tragedy of this case.
And, of course, there is the Klan. The Mary Phagan murder and the death of Leo Frank, occurring as they did in the context of a morally primitive Georgia society, gave impetus to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan (after fifty years of obscurity) that persisted well into the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. The lynch mob from Marietta was merely a nascent local chapter of the Klan, ready to be born to do what the Klan did best, to spread mistrust, bigotry, hatred, and vigilantism.
In the end, this important contribution to a famous case is fascinating in its detail, but immensely depressing. Throughout its pages, the tragedy unfolds with inexorable certainty, leading to the inevitable oak tree and rope in Frey's Field on the outskirts of Marietta, Georgia. It is a painful case to relive.
But the tragedy did not end there. In the last quarter of his book, Oney teases out the lives of those involved. Jim Conley continued in a life of drunkenness, wife-beating, and crime, eventually disappearing some time in the early 1940s. Watson, agrarian and reformer, went to the Senate, riding his popularity as a bigot and racist, thankfully expiring early in his term. Hugh Dorsey, like Watson, capitalized on his fame from the Leo Frank case, and became Governor of Georgia, amazingly, quite a good governor. The heroes, Slaton, Smith, and Loyless, were not as successful, and lived their lives in comparative obscurity, essentially sad figures. Most tragic of all, Lucille Frank, Leo's widow, lived until 1957, never remarrying, maintaining the innocence of her husband. She had, as a sobering memento, her husband's wedding ring, the ring that he gave to one of the lynch mob to give to his wife just before they kicked the wagon out from under him.