Leo M. Frank may not be so well known among American Jews these days. His story is rarely taught in religious schools and rabbis barely acknowledge it from their pulpits on Shabbat.
In a way, that’s understandable. At a time when American Jews must worry about a nuclear arms threat from Iran, an international sanctions movement against Israel, and the long-term viability of their synagogues and schools, who’s got time to think about a pencil factory manager who got himself lynched by an angry Georgia mob way back in 1915?
Well, for the coming week at least, we all should.
PBS will air “The People v. Leo Frank,” a must-see documentary about the only known Jew to be lynched in the American South, Monday, Nov. 2, at 10 p.m.
But Frank’s story is significant for more than the way he died. His case gave rise to the modern Ku Klux Klan and it brought to prominence a fledgling organization called the Anti-Defamation League.
It also fanned an anti-Semitic backlash in Georgia that bore an eerie resemblance to what would happen in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Such events served notice on Jews living an assimilated lifestyle in the American South, that hostility lurked beneath their quiet society, and that perhaps they weren’t as accepted as they thought.
Leo Frank was a Brooklyn Jew who ran the National Pencil Co. in Atlanta where, on April 27, 1913, a 13-year-old factory worker named Mary Phagan was found strangled to death and possibly raped.
No physical evidence ever connected Frank to the crime, but his nervous demeanor and the contradiction-laden story told by a black janitor at the factory, led police to suspect and ultimately arrest Frank for the murder. Following a trial consumed by innuendo, conflicting testimony and outrageous anti-Semitic reporting by a populist newspaper, a jury of 12 men convicted him of the crime, and the judge sentenced him to death.
But after exhausting all of his appeals up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court, Georgia’s outgoing governor, John Slaton — persuaded that Frank did not get a fair trial — commuted his sentence to life and transferred him from his Atlanta jail cell to a state penitentiary in nearby Milledgeville.
That’s when a mob, including some of Georgia’s leading citizens, such as a judge, prosecutors and a former governor took matters into their hands. They drove the prison, removed Frank without any resistance, and took him to an oak grove near Mary Phagan’s home. There, they pronounced sentence, and hung Frank from a tree.
“The People v. Leo Frank” is a well-produced blending of historical re-enactments and accounts of the case by historians and other experts. What lends an added note of authenticity is that most of the experts interviewed are descendants of the actual participants in this drama. They know not only the facts of the case, but the private dramas that spun off from Frank’s story.
Mary Phagan became a rallying cry behind the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan, which unlike its post-Civil War incarnation, directed its hatred toward Jews, Catholics and other outsiders — not just blacks.
For the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded 1913, the same year as the Phagan murder, and to this day monitors the activities of the Klan, the Frank case galvanized its existence, and for good reason.
During the trial, cries of “Hang the Jew” could be heard. After the verdict fliers were passed out in Atlanta asking people to support gentile merchants over Jewish ones.
The Leo Frank case was a coming of age for American Jews. Safely rooted in their new country (at least, so they thought), the anti-Semitic invective whipped up because the case and the renaissance of America’s most notorious hate group gave rise again to a disturbing question, can Jews ever feel truly at home anywhere?
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com or at 412.687.1005.)