About a week ago both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal devoted considerable space to the coverage of “Parade,” the revival of a 1998 Broadway musical on the 1915 killing of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta, Georgia, arguably the most famous lynching in American history.
Frank had been convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a young girl in his employ and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded in an effort to save his life. After numerous legal appeals failed, the state’s governor eventually commuted Frank’s sentence and a group of outraged citizens responded by hanging Frank. The incident was portrayed in both the musical and the associated media coverage as a particularly horrifying example of American anti-Semitism.
However, the actual facts of that case were quite different than that and in 2018 I’d discussed them at considerable length as part of a longer article. Given the recently renewed spotlight on the issue and the fascinating implications of the true story, I’ve decided to extract and republish my analysis in hopes of bringing it to wider current attention.
Although I had long recognized the power and influence of the ADL, a leading Jewish-activist organization whose officials were so regularly quoted in my newspapers, until rather recently I had only the vaguest notions of its origins. I’m sure I’d heard the story mentioned at some point, but the account had never stuck in my mind.
Then perhaps a year or two ago, I happened to come across some discussion of the ADL’s 2013 centenary celebration, in which the leadership reaffirmed the principles of its 1913 founding. The initial impetus had been the vain national effort to save the life of Leo Frank, a young Southern Jew unjustly accused of murder and eventually lynched. In the past, Frank’s name and story would have been equally vague in my mind, only half-remembered from my introductory history textbooks as one of the most notable early KKK victims in the fiercely anti-Semitic Deep South of the early twentieth century. However, not long before seeing that piece on the ADL I’d read Albert Lindemann’s highly-regarded study The Jew Accused, and his short chapter on the notorious Frank case had completely exploded all my preconceptions.
First, Lindemann demonstrated that there was no evidence of any anti-Semitism behind Frank’s arrest and conviction, with Jews constituting a highly-valued element of the affluent Atlanta society of the day, and no references to Frank’s Jewish background, negative or otherwise, appearing in the media prior to the trial. Indeed, five of the Grand Jurors who voted to indict Frank for murder were themselves Jewish, and none of them ever voiced regret over their decision. In general, support for Frank seems to have been strongest among Jews from New York and other distant parts of the country and weakest among the Atlanta Jews with best knowledge of the local situation.
Furthermore, although Lindemann followed the secondary sources he relied upon in declaring that Frank was clearly innocent of the charges of rape and murder, the facts he recounted led me to the opposite conclusion, seeming to suggest strong evidence of Frank’s guilt. When I much more recently read Lindemann’s longer and more comprehensive historical study of anti-Semitism, Esau’s Tears, I noticed that his abbreviated treatment of the Frank case no longer made any such claim of innocence, perhaps indicating that the author himself might have also had second thoughts about the weight of the evidence.
Based on this material, I voiced that opinion in my recent article on historical anti-Semitism, but my conclusions were necessarily quite tentative since they relied upon Lindermann’s summary of the information provided in the secondary sources he had used, and I had the impression that virtually all those who had closely investigated the Frank case had concluded that Frank was innocent. But after my piece appeared, someone pointed me to a 2016 book from an unexpected source arguing for Frank’s guilt. Now that I have ordered and read that volume, my understanding of the Frank case and its historical significance has been entirely transformed.
Mainstream publishers may often reject books that too sharply conflict with reigning dogma and sales of such works are unlikely to justify the extensive research required to produce the manuscript. Furthermore, both authors and publishers may face widespread vilification from a hostile media for taking such positions. For these reasons, those who publish such controversial material will often be acting from deep ideological motives rather than merely seeking professional advancement or monetary gain. As an example, it took a zealous Trotskyite leftist such as Lenni Brenner to brave the risk of ferocious attacks and invest the time and effort to produce his remarkable study of the crucial Nazi-Zionist partnership of the 1930s. And for similar reasons, we should not be totally surprised that the leading book arguing for the guilt of Leo Frank appeared as a volume in the series on the pernicious aspects of Jewish-Black historical relations produced by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam (NOI), nor that the text lacked any identified author.
Anonymous works published by heavily-demonized religious-political movements naturally engender considerable caution, but once I began reading the 500 pages of The Leo Frank Case: The Lynching of a Guilty Man I was tremendously impressed by the quality of the historical analysis. I think I have only very rarely encountered a research monograph on a controversial historical event that provided such an enormous wealth of carefully-argued analysis backed by such copious evidence. The authors seemed to display complete mastery of the major secondary literature of the last one hundred years while drawing very heavily upon the various primary sources, including court records, personal correspondence, and contemporaneous publications, with the overwhelming majority of the 1200 footnotes referencing newspaper and magazine articles of that era. The case they made for Frank’s guilt seemed absolutely overwhelming.
The basic outline of events is not disputed. In 1913 Georgia, a 13-year-old pencil company worker named Mary Phagan was last seen alive visiting the office of factory manager Leo Frank on a Saturday morning to collect her weekly paycheck, while her raped and murdered body was found in the basement early the next morning and Frank eventually arrested for the crime. As the wealthy young president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith, Frank ranked as one of the most prominent Jewish men in the South, and great resources were deployed in his legal defense, but after the longest and most expensive trial in state history, he was quickly convicted and sentenced to death.
The facts of the case against Frank eventually became a remarkable tangle of complex and often conflicting evidence and eyewitness testimony, with sworn statements regularly being retracted and then counter-retracted. But the crucial point that the NOI authors emphasize for properly deciphering this confusing situation is the enormous scale of the financial resources that were deployed on Frank’s behalf, both prior to the trial and afterward, with virtually all of the funds coming from Jewish sources. Currency conversions are hardly precise, but relative to the American family incomes of the time, the total expenditures by Frank supporters may have been as high as $25 million in present-day dollars, quite possibly more than any other homicide defense in American history before or after, and an almost unimaginable sum for the impoverished Deep South of that period. Years later, a leading donor privately admitted that much of this money was spent on perjury and similar falsifications, something which is very readily apparent to anyone who closely studies the case. When we consider this vast ocean of pro-Frank funding and the sordid means for which it was often deployed, the details of the case become far less mysterious. There exists a mountain of demonstrably fabricated evidence and false testimony in favor of Frank, and no sign of anything similar on the other side.
The police initially suspected the black night watchman who found the girl’s body, and he was quickly arrested and harshly interrogated. Soon afterward, a bloody shirt was found at his home, and Frank made several statements that seemed to implicate his employee in the crime. At one point, this black suspect may have come close to being summarily lynched by a mob, which would have closed the case. But he stuck to his story of innocence with remarkable composure, in sharp contrast to Frank’s extremely nervous and suspicious behavior, and the police soon shifted their scrutiny toward the latter, culminating in his arrest. All researchers now recognize that the night watchman was entirely innocent, and the evidence against him planted.
The case against Frank steadily mounted. He was the last man known to have seen the young victim and he repeatedly changed important aspects of his story. Numerous former female employees reported his long history of sexually aggressive behavior toward them, especially directed towards the murdered girl herself. At the time of the murder, Frank claimed to have been working alone in his office, but a witness who went there reported he had been nowhere to be found. A vast amount of circumstantial evidence implicated Frank.
A black Frank family servant soon came forward with sworn testimony that Frank had confessed the murder to his wife on the morning after the killing, and this claim seemed supported by the latter’s strange refusal to visit her husband in jail for the first two weeks after the day of his arrest.
Two separate firms of experienced private detectives were hired by Frank’s lavishly-funded partisans, and the agents of both eventually came to the reluctant conclusion that Frank was guilty as charged.
As the investigation moved forward, a major break occurred as a certain Jim Conley, Frank’s black janitor, came forward and confessed to having been Frank’s accomplice in concealing the crime. At the trial he testified that Frank had regularly enlisted him as a lookout during his numerous sexual liaisons with his female employees, and after murdering Phagan, Frank had then offered him a huge sum of money to help remove and hide the body in the basement so that the crime could be pinned upon someone else. But with the legal noose tightening around Frank, Conley had begun to fear that he might be made the new scapegoat, and went to the authorities in order to save his own neck. Despite Conley’s damning accusations, Frank repeatedly refused to confront him in the presence of the police, which was widely seen as further proof of Frank’s guilt.
By the time of the trial itself, all sides were agreed that the murderer was either Frank, the wealthy Jewish businessman, or Conley, the semi-literate black janitor with a first-grade education and a long history of public drunkenness and petty crime. Frank’s lawyers exploited this comparison to the fullest, emphasizing Frank’s Jewish background as evidence for his innocence and indulging in the crudest sort of racial invective against his black accuser, whom they claimed was obviously the true rapist and murderer due to his bestial nature.
Those attorneys were the best that money could buy and the lead counsel was known as the one of the most skilled courtroom interrogators in the South. But although he subjected Conley to a grueling sixteen hours of intense cross-examination over three days, the latter never wavered in the major details of his extremely vivid story, which deeply impressed the local media and the jury. Meanwhile, Frank refused to take the stand at his own trial, thereby avoiding any public cross-examination of his often changing account.
Two notes written in crude black English had been discovered alongside Phagan’s body, and everyone soon agreed that these were written by the murderer in hopes of misdirecting suspicion. So they were either written by a semi-literate black such as Conley or by an educated white attempting to imitate that style, and to my mind, the spelling and choice of words strongly suggests the latter, thereby implicating Frank.
Taking a broader overview, the theory advanced by Frank’s legion of posthumous advocates seems to defy rationality. These journalists and scholars uniformly argue that Conley, a semi-literate black menial, had brutally raped and murdered a young white girl, and the legal authorities soon became aware of this fact, but conspired to set him free by supporting a complex and risky scheme to instead frame an innocent white businessman. Can we really believe that the police officials and prosecutors of a city in the Old South would have violated their oath of office in order to knowingly protect a black rapist and killer from legal punishment and thereby turn him loose upon their city streets, presumably to prey on future young white girls? This implausible reconstruction is particularly bizarre in that nearly all its advocates across the decades have been the staunchest of Jewish liberals, who have endlessly condemned the horrific racism of the Southern authorities of that era, but then unaccountably chose to make a special exception in this one particular case.