Leo Frank was innocent, and it’s time the state of Georgia said so – publicly and without caveat. Until then, there will be no justice – for Frank or for Mary Phagan – whose gruesome deaths reverberate even today.
I don’t remember how I came upon the Frank case, but I vividly recall the punch-to-the-gut I felt as I read about little Mary’s murder. I remember seeing pictures of the 13-year-old, and lamenting the death of the innocent child who was assaulted and killed in the basement of Atlanta’s National Pencil Factory on Confederate Memorial Day, 1913. As I read, I remember hoping with all my heart that her killer would be brought to justice…
But infuriatingly, he wasn’t.
Instead, an innocent man – Frank – was convicted, abducted from prison under suspicious circumstances, and lynched by an anti-Semitic mob that included prominent Atlanta-area citizens.
Pictures of the lynching and pieces of Frank’s clothing were then sold as souvenirs.
Many Georgians have never heard of the Frank case – never seen the memorial plaque that hides by the highway near The Big Chicken – never been to the grave of Phagan, who rests in Marietta City Cemetery. But from 1913 to 1915, the case was the most notorious in the United States, making national headlines and fanning the flames of anti-Semitism that would ultimately cause half of Georgia’s Jews to flee the state.
The case gave rise to the then-infant Anti-Defamation League, and marked the resurgence of the KKK, as the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” clad in white robes, ascended Stone Mountain to burn a cross that could be seen for miles – a terrifying omen of the decades of racial prejudice, hatred and violence to come.
But you won’t read about the ADL or the KKK on the memorial plaques. The plaques won’t tell you about Jim Conley – Phagan’s true killer – whose testimony was so unreliable that his own defense attorney, William Smith, spent the remainder of his life decrying the Frank verdict and working to prove Conley’s guilt.
The plaques don’t tell you that, in the 1980s, factory employee Alonzo Mann came forward, admitting he witnessed Conley carrying an unconscious Phagan to the basement. They won’t tell you that Conley threatened to kill Mann if he spoke out, and that Mann, being only a child at the time, was terrified into silence.
The plaques won’t tell you that then-Governor John Slaton reviewed the case and thought Frank innocent. Despite knowing it’d end his political career, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. For his heroic act, Slaton was threatened by an angry mob of thousands, the Georgia National Guard had to intervene, and Slaton and his family fled Georgia.
A plaque to Slaton now stands at the Atlanta History Center. But nowhere on the plaque will you read about Frank’s innocence.
Because, to this day, on the 103rd anniversary of the Frank lynching – with historians in near-universal agreement that Conley murdered Phagan – Georgia still refuses to acknowledge Frank’s innocence or name his murderers, which include: Joseph Mackey Brown, former governor of Georgia; Eugene Herbert Clay, former mayor of Marietta and president of the Georgia Senate; E. P. Dobbs, mayor of Marietta at the time; Moultrie McKinney Sessions, lawyer and banker; members of the Marietta delegation at Governor Slaton’s clemency hearing; and several Cobb County sheriffs.
Mann’s testimony secured Frank a posthumous pardon in 1986, but even the pardon refuses to absolve Frank. It reads: “Without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the State’s failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank…and in recognition of the State’s failure to bring his killers to justice…the State Board of Pardons and Paroles…hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a Pardon.”
I never met Frank or Phagan, but their deaths affect me as a Jew, as a woman, as a citizen of Georgia, and as a human being.
Justice was denied to both. But this is a wrong we can right.
I reached out to the Georgia Historical Society, asking the plaques be changed to reflect Frank’s innocence, Conley’s guilt, and the complicity of Georgia’s leadership in the notorious lynching. I encourage you to do the same. Acting together, we can show Georgia is learning from her past, rather than continuing to repeat it. It’s time.
Erin Miller is an award-winning journalist, who has written for numerous local and national publications. Since becoming ill in 2015, she has been active in the chronic illness community, and her work is frequently featured on TheMighty.com.
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