The hundred year old lynch


Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank.

The story, briefly, is that Leo Frank, a New York born, Jewish businessman in the south, was convicted of murdering one of his employees. The body of Mary Phagan (13 years old) was found in his factory, at a time for which he had no alibi.

The conviction is generally recognized to have been unsafe, to put it mildly. Antisemitism loomed large over the proceedings. For the sake of completeness, Frank’s lawyer was guilty of some dreadful racism too, in trying to shift the blame to the black janitor. It may have been the janitor who was the killer, but that does not excuse the dreadful (and possibly damaging) racist tactics used by the defense.

Convicted and sentenced to hang, and having lost all his appeals, the principled (and brave) Governor of Georgia, John M. Slaton, commuted this to life imprisonment.

“Feeling as I do about this case I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang. It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field for the rest of my life than to feel that I had that blood on my hands.”

Then, Frank was lynched.

Haaretz has a pretty decent article on it, here, though their English proofreading and historical knowledge let them down:

Supreem? And who the hell is Olive?

Supreem? And who the hell is Olive?

One extract from the article is worth highlighting:

In the end, the outraged citizens went the way of tradition. The most famous convict in the country was taken from his cell in the dead of night. Not a single official there is recorded as having objected as Leo Frank was led away to his death, on August 17, 1915.

This was not some angry mob with pitchforks. These were the well-to-do of Atlanta, civilized people who drove up to the jail in their cars, at a time when few people in the city had cars. The lynch party consisted of upstanding members of the community, including a former county sheriff and a judge. The latter read Frank his original death sentence before he was hanged.

It was an establishment lynching. Chilling.

It was a bad blow for the Jews of the south. And it highlighted just how close to the surface in southern society – perhaps all American society, or all society – the dark demons of hatred and bigotry lay in waiting for the right moment. Has anything changed?

[For extra insight, here’s the Wikipedia page on that giant of the USA legal system, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.]