Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited
A Past Exhibit of the Southern Museum
In the summer of 2015, the Southern Museum hosted the exhibit “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited”. The 2,800 square foot exhibit contained more than 150 original artifacts related to the Leo Frank case.
Trial, Conviction, Appeals, Sentence Commutation, and Lynching
During the summer of 1913, the eyes of the nation were turned to Atlanta as the city played host to the high-profile murder trial of Leo M. Frank, Jewish manager of Atlanta’s Pencil Factory. Frank had been indicted for the murder of one of his employees, 13-year old Mary Phagan. As local newspapers actively shaped public opinion of the trial by fueling the flames of sensationalism, a guilty verdict for Frank became a foregone conclusion. Following this, Frank was sentenced to death.
A lengthy appeals process delayed Frank’s execution for nearly two years, only to be stayed permanently by a sentence commutation from Georgia Governor John Slaton. On August 17, 1915 a Cobb County mob stormed the prison in which Frank was being held, transported him to Marietta, and lynched him near the intersection of modern-day Cobb Parkway and Roswell Road.
The Leo Frank trial and its aftermath represent a benchmark moment in Jewish/Gentile relations in Atlanta and the South. Its effects were wide-reaching. The conviction of Leo Frank was a direct factor in the creation of the Anti-Defamation League and the vigilante justice represented by his lynching served as rhetoric embraced by a freshly reborn and re-branded Ku Klux Klan.
Equally disturbing was the fate of little Mary Phagan. Childhood labor was an accepted part of the economy of the South for lower class white society. Many girls similar to Mary’s age were forced into working long hours for insignificant wages in order to support their families.
The Importance of This Case
The events surrounding Leo Frank and Mary Phagan took place against a backdrop of change. With minor exceptions, the South had long been an agrarian and socially homogeneous society. Around the turn of the century cities such as Atlanta began to promote the concept of a ‘New South’ in which industrialization would play a major role in transforming southern economy and society. A wave of immigration entered the city as new factories required a greater pool of labor. Women and children entered the labor force as well. Not everyone embraced Atlanta’s new role.
Southern traditionalists, who had worked hard to ensure segregation between races were now confronted with new dilemmas. Many immigrants were viewed with suspect and distrust. Southern white males had difficulty accepting a changing world in which their wives and daughters had to work in factories often under northern, foreign, and/or ‘non-Christian’ bosses. During this time economic differences widened and the city became a place of ‘haves versus have-nots.’
Upon her murder, Mary Phagan became a martyr for lost white, female, child innocence while Frank became a symbol of the foreign perpetrator. To these people, the lynching of Frank was justice. To others, mob rule and the lynching of a white Jewish man from affluent society sparked the ultimate nightmare, especially throughout the Jewish South.
We may never know all of the facts surrounding these unfortunate incidents. However, we are obligated to address them through communal dialogue among a wide audience of different backgrounds and age groups. The Frank lynching is an event of national significance.
Thank you so much to the sponsors who made display of this exhibit possible.
This 2,800 square foot exhibit examined the historical context surrounding 13-year old Mary Phagan's murder at the National Pencil Company as well as Jewish superintendent Leo Frank's trial, appeals, and eventual lynching. Artifacts on exhibit include Leo Frank's desk, infant clothing worn by both Frank and Phagan, and a souvenir pick carved from the tree from which Frank was hanged. The exhibit is no longer on display.
This exhibit's content was of a sensitive nature and may not have been suitable for all audiences.
You can find more information about the exhibit at The Breman Museum's website.