Georgians revist Leo Frank case 100 years later

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MARIETTA, Ga. — One by one they came on foot, a steady stream of pilgrims, from shortly after dawn and continuing until the clouds closed in and threatened to send showers washing over the mildew-stained gravestones at Marietta City Cemetery.

They came for different reasons, though.

In the span of an hour there came two young high school students working on a history assignment, a criminal defense lawyer and his wife from South Carolina, a university student from Kennesaw, and two men in their 80s who boasted of their past membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

But they all shared the same destination – the tombstone of Mary Phagan.

It’s the most visited grave site in Marietta, according to old-timers in the city.

On this particular day, the number of living souls making their way through the historic cemetery was even more than usual.

It was the 100th anniversary of “little Mary’s” death.

Mary, at age 13, was brutally killed at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta on April 26, 1913. She had come that day to claim her last wages after being told some days earlier that she had been laid off.

Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was the manager of the factory, was tried and convicted of the killing, but when the governor commuted his sentence from death to life in prison, a group of Marietta men kidnapped Frank from the state prison in Milledgeville, brought him to Marietta and hanged him.

One of the pilgrims Saturday was defense attorney Robert Kilgo Jr., who drove more than 200 miles from Darlington, S.C.

“Some history just never fades away,” Kilgo said. “I had always heard about it when I was at Emory, the history of it. I’ve read every book ever written about it.”

Besides books, the historic whodunit has inspired a movie and a PBS documentary featuring commentary by Marietta’s own former Gov. Roy Barnes and retired Marietta Daily Journal newsman Bill Kinney.

Some say Frank was framed, and they condemn the group that kidnapped him as a band of vigilantes. Emotions on both sides of the case ran so high that it led to the founding in 1913 of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League in New York. It also led to the rebirth of the Klan in the South.

Frank was pardoned posthumously in 1986.

The case remains controversial to this day, 100 years later.

“You still have people that will argue over the guilt or innocence of Leo Frank,” Barnes said. “But, one of the things I think everyone can agree on is, he didn’t receive a fair trial. There’s no way you can read that record, I’ve looked at the evidence, and from the evidence I’ve looked at, I don’t believe he received a fair trial.”

Barnes, 65, said he started reading up on the case when he was in law school.

Then when he got to talking with Kinney, his interest only grew.

“Kinney was an expert on that case,” Barnes said. “Steve Oney’s work, it’s just a great book. And Bill (Kinney) was one of two primary sources for that book.”

Barnes said he’s not sure what the leaders of the town were thinking when they plotted to kidnap and kill a man who was already in prison.

“Over the years I’ve studied it, the greatest question I’ve had was what got into sane, upstanding people that made them commit such a horrible act?” Barnes said. “(Then Gov.) John Slaton only commuted his sentence from death to life in prison. He was still incarcerated. They took him out of the state penitentiary and killed him. All of that is the reason this case still holds such interest after 100 years.”

Barnes said the original group of Klansmen focused on terrorizing blacks. After the killing of Mary Phagan, they expanded their reach.

“This case had a great deal to do with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Originally they were anti-black, but when it came back it was very much anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic,” Barnes said. “They held rallies out at Stone Mountain. They had a big rally out there, and it was kind of the rebirth of the Klan. Even when I was a child they would have rallies out there every year, burn crosses and everything.

“I grew up here in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s and there was a lot of racial feeling and it didn’t really subside until about 20 years ago,” Barnes said.

As for Fields, Barnes said he remembers him well.

“I remember that (Klan rally on the Square),” he said. “I was practicing law on the Square at that time.”

He was surprised to learn that Fields, at the age of 80, had made a graveyard pilgrimage to Phagan’s tombstone Saturday.

“I thought all of that was gone,” he said. “People never change, and that’s especially true in racial matters, and with the case of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan. It’s the damndest thing. You could sit and talk about it for hours.”


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