A century later, infamous Leo Frank case still stirs controversy

If you’re a Georgian of a certain age, you probably remember the textbook This is Your Georgia. Its cover was in shades of 1970s green, it ran about 800 pages, and eighth-graders used it in their state history classes. That book is why I have little historical events stuck in my head such as the Yazoo land fraud, and how Atlanta originally was named Terminus.

That book also is where I first read about Leo Frank.

In 1913, Frank, the 29-year-old manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, faced murder charges in the death of one of his former employees, 13-year-old Mary Phagan, found beaten and strangled in the factory’s basement.

This past week marked the 100th anniversary of Mary’s death. More folks than usual turned out in Marietta to visit Mary’s tombstone, and the professional historians and armchair detectives who have been debating the details of the Frank case for decades stirred up the conversation anew.

“You still have people (who) will argue over the guilt or innocence of Leo Frank,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes. He lives in Marietta and was featured in a PBS documentary on Frank. “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.”

I remember that my textbook didn’t dwell on the gruesome details of the murder – which, when I was in eighth grade, was fine with me. It’s creepy for a kid to read about the murder of a kid who’s about his own age. The book mistakenly said Mary was 14.

It also said the April slaying happened “on Memorial Day,” which confused me for years until I realized the Georgia author of the Georgia book must have referred to Confederate Memorial Day.

Mostly the book presented the Frank case as the public firestorm that undid the political career of Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton. Even though a jury found Frank guilty, Slaton didn’t believe Frank committed the murder, so he commuted Frank’s hanging to life imprisonment. The ensuing outrage from angry mobs forced Slaton and his wife to flee the state and not return for a decade.

My history textbook also downplayed two major components of the Frank case. It mentioned just once, in passing, that Frank was Jewish. It also breezily said that newspaper editor and politician Thomas E. Watson thought Frank was guilty, and Watson wrote a lot of editorials about that.

Talk about masterpieces of understatement.

Watson relentlessly breathed fire against Frank in his publications, The Jeffersonian and Watson’s Magazine, screaming for his execution as he convicted him in print. Watson doesn’t hide his contempt for “rich Jews” and “Jew-bought lawyers” joining the people rising to Frank’s defense.

If that kind of prejudice makes you sick – and it should – I’ll spare you the venom he spat at blacks. Watson used the N-word so much, you’d think he received a royalty every time it was printed.

Not many people publicly stood up for Frank and for justice, but at least one newspaperman did – Augusta Chronicle Editor Thomas W. Loyless. He was in New York City on a business trip when Frank was lynched in 1915, but when word reached him he fired off an editorial by telegram, thundering against the mobocracy that overtook common sense:

“There can be but one answer to this latest assault upon the authority and integrity of Georgia. The decency and civilization of our state must, at last, assert itself, or else pull up stakes and quit. It is a straight-out issue between law and anarchy; let Georgians choose for themselves.

“This climax was inevitable as we permit incendiary publications to set Georgia aflame. Tom Watson has cost Georgia more than 10,000 good and true men can rebuild in 20 years.”

Loyless’ heartfelt defense of Frank and of justice throughout the whole affair spurred Frank’s wife, Lucille, to write a letter to The Chronicle publicly thanking the paper for its fair coverage.

Loyless took it seriously – maybe too seriously. In December 1915, when rival Augusta Herald editor Bowdre Phinizy jokingly greeted Loyless with “Hello, Tom Watson,” Loyless drew a revolver and pulled the trigger point-blank against Phinizy’s stomach. The only thing that saved Phinizy’s life was that the gun’s hammer fell on an empty chamber.

So what happened to the main players in the Frank case? The chief prosecutor against Frank – Hugh Dorsey – became the next governor of Georgia. Frank’s widow never remarried, and her relatives were so scared of anti-Semitic retribution that her cremated remains were buried in secret seven years after her death in 1957.

And Watson, whose naked bigotry added the most fuel to the fire that roasted Frank in the eyes of the public? Georgians rewarded his demagoguery by electing him to the U.S. Senate in 1920.

A statue of Watson in front of the Georgia State Capitol describes him as “a champion of right.”

Yeah. Sure.

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Riverman1
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Riverman1 05/05/13 - 06:56 am
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Great Piece

I’ll add that Watson was born and lived in Thomson. He became a much admired Congressman and ran on the Populist Party ticket for President in 1904 and 1908 before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920. He was very liberal early on supporting the rights of blacks to vote, but became more of a racist later.

What I find intriguing is the transformation from a poor people supporter of income taxes on the wealthy, free silver and black rights to someone with racist leanings, supporting such actions as the lynching of Frank because he was a Jew.

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