Originally created 12/14/03

Long before Court TV: A murder trial that was all the news



NEW YORK -- The trial of the century! An audience ravenous for each fresh dispatch! Coverage around the clock, even when there's nothing new to report!

For information junkies and journalists alike, TV news doesn't get any better than this!

Unless, of course, the trial is taking place nearly a century ago, and the news cycle is in play not on CNN and Court TV, but in newspapers' rapid-fire extras.

Steve Oney revisited a past oddly akin to the current media world while writing his new book, "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank." He pored over 90-year-old newspapers, edition after edition. What he found: all Leo, all the time.

"We delude ourselves when we think that coverage of the Scott Peterson case or the O.J. Simpson case is new," says Oney. "With the Leo Frank case, it was constant coverage and constant stimulation."

Atlanta, 1913: Leo Frank, a 29-year-old Cornell-educated Jew from Brooklyn, was plant supervisor of the National Pencil Co.

But his life, and Atlanta's, took a terrible turn on a Sunday morning in April when the bludgeoned, sexually molested body of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old factory girl, was discovered in the building's filthy basement. (Amazingly, The Atlanta Constitution broke this story in a special edition that was on the streets three hours later.)

Within weeks, Frank, claiming innocence, was arrested and charged with her murder.

Two decades before Bruno Hauptmann was tried for the kidnapping and killing of Charles A. Lindbergh's infant son, the Frank case would demonstrate that international fame wasn't needed for a story to seize the public's attention. Not when it centered on a gory crime further jazzed with sex and prejudice.

Unsurprisingly, the Frank story took on a life of its own in the papers, which peddled truth, titillation, opinion and spectacle, doing their part to whip the public into "a degree of frenzy almost inconceivable" (as The Atlanta Journal pronounced the local state of mind).

As grippingly recounted in "And the Dead Shall Rise," events escalated to a gruesome end: After two years of appeals following Frank's conviction in a circuslike courtroom, his execution was commuted by the governor, reigniting civic uproar.

Less than three months later, Frank was abducted from the penitentiary where he was serving a life sentence and hanged from an oak tree in Atlanta's neighboring town of Marietta by a lynch mob composed of two dozen prominent citizens. Thousands came to see.

A widely published magazine writer and former Atlantan who makes his home in Los Angeles, Oney, 49, has gathered overwhelming evidence of Frank's innocence after a 17-year investigation. But however slight his doubts, he is clear about something else: coverage of Frank inflamed more than enlightened.

The case drew national attention from the press, including The New York Times and Collier's Weekly magazine. Regionally, anti-Semitic passions were stirred by The Jeffersonian, a weekly populist paper.

But the driving forces were the three Atlanta dailies: the Journal, the Constitution and the Georgian.

Oney tracked these rivals' competing efforts, which, at times, fed the public's appetite with extra editions issued on an hourly basis.

"It was just like the 24-hour news universe we now live in," he says.

And it invited freewheeling excess, especially with The Atlanta Georgian, which, as a Hearst newspaper, gloried in sensationalism.

Reporting Frank's arrest, the Georgian's front-page banner headline flatly declared "POLICE HAVE THE STRANGLER."

And its interview with the dead girl's grandfather wove in atmospherics like the melancholy sound of "gently falling rain," undeterred that it hadn't been raining (as the unrepentant writer later explained, "it might well have been").

Readers ate it up.

"I think people were experiencing it viscerally the same way as people experience events through TV coverage now," says Oney.

His book provides this vintage account of media immersion: A woman who, when interviewed by a detective, seemed helpless to distinguish between what she had witnessed and what she learned from the papers. "She is well-read to the extent that she is crazy," the detective concluded.

"We think we live in a new era of constant media bombardment," says Oney, "but past events were covered in the same way. The media were just different."