January 30, 2004

"And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank," by Steve Oney is reviewed by Marshall Frady in the New York Review of Books. Federal courts professors like me often talk about the United States Supreme Court opinion about the scope of habeas corpus that arose out of Frank’s case, but here are the stark details of Frank’s horrific ordeal. In 1913, Frank, the Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory, was accused of murdering a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who worked in the factory and had gone in to pick up her $1.20 paycheck. You’ll have to find the paper copy of the NYRB to see the heart-wrenching photographs of Frank—“a slight, bespectacled figure, … endowed with an unremittingly shy and self-contained reserve”— at his trial and Frank, lynched, hanging from a tree.
... Mary Phagan ... had been strangled to death, the twine still wound around her neck, her face battered, and her underdrawers ripped and bloody. Soon discovered in the debris beside her were two curious notes, scrawled on company paper, that seemed a crude, barely intelligible effort at pretending to have been written by the victim herself:

he said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it.... he push me down that hole ...i wright this while play with me.

...[P]olice suspicions quickly settled on Leo Frank, principally owing to his behavior when they arrived at his house early Sunday morning to notify him of Mary Phagan's murder. It was a time when much melodramatic import was placed on particulars of manner, and police would later testify that Frank paced about his front parlor "nervous" and "excited," blurting questions as he twisted his hands, his voice "hoarse and trembling."…

The murder notes, though, remained something of a puzzle until the factory's twenty-nine-year-old black sweeper, James Conley, was also arrested when seen at the factory's water cooler trying to wash out red stains from a work shirt. ... Conley ... finally professed that Frank, after killing the girl on the factory's second floor in a ravishment attempt gone awry, had enlisted his aid in transporting her body in the elevator down to the basement, and then dictated to him the murder notes, with the rather improbable remark to him, Conley claimed, "Why should I hang, I have wealthy people in Brooklyn."

Read of the trial and the press hysteria. The case became "a tournament of competing racisms":

... Conley was characterized by the defense, "a plain, beastly, drunken, filthy, lying [epithet] ...fired with lust...." In fact, the racial derision of Conley was heartily participated in by all parties, including the press, one reporter pointing out, "Conley isn't a cornfield negro. He's more of the present-day type of city darkey," and even The New York Times would eventually describe him as a "drunken, lowlived, utterly worthless...black human animal." But the prosecution as well concurred in the racist caricaturing of its central witness, Dorsey declaring, about Frank's reluctance to directly confront Conley before the trial, "never in the history of the Anglo-Saxon race...did an ignorant, filthy negro accuse a white man of a crime and that man decline to face him."

The telling difference in that formulation, of course, was that Frank didn't happen to be of the Anglo-Saxon race. And as if in acknowledgment of that liability, a defense lawyer insisted, "Frank's race don't kill. They are not a violent race," and later, the defense felt it had to stipulate that one of its witnesses was, "it's true, a Jew, but she was telling the truth." The defense finally risked arousing exactly what it was protesting by claiming that Frank had only invited prosecution because he "comes from a race of people that have made money." To counter that suggestion, Dorsey intoned that while "this great people rise to heights sublime...they sink to the depths of degradation, too," mentioning among a list of Jewish malefactors Judas Iscariot, "a good character and one of the Twelve" who nevertheless "took the thirty pieces of silver and betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ."

Here is Frady's description of the lynching:
[Frank] sat between two men in the back seat of a car, his nightshirt "luminous among the galluses and wool hats," mutely resigned now to his doom, as the caravan took back roads through moonlit cottonfields, coming into the outskirts of the town just at dawn, where it stopped at a stand of woods by a cotton gin. Frank was hauled out, blindfolded, tied at his hands and feet, lifted up on a table; the rope was slung over the limb of an oak tree and the noose dropped around his neck. The circuit judge then kicked the table from under Frank's feet. It was not from a snapped neck, though, that Frank died, but a slow strangulation, as he twisted about desperately.
There is much more here to read. Read of William Smith, the lawyer, "driven by an idealism to protect [Conley,] the 'penniless and friendless' black man caught up in the coils of the case." Smith eventually realized that Conley must have written the notes alone. In an oxygen tent, dying of "Lou Gehrig's disease, on his last day of life he slipped a note to his son through the plastic sheeting: 'IN ARTICLES OF DEATH, I BELIEVE IN THE INNOCENCE AND GOOD CHARACTER OF LEO M. FRANK. W.M. SMITH.'"

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