On this date in 1913, the body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was discovered at a pencil factory where she worked in Atlanta, Georgia. She had been raped and strangled. The murder investigation led to the arrest, unjust conviction, and ultimate lynching of Leo Frank, the factory manager, a Jew from Brooklyn who had just become president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai Brith. His trial was marred by the intimidation of jury members and witnesses and pitted hostility towards Jews against hostility towards Blacks (an African-American janitor at the factory Jim Conley, was a far more likely suspect but an adept witness against Frank, who was portrayed by the prosecution as a sexual predator). Frank’s sentence of death by hanging was commuted to life imprisonment by Governor John Slayton (who received more than 1,000 death threats) on the assumption that Frank would eventually be exonerated and set free; instead, Frank was seized from prison by the “Knights of Mary Phagan” and lynched in Marietta on August 16, 1915. The lynching led to the exodus from the state of about half of Georgia’s 3,000 Jews, the founding of the Anti-Defamation League in 1913, and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which grew to number four million members after World War I. Nearly 5,000 people, 70 percent of them African-Americans, were lynched in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute. In 1986, the State of Georgia granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon. To read “Leo Frank’s Letter from Prison, 1914,” from our magazine’s archive, click here.
“No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals; only under the stars and stripes is the human holocaust possible.” —Ida B. Wells