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Events explore resonance of Leo Frank case

If you’ve ever traveled on I-75 through Marietta, you’ve probably sped by the area near where Leo Frank was lynched 100 years ago this month. It was a dark and notorious chapter of Georgia history that resonates all these decades later, a horrific crime for which no one was ever charged.

Not that the site is terribly evident. A plaque commemorating the event of Aug. 17, 1915, is temporarily being stored while the Georgia Department of Transportation completes a project there, and will be reinstalled in 2017. The spot is basically a patch of dirt at the moment, yet if you stand there today, with traffic lumbering by on Roswell Road or zipping overhead on the highway, you can feel the rumblings of history.

“There are some historians who will talk about emotive ground, walking in a place where people were killed and are buried,” said Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society. The group is partnering with the Cobb Landmarks and Historical Society and the Marietta Museum of History for an event with Deaton and Steve Oney, author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.”

The event, “The Ghosts of Leo Frank,” starts at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre on the Marietta Square. Admission is free and no RSVP is needed. It’s one of several events planned to mark the grim centennial; see the accompanying box for a number of others.

“Monday, Aug. 17, is the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank. We wanted to explore it as a historical event,” Deaton said. “We decided to do it in Marietta, yards away from where it was planned.”

Frank, who was Jewish, was superintendent of the National Pencil Co. when the body of 13-year-old factory employee Mary Phagan was discovered in the basement in April 1913. Convicted on circumstantial evidence amid a sea of anti-Semitic rhetoric, Frank lost several appeals for a new trial despite evidence pointing to another suspect, not to mention a shoddy investigation involving a compromised crime scene and coercive police tactics.

After a thorough review, Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence, so enraging some citizens that the governor was hanged in effigy and declared martial law to repel marauders threatening to storm his Buckhead estate.

The frenzy culminated in Frank’s gruesome death. A well-organized cabal of Marietta residents broke into the prison where he was being held and drove him back to Marietta, hanging him at daybreak. A grand jury later came up empty-handed, claiming to be unable to suss out the culprits.

“It seems impossible to us today that this could happen,” Deaton said. “What kind of society condoned this?”

He and Oney will discuss the case’s continuing relevance during Thursday’s event.

“When you walk into a doctor’s office, they don’t just look at you and say, ‘Well, you look like you need surgery.’ They ask you your history,” Deaton said. “We need to study really painful parts of our past in order for us to learn from them. You will sail better into your future knowing where you came from.”

Oney, a past writer for the former Atlanta Journal-Constitution Magazine, first wrote about the matter in a 1985 article for Esquire magazine. The 17 years he spent researching and writing the book are evident not only in the exhaustive history of the murder investigation, trial and lynching, but in reconstructing the civic and cultural scenes of a century ago.

Its nearly 650 pages contain the definitive examination of the Frank case and brim with other interesting historical footnotes. For example, the 20-year-old Atlanta Journal reporter assigned to the case at the time was a “hard-drinking, chain-smoking son of a Boulder, Colo., mining engineer” who had dropped out of high school and caught on with one newspaper after the other: Harold W. Ross, who would go on to found The New Yorker.

“Steve did so much detective work,” Deaton said. “I like to call Steve the last living witness. He did things in his book nobody could anymore. He talked to people who saw the body hanging.”

Oney sees a number of reasons why the case continues to generate interest.

“In retrospect, it fascinates us because it was the perfect crime,” he said. “The people involved, other than losing a night’s sleep, never faced any penalty. They got off scot-free.”

As thoroughly reported in his book, the case became a proxy war involving regions, religions and race. “A calumnious rhubarb pitting faction against faction, class against class, faith against faith,” as he put it. “The lynching was an assault on Georgia itself.”

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