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.”
LEO FRANK ANNIVERSARY
A number of events are planned to examine the Mary Phagan/Leo Frank case on the grim 100th anniversary of his lynching death, including the following:
“Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited,” an exhibition of original artifacts and photography on display Aug. 17-Nov. 29 at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, in partnership with the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education. The Southern Museum’s hours are 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors 60 and older, $5.50 for children 4-12 and free for children 3 and younger. 2829 Cherokee St. N.W., Kennesaw. 770-427-2117, southernmuseum.org.
Centennial Remembrance. The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, in partnership with the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, the Museum of History and Holocaust Education, the Radow Lecture Series in the KSU College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Congregation Ner Tamid, hosts a commemorative event at 2 p.m. Aug. 17 at Congregation Ner Tamid, 1349 Old 41 Highway N.W., Suite 220, Marietta. Scheduled speakers include Rabbi Tom Liebschutz, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, Kristine Goldstein and Dr. Catherine Lewis. The event is free but space is limited; please RSVP to the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at email@example.com or 470-578-4699.
Remembering Leo Frank. Oakland Cemetery will host two tours on Aug. 16: “Fear & Accusation: The Leo Frank Story” at 5 p.m. followed by “The Jewish Grounds of Oakland” at 6:30 p.m. Admission: adults, $20 for both tours, $12 for individual tour; students and seniors 65 and up (with valid ID), $10 for both tours, $6 for individual tour. Free for Historic Oakland Foundation Members. 248 Oakland Ave. S.E., Atlanta. oaklandcemetery.com.
“An Evening With History: From the Dark Side — The Leo Frank Case.” Historian and former Marietta City Councilman Van Pearlberg presents a lecture about the Frank case on Aug. 18 at the Marietta Museum of History. Reception at 6:15 p.m., lecture at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 for members and $20 for nonmembers. Memberships will be available for purchase the night of the event. 1 Depot St., No. 200, Marietta (on the Marietta Square). 770-794-5710, mariettahistory.org.
“Leo Frank: 100 Years in the Media.” 7 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education in the Kennesaw State University Center, 3333 Busbee Drive N.W., Kennesaw. Free. 470-578-2083, historymuseum.kennesaw.edu.
In Sunday’s AJC, reporter Christian Boone takes a comprehensive look at the Leo Frank case. Check myajc.com this weekend for a multimedia presentation.
Read AJC editor Kevin Riley’s July column about the parallels between the Leo Frank case and more contemporary political events at myajc.com.