Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

Little Mary Phagan

Mary Phagan, Atlanta Georgian, April 28, 1913
Mary Phagan, Atlanta Georgian,
April 28, 1913

The crowd on the grounds of the state capital in Atlanta numbered in the thousands. There were bib-overalled gaunt farmers with their wives and children, state employees with stiff celluloid collars and straw hats, shopkeepers with aprons and arm-banded sleeves. They shifted restlessly, milled around in a slow rumbling anger, yet, in a strange way, they were a festive gathering, as if anticipating a parade or a picnic. They were waiting for the Baptist minister to rouse them, to fuel their smoldering anger. When the preacher had finished, proclaiming the man on trial, Leo Frank, to be a despoiler of innocence, the devil who had killed the little girl, Mary Phagan, the crowd cried, "Hang him, hang him, hang the Jew!" Over the shouts and the frenzied babbling, fiddling John Carson began to play and sing "The Ballad of Mary Phagan."

Little Mary Phagan
She left her home one day;
She went to the pencil-factory
To see the big parade.

She left her home at eleven
She kissed her mother good-by;
Not one time did the poor child think
That she was a-going to die.

Leo Frank he met her
With a brutish heart, we know;
He smiled, and said, "Little Mary,
You won't go home no more."

--- as reproduced by F.B. Snyder in The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 1918

A little less than two months later, the crowd got its wish. A number of upstanding citizens hung Leo Frank. They lynched him from a large oak tree, in a quiet grove, outside Marietta, Georgia.

The National Pencil Company, where Phagan was killed
The National Pencil Company, where
Phagan was killed

The Case of Leo Frank began with the murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan in the basement of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia on April 26, 1913, and apparently ended on August 17, 1915 with the lynching of Leo Frank. But the story did not end with his death. It is a case of injustice that continues to echo through the Twentieth Century and beyond. It generated the formation of the modern Ku Klux Klan, and produced the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, two organizations that exist to this day. It is a sad tale of anti-Semitism, the clash of cultures, and an egregious miscarriage of justice.

Leo Frank did not kill Little Mary Phagan. Still, he paid with his life for the crime he didn't commit. How could this have happened? In a strange way, it is mystery without a mystery.

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