Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

The Lynching

Marietta Georgia, and surrounding southern states
Marietta Georgia, and surrounding
southern states

Even before the commutation of Frank's death sentence, Mary Phagan's grave in Marietta, Georgia had become a shrine.  A group was formed that called itself the "Knights of Mary Phagan," which would eventually become the reborn Ku Klux Klan, dormant since the final years of the previous century.  Throughout Georgia and much of the Southeast, Leo Frank and his allegedly foul deed remained a spur to demonstrations and ugly tempered assemblies.

Nathaniel Harris, Slaton's successor as Governor, increased security at Milledgeville Prison Farm, as rumors swirled about a plot to lynch Frank.  In the meantime, Frank, in contrast to his two years of confinement in the Atlanta jail, was faring better in the more humane confines of the prison farm.  He spent much of his time writing letters to his wife, to supporters who had written him or acted on his behalf, and to Justice Holmes.  He was steadfast in his belief that he would eventually be vindicated.

However, about a month after his arrival at Milledgeville, a fellow inmate attacked him.  His throat was slashed, and only the quick action of two other inmates, both doctors, saved his life.  For a time, it was felt that Frank would not survive, but the wound healed without becoming infected.

A month later, just before midnight on August 16, 1915, 25 men appeared at the Milledgeville Prison gates, overpowered the two guards on duty, and handcuffed the warden and the superintendent.  The lynch mob consisted of some of Marietta's finest citizens, including a clergyman and an ex-sheriff.  Frank calmly started to dress, and was told that he needn't bother.  He was taken out dressed only in prison shirt and pants, brought to a car --- one of several in the caravan, and driven to Marietta, some seven hours drive away.  They drove all night, and, as dawn came, stopped at an oak grove outside of Marietta.

The leaders of the lynch party tried to get Frank to confess to the murder of Mary Phagan, but he would not.  His denials were apparently convincing, since many in the group changed their minds about lynching Frank.  The leadership, however, prevailed.  There was no turning back, they told their reluctant comrades.  Frank asked to have his wedding ring returned to his wife.  Once more he was asked to confess.  He said nothing.  They then placed him on a table, threw the rope, now in a hangman's knot around his neck, around the limb of an oak tree, and kicked the table out from under him.  They did not wait to see what they had accomplished, but left as Frank was swinging from the tree.

The lynching of Leo Frank
The lynching of Leo Frank

News quickly spread of the hanging, and a large crowd gathered at the lynching site.  The mood was festive, with women and children present to view the body, still hanging from the oak tree.  Some in the crowd tore small strips of cloth from Frank's clothes, and others snipped strands of the rope. Photographs were taken, and these were available for sale in Marietta for several years afterward.  One man angrily wanted to burn the body, but was talked out of it by a respected local judge.  However, when the mortuary van came to take the body away, the zealot lost control and stamped on the remains of Leo Frank as he lay on the ground, waiting to be loaded into the van.  At the mortuary a crowd gathered, demanding to view the body.  The police, alarmed at the mood of the crowd, allowed these curious citizens into the mortuary, and a now orderly line of over 15,000 people passed by the body. 

Leo Frank was then shipped home to Brooklyn, for burial in the family plot.

Governor Harris immediately instigated an investigation, and, although the names of most of the lynch party were well known in Marietta, no charges were ever made against any in the group.  Most of the Georgia press --- and, as was expected, other newspapers across the country --- denounced the lynching.  Some publications, such as the Baptist publication, The Christian Index, described the event as "an orderly mob that had carried out a just verdict."  Tom Watson, both in his publications and in speeches, praised the lynchers.

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