Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

Who Were Phagan and Frank?

Mary Phagan
Mary Phagan

Mary Phagan, appearing in her photograph as a blond, idealized Mary Pickford, was just short of her fourteenth birthday when she was murdered.  Like so many young girls of her era, she had come, along with her parents, from a farm family in Marietta, Georgia.  While the fathers struggled to find jobs, the wives and children took jobs in the factories in order to survive in their new urban environment, an environment that seemed so promising but was, in fact, a difficult and hostile place to live. When her widowed mother remarried, she no longer had to work at the factory, but remained on the job because she liked her work.  Mary Phagan has been idealized, both during the trial and its aftermath, as a sweet, innocent emblem of purity, and there is no reason to believe that she was not the angel that the public made her out to be.

Leo Frank was, in many respects, a colorless individual.  He was a thin, wiry man, nervous, high strung, and an incessant smoker of cigars.  A business associate described him as uncongenial.  A photograph of Frank on the witness stand shows a bespectacled milquetoast of a man bearing a faint resemblance to Woody Allen.

Young Leo Frank
Young Leo Frank

He had been born in Paris, Texas, on April 17, 1884, but his parents moved their family to Brooklyn, New York, a few months after he was born.  He had a conventional, middle-class, Jewish childhood, attended Brooklyn Public Schools, the Pratt Institute, and, in 1906, graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.  His first job was in Massachusetts, but soon thereafter he moved back to Brooklyn.  Soon thereafter, his uncle, Moses Frank, invited him to establish the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia.  The young Leo invested in the enterprise, and became a part owner of the factory.

As in most industries in the South at that time, Frank employed women and children, many of whom earned miniscule wages for long hours.  In many respects, the factories of the South were analogous to the sweatshops of the North, and Frank was not significantly different in his operation of his factory.

Leo with his wife, Lucille
Leo with his wife, Lucille

Atlanta had a small Jewish community, and Frank married the daughter of a wealthy, prominent Jewish family, Lucille Selig, in 1910.  They lived with his in-laws and became socially established, so much so that in 1912 Leo Frank was elected president of the local B'nai B'rith chapter.  Other than some recognition among his fellow Jews, he had not attracted much attention in Atlanta until his arrest.  When news of his arrest reached the Jewish community, they stood by him, declaring him incapable of such a crime.

Four days after the murder, a Coroner's Jury convened to determine whether Frank should continue to be held without bail, until a Grand Jury could decide whether or not he should be indicted.  The principal witness was Leo Frank, who repeated to the jury what he had told the police at the time the body was discovered.  No evidence was introduced that contradicted his account of having paid Mary Phagan her wages at noon, and leaving the building at 6:00 p.m., when Lee returned to assume his duties as night watchman.  Numerous witnesses corroborated Frank's account. 

However, Frank was extremely nervous during his police interrogation, and, apparently to the police, he had the demeanor of a guilty man.  He reinforced this impression by immediately asking for the pencil factory's lawyer, Herbert Haas, and a second lawyer, Luther Rosser --- who would become his chief defense lawyer --- to join him at police headquarters.  Word spread immediately throughout the city that Leo Frank had hired lawyers before his interrogation, showing that this was a man with a guilty conscience.

But the Coroner's Jury also brought forth witnesses who suggested that Frank was an immoral womanizer.  A number of former employees testified that Frank flirted and made indecent suggestions to female employees.  A policeman testified that he had found Frank in a desolate wooded area with a young woman, and that Frank had admitted that he had taken her there "for immoral purposes."  Later, the policeman retracted his statement, saying that he had been mistaken about his identification of Frank, but this retraction never made the papers, and the accusation remained in the public consciousness.

Most damaging of all, a woman who ran a rooming house, Mrs. Nina Formby, told police two weeks later that, on the day of the murder, Frank had called her repeatedly in order to secure a room for himself and a young girl.

Hence, the mild-mannered Frank was transformed into a Jewish sex fiend.  Rumors abounded.  One said, with theological certainty, that Jews were forbidden to violate Jewish women, but not Gentiles.  Another was that Frank's wife believed that he was guilty and would soon divorce him.  Not only did his current wife know of his guilt, said another rumor, but Frank had another wife in Brooklyn that he had killed.  A widely accepted rumor was that he was a known pervert who frequented streetcars, attempting to pull young girls off the trolleys in order to rape them.  None of these rumors had the least bit of truth to them, but Leo Frank was a Jew.  Besides being a Jew --- a despised minority --- he was at various times called (quite incredibly) a Mason and a Catholic, two other despised minorities.  One way or another, the white, Protestant South was intent on branding him with some measure of bigotry.

The Coroner's Jury had no difficulty in determining that Leo Frank was the principal suspect, and that he should be bound over for Grand Jury proceedings.

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