Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

Reaction to the Murder

The reaction of Atlanta's citizens to the murder of Mary Phagan seemed out of proportion to the fact that it was an isolated case of violence.  The public outcry, spurred on by the city's three newspapers, was widespread and intense.  Why was this so?  In the first years of the Twentieth Century, Atlanta had a very high crime rate, race riots, and a record number of juvenile arrests. One would have expected that Mary Phagan could have been just another statistic.

The explanations for the reaction of the newspapers and the outrage of the public are complex.  The South, and Atlanta in particular, was in a state of transition from a rural, agricultural society to an industrialized urban society.  Most telling was the horrific working conditions of the rural poor who had migrated to the city to work in the unspeakable sweatshops that were proliferating.  Mary Phagan, thirteen years old, paid twelve cents an hour and working ten hours a day, was a symbol of the oppression of factory owners of the underfed and underpaid working poor.  Leo Frank was a factory owner.

Despite the urbanization of Southern society, the glorification of Southern womanhood persisted in the culture.  Nothing was feared more than attacks on women, for such attacks were assaults against society itself.  As the Memphis Commercial Appeal editorially commented, "...There is a higher law ... and that law readeth 'Thou shall protect female virtue at all hazards'..." This protection of "female virtue" was compromised by the fact that women of all ages were sent into the factories to work by their farmer fathers and brothers, into an environment that was viewed as morally dangerous and potentially degrading.  Thus, the murder of Mary Phagan symbolized all that was feared about the factories, as well as confirming the guilt of such young women's relatives for having sent them into these morally hazardous places.

For about ten years, Atlanta had been experiencing a high crime rate, race riots, and --- as in much of the South --- numerous lynchings.  Lynchings were spectacles, reaching the level of joyous public performances.  Between 1882 and 1944, 4,708 lynchings occurred, mostly in the South, and summary vigilante justice was an accepted practice in the eyes of many in the white population.  While the outrage against segments of the population was directed primarily at African-Americans, Catholics, and Jews, the Northern industrial class who had invaded the South's economy were also among the despised.  In effect, the only way a public outcry against the murderer of the young, white Mary Phagan could have been avoided would have been if the murderer had been a white Protestant man, preferably a Southern Baptist.

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