An in-depth account of the legal process following the Mary Phagan murder, which almost certainly occurred at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913, and the effect of the detectives’ early decision to focus on Leo Frank, pencil company factory superintendent as the main suspect, this book goes on to show how this area of the south was able to snub the rest of the world and allowed a group of the favorite sons of nearby Marietta to organize a lynch team to kidnap the hapless Frank from a prison farm and hang him, and pay for the crime with taxpayers’ money. As the months and years dragged on, and the issue progressed through the post-trial phases with the Frank legal team meeting official defeat, even if gaining moral victories, from the courts along the way, the Jewish community came to the aide of their co-religionist; but that apparently merely served to make firebrand newspaper editor Tom Watson, and by extension and his persistent, strenuous suggestion, his readership, all the more determined to see the more powerful among the Jews suffer through Frank, who ended up functioning in the role of pawn in a power struggle which consumed not only his life when he was finally lynched, but seemingly a great deal of Watson's psychic energy, as he went to such extremes that in some cases he made some of today’s tabloids seem staid and reserved in comparison. That he himself was eventually launched into a political career on the national level is a striking commentary on American populist politics.
One minority was pitted against another, with the black Jim Conley, the other suspect, providing what the evidence finally, (after years) suggested was invented testimony against his boss, thereby avoiding the gallows himself. Among the exculpatory evidence, uncovered years later, were bite marks taken from the girl’s body, which were determined to fail to match with Frank’s bite pattern, according to dental records. This was one of several items of evidence pointing away from Frank and toward Conley, but some of the local people had publicly committed themselves long since, and were not about to be dissuaded by new evidence.
Other figures of greater or lesser historical interest who feature in this story are: Detective William Burns, considered at the time to be a sort of real-life Sherlock Holmes, but who, as a would-be supporter of Frank, turned out to be in many ways fraudulent; Albert D.Lasker, Chicago advertising giant who took up Frank’s cause while himself remaining behind the scenes; Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, who was deeply affected at the final defeat when he considered that he himself may have helped to bring it about by causing an anti-Semitic backlash with over-coverage of the story; and the then new owner of the Atlanta Georgian, William Randolph Hearst.
For students of history there are lessons to be taken here. The walls of psychological insularity arose quite without contrivance by any political party or interest group, and the events which play out before the reader’s eyes have an inexorability which gives one the feeling that Frank might as well have pled guilty at the start. When Watson jumped in and fanned the flames, it almost seemed as though he were merely responding to a cue to step in and play his part.
When protestations of innocence are not only futile, but actually damaging, you may as well resign yourself to a bad end, and focus on accepting it with grace and dignity. Such were the final days of Leo Frank.
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