Thirty-one-year-old Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent, was kidnapped from prison in Atlanta, Georgia and lynched by an antisemitic mob on August 17, 1915. The attack, which is the only Jewish lynching in U.S. history, followed a hugely sensational trial. Frank had been convicted—by most historians' accounts wrongly—for sexually assaulting and murdering a 13-year-old girl. Frank was murdered on the heels of two years of appeals and the commuting of his death sentence to life in prison.
The Murder of Mary Phagan
Mary Phagan was on her way to Atlanta’s Confederate Memorial Day parade on April 26, 1913 when she stopped in at the National Pencil Company to collect her paycheck–$1.20 for her 10-cents-an-hour work. The next day, the girl’s body was discovered in the factory’s basement.
As Steve Oney writes in his book, And The Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, Frank, 29 at the time of his arrest, was working at the factory that Saturday morning when he handed Phagan her pay, and, police later reported, was the last to admit seeing the girl alive. At approximately 3:30 a.m. the next morning, Newt Lee, the factory’s Black night watchman, reported finding the body to police.
Two “murder notes” were found on the body—badly battered, bloody and bruised—that read, “he said he wood love me and land down play like night witch did it but that long tall black negro did boy his slef” and “Mam that negro hire down here did this i went to make water and he push me down that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it wase long sleam tall negro i wright while play with me.”
The body was soon identified as Phagan and Lee became the investigators’ first suspect and arrest, reports Oney. But police quickly settled on Frank, who was arrested for the girl’s murder days later on April 29, 1913, and held at the Fulton County Jail.
Born in Texas and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Frank had attended the Pratt Institute and graduated with an engineering degree from Cornell University in 1906. After relocating to Atlanta to serve as superintendent of the pencil factory, he married Georgia native Lucille Selig, a member of a prominent Jewish family whose grandfather co-founded Atlanta’s Temple synagogue. Frank became president of Atlanta’s Gate City Lodge No. 144 chapter of B’nai Brith, and the couple was active in the local Jewish community.
Phagan's murder and Frank's subsequent arrest took off like a firestorm in Atlanta’s newspapers, including the Atlanta Georgian, a yellow journalism-heavy William Randolph Hearst publication.
Witness for the Prosecution
Even as Frank sat in jail, police had their eyes on yet another suspect. Jim Conley, a Black custodian at the factory, was detained two days after Frank’s arrest “when he was seen in the pencil-factory basement washing out a shirt soaked with what appeared to be blood,” Oney writes in a 2015 Esquire article. When police learned Conley could write, Oney adds, he was suspected of penning the notes found at the scene of the crime.
Questioned for two weeks, Conley eventually said Frank paid him to write the notes and that Frank confessed to him that he had committed the murder.
“The admission of authorship in hand, the investigators pushed their advantage,” Oney writes. “Under careful coaching, Conley would produce three affidavits that, while contradictory in parts, agreed on the main point: Frank murdered Mary Phagan and then conspired with Conley to dispose of the body and write the notes in the hope that they could pin the crime on either Lee or the black, pencil company boiler operator, William Nolle, who was also tall and dark.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys were both keen on the jury hearing Conley’s version of events, “for different but equally racist reasons,” according to Oney. Lead prosecutor Hugh Dorsey hedged his bets the jury would find Conley too stupid to lie, while Frank’s lawyers counted on Conley’s contradictory affidavits falling apart on the witness stand.
Trial and Sentencing
With crowds gathered outside the courthouse chanting “hang the Jew,” the trial, based on mostly circumstantial evidence, made national headlines.
“It was a gigantic lightning bolt that hit this state,” Oney told the Atlanta Journal-Consitution. “It wasn’t just a whodunit, but a clearinghouse for cultural grievances that touched on issues of race, class, gender, religion.”
Based on mostly circumstantial evidence and relying on Conley’s testimony, the four-week trial ended with a guilty verdict on August 25 after just a few hours of deliberation. Outside the courthouse, the crowd cheered the conviction announcement. According to the New-York Tribune, Dorsey “was lifted to the shoulders of several men and carried more than a hundred feet through the shouting throng.”
The following day, Judge Leonard Roan sentenced Frank to death by hanging. Two years of denied appeals followed, including a request for a new trial on the basis that Frank’s constitutional rights were violated when Roan advised Frank’s lawyers it would be unsafe for him to appear in the courtroom upon the reading of the verdict. A retrial motion was also rejected after Conley’s former attorney said he believed Conley was the actual murderer.
Rising to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court, Frank’s conviction was allowed to stand when the court voted 7-2 on April 19, 1915, to deny his appeal. Justices Oliver Wendall Holmes and Charles Evan Hughes dissented, stating the hostility outside the courthouse influenced the conviction.
“The noise outside was such that it was difficult for the judge to hear the answers of the jurors, although he was only 10 feet from them,” Holmes wrote in the dissent. “With these specifications of fact, the petitioner alleges that the trial was dominated by a hostile mob and was nothing but an empty form.”
Governor Commutes Frank's Sentence to Life in Prison
Not satisfied with the sentencing, Georgia Governor John Slaton conducted his own extensive investigation into the case, and, on June 21, 1915, the day before Frank’s execution was to take place and as his term in office was ending, commuted his sentence to life in prison. Criticized for having a conflict of interest in the case—his law partner served as Frank’s lead attorney—and with antisemitism rising at a fever pitch, the decision led to outrage in the community.
“Armed mobs roamed streets forcing Jewish businessmen to board up windows and doors,” The New York Times reported. “A mob of several thousand people armed with guns, hatchets and dynamite surrounded the Governor's mansion until they were dispersed by state militiamen.”
Frank was attacked four weeks later, on July 18, 1915, by an inmate who slit his throat with a butcher knife. “If another prisoner, a surgeon convicted of murder, hadn’t stitched Frank’s wound, he would have died,” according to the Times.
But Frank wouldn’t survive a second attack less than a month later. A mob of 25 men, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, arrived in the middle of the night at the Milledgeville prison farm where Frank was held, overpowering the guards—no shots were fired—and kidnapping Frank from his cell. A caravan of cars drove him some 100 miles away to an oak grove near Marietta, Phagan’s hometown, where he was handcuffed and hanged. Frank died August 17, 1915.
“As word spread that Leo Frank’s body was twisting from a limb on the outskirts of Marietta, a crowd of some 3,000 formed,” Oney writes. “Its members pecked at Frank’s corpse, tearing away his nightshirt up to the elbows. … All the while, photographers snapped pictures.”
The mob included some of Marietta’s most prominent citizens: a preacher, former governor, former mayor, doctor, judge, son of a U.S. senator and lawyer among them.
“After the lynching, one of the first things they did was preside over the perfunctory grand jury hearing that swiftly absolved the town’s population of any guilt in Frank’s death,” according to Oney. “The 25 men who participated in the incident swore one another to secrecy, and their names were never reported.”
Their identities weren’t made public for nearly 80 years.
Resurgence of the KKK, Emergence of the ADL
Anti-Jewish sentiment and discrimination in the area were widespread leading up to Frank’s murder, led by Tom Watson, the editor of Jeffersonian Magazine, who filled his Atlanta-based publication with antisemitic and anti-Catholic rants.
Following Frank’s conviction, Watson wrote, “Jew money has debased us, bought us, and sold us—and laughs at us. Hereafter, let no man reproach the South with Lynch law; let him remember the unendurable provocation; and let him say whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.”
A month after Frank’s murder, and after 45 years of inactivity, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on Stone Mountain near Atlanta, a park that serves as a state-designated memorial to the Confederacy, to announce the white supremacist group was reforming.
“In the aftermath of terror, about half the 3,000 Jews in Georgia left the state,” The New York Times reports. “Those who remained hid behind locked doors, forced to survive a widespread boycott of Jewish businesses.”
But the Frank trial also inspired the 1913 founding of the Anti-Defamation League by Chicago attorney Sigmund Livingston, with a mission to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”
Legacy and a Pardon
Dorsey, the lead prosecutor in Frank's case, was elected Georgia’s governor in 1915 and later served as an Atlanta Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge. Watson, the editor of Jeffersonian Magazine, was elected a U.S. senator in 1920 (he died in office two years later). Conley was sentenced to 12 months on a chain gang as an accessory after the fact.
While newspaper coverage of the Frank case came to a crashing halt after the lynching, historians have widely decreed Frank was wrongly convicted.
Nearly 70 years after Phagan’s murder, on March 7, 1982, a 10-page special section in The Tennessean reported that Frank was innocent, focused on statements from Alzono Mann, who had served as Frank’s office boy. Fourteen at the time of the crime, Mann said Conley murdered Phagan, and that he witnessed Conley holding the unconscious girl. "If you ever mention this, I'll kill you," Conley told him, according to the newspaper. Mann said when he told his mother what he had seen, she told him to keep quiet, which he did.
This new evidence, and a campaign led by the ADL to clear Frank’s name, eventually led the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to issue a pardon on March 11, 1986 (an earlier appeal was rejected in 1983). The pardon did not exonerate Frank, but was granted for the state’s failure to protect him while in custody and for failing to bring his killers to justice.
''People of good will and judgment have long believed that Leo Frank was victimized by perjury and prejudice at his trial and that an innocent man was lynched by a mob inflamed by bigotry,” Stu Lewengrub, the ADL’s Southeastern director, said of the pardon. “We can now finally close our files on our first case.”
Frank's murder trial and lynching has inspired a number of dramatizations on stage and screen, as well as several books. “Parade,” a Broadway musical, debuted in 1998, nabbing Tony Awards for best original score and best book, and experiencing a revival in 2023.
“‘And The Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank,” by Steve Oney.
“Trial and Lynching of Leo Frank: Topics in Chronicling America,” Library of Congress.
“A century after Jewish man's lynching, Georgia town unsettled,” CBS News.
“Murder case, Leo Frank lynching live on,” CNN.
“A Distant Mirror: The Leo Frank Lynching,” The New Republic.
“Leo Frank Case Timeline,” William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.
“Georgia’s Shame,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“The Leo Frank Case” by Leonard Dinnerstein.