Monday, November 02, 2009

A Lynching Revisited

About 10 years ago, I was thumbing through the TV listings and I came across a film that was going to be shown called "The Murder of Mary Phagan."

I had never heard of the movie before — turned out it was made for TV and had been broadcast on NBC more than 10 years earlier — but it had quite a cast (Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Richard Jordan, Cynthia Nixon) and it was based on a true story. I never can resist a movie about an historical event, whether it is an event I have heard of or not, so I decided to watch it.

I was rewarded with one of the most incredible movie experiences — as well as one of the most disturbing stories — of my life.

Mary Phagan was a 13–year–old girl who was raped and murdered in Atlanta in 1913. Her body was found in the pencil factory where she worked, and the authorities charged the manager of the factory, Leo Frank, with the crime.

It was a sensational case, the O.J. Simpson case of its day. Like the Simpson case, it was used by many people for their own purposes. The media magnates of the time used it to sell newspapers. A Georgia politician/publisher built his political power base on it, along with popular support for the Ku Klux Klan. The prosecutor parlayed his fame into two terms as governor of Georgia.

Frank was a Jew, and Jews were particularly resented in the South of that time. So, even though the available evidence pointed to a black man, janitor Jim Conley, as the guilty party, Frank was the one who stood trial. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death, but he sought clemency from the outgoing governor, John Slaton, who reviewed the case, concluded that Frank was innocent and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, hoping that, at some point, he would be set free.

"Two thousand years ago another governor washed his hands and turned over a Jew to a mob," Slaton wrote. "For two thousand years that governor's name has been accursed. If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice."

In spite of Slaton's efforts, a mob made up of more than two dozen "respectable" citizens — the son of a U.S. senator, a former governor, a sheriff (who provided the rope and table), lawyers, a doctor, politicians — kidnapped Frank from the state prison farm where he was incarcerated and lynched him in August of 1915.

Frank's execution was very organized. The conspirators planned to carry out the lynching in Marietta, more than 200 miles away. The lynching site was ready for them when they arrived. Frank asked to be allowed to write a letter to his wife. He also asked that his wedding ring be returned to her and that the lower half of his body be covered since he was wearing only a nightshirt when he was abducted.

There's a lot more to the story, and I presume it will be told when PBS airs a program about the case, "The People v. Leo Frank," which makes its debut in some markets tonight. Keep an eye on your local PBS listings to see when it will be shown in your area.