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Remembering the lynching of Leo Frank 100 years later

What we still learn from an unsolved Marietta killing committed in broad daylight

On Aug. 17, 1915, a Northern-born Jewish factory supervisor named Leo Frank died in Marietta with a noose gnarling his neck.

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Convicted in a widely criticized trial of killing a 13-year-old factory girl, Frank had been serving life in a Milledgeville prison before a mob organized by some of Cobb County's most prominent residents stole him from his cell in the night.

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Why would such leaders — "elites of the society," as former Gov. Roy Barnes describes them — take part in the act, now considered to be among the most grievous miscarriages of justice in Georgia history? The answer, most feel sure, is anti-Semitism and a deep-seated hatred of Northerners in the wake of the Civil War.

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This month, as the 100th anniversary draws the case back into view, many are working to ensure the memory of the sordid episode lives on.

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"For all thoughtful people, this is something to remember to make sure that it's never repeated," says Barnes, who's helped create an exhibit on the case opening Mon., Aug. 17 at Kennesaw's Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History. "In my view, it was a travesty of justice."

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As a boy growing up in Cobb, Barnes heard the case often "talked about in hushed tones." None of the adults would tell him the whole story. Later in life, when Barnes, an attorney, had hours to pore over court documents, he found the affair a "dark stain" on Southern history.

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It began on April 26, 1913, with the death of Mary Phagan, who worked for Frank at Atlanta's National Pencil Company. Hours before she was found strangled and beaten, she had picked up her week's pay from Frank.

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Frank's conviction later was based largely on the testimony of a black factory worker, Jim Conley, who many now consider her likely killer. That the white authorities believed a black man in the racial climate of the early 1900s illustrates how deep the anti-Semitism went, many believe.

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Frank was sentenced to death. His appeals went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court and earned national headlines. Then-Gov. John Slaton, believing the evidence to be inconclusive, commuted the sentence to life.

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The brazen nature of the raid that followed to abduct Frank is among the reasons the case is still so remarkable, says Steve Oney, author of "And The Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank," considered the definitive account of the case.

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"There was never another lynching like this," says Oney, who is speaking on the case at Marietta's Earl Smith Strand Theatre on Aug. 13."Frank was abducted not from a county jail poorly defended by a sheriff's deputy — he was abducted from the state prison." 

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Phagan's killing and Frank's lynching also helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. Three months after Frank's hanging, the KKK, which the federal government had suppressed decades earlier, reappeared with a cross-burning at Stone Mountain.

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Today, Marietta, Cobb, and metro Atlanta are left with a burden, a stain to wash away, a sore to endure, and, for many, shame.

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"The question I don't have an answer to — and that always haunts me — is, 'How did the best of the society do this?'" wonders Barnes, whose wife's grandfather was among the group that abducted Frank. "You had sheriffs, you had a judge, the solicitor general — prominent members of the community that went and got him." 

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That question is partly what keeps Barnes and others coming back to the case, even as time has left Marietta a place where many don't know the name Leo Frank. Without an acceptable answer, Barnes will keep talking. The episode came up this week when he had lunch with some interns at his Marietta law office. One of his paralegals discovered their lack of knowledge on local history.

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"'Well, you've gotta tell them about Leo Frank,'" Barnes recalls the paralegal saying. "And I told them the story about Leo Frank," he says. "They should know, because you don't know what form prejudice and hate is going to take in the next generation or the next generation."



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