Timetable of Legal History logo• This Part 2 of The Leo Frank Affair (1913-1915), continuing from Part 1.

On August 25, the case was sent to the jury who took only four hours to deliberate and returned a verdict of guilty. A huge crowd had gathered around the court house and when word of the verdict got to them, they erupted in cheering so loud that no one could hear each other in the courtroom. After court was adjourned, and Dorsey left the courthouse, the crowd cheered him wildly and pick them up on their shoulders carrying him around like a conquering hero.

The next day, Frank was secreted back into the courtroom where Justice Roan gave him the death penalty, that he be hung by the neck until he was dead.

His lawyers immediately appealed and in accordance with the custom at the time, that appeal had to be brought to the trial judge. Although Justice Roan denied the motion for new trial, he concluded, as obiter dicta:

"I am not certain of the man's guilt. I am not thoroughly convinced that Frank is guilty or innocent."

John SlatonMoney poured in to help Frank as word of the trial fed newspapers across the country. A further appeal was made to the Supreme Court of Georgia but that, too, was dismissed, although two of the six judges dissented.

Six months since the verdict, Leo Frank continued his solitary existence as his prospects for life was played out by others. Appeals continued including to the Supreme Court of the United States,all ultimately unsuccessful in spite of Oliver Wendell Holmes desperate cry for justice in his dissenting opinion in the Frank appeal:

"It is our duty to act ... and to declare lynch law as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death."

In the meantime, commentators grew more vocal on both sides. To one group, the trial had been a travesty of justice. To the other, Jewish money, lawyers and judges were preventing the execution of the jury's verdict, now set for June 26, 1915.

Concern turned to racial outrage when, on June 20, 1915, the outgoing Governor of Georgia, John M. Slaton, announced one of the last decisions of his tenure in commuting Frank's sentence to life imprisonment. Riots broke out.

Later that day, Frank, mostly for his own safety, was moved to a rural prison at Milledgeville. On July 18, one of his fellow inmates attacked Frank with a knife while he was sleeping and had managed to severely cut Frank's neck when a guard alertly interceded. The serious wound was bandaged and Frank took his survival as a harbinger of judicial vindication. At the same time, a secret vigilante group was being formed comprised of some 150 members who met near the child's grave and who became known as the Knights of Mary Phagan.

The clock of justice stood still on August 16, 1915, when 25 masked Knights of Mary Phagan breathed life into lynch law and cut the telephone lines and stormed the Milledgeville prison. The warden was secured as were the two guards on duty. Frank was rustled out of his bed in the prison infirmary and manhandled into a waiting car, where he was whisked away to a remote wood near Marrietta, Mary Phagan's childhood home, a rope placed around his neck, the other end thrown around a branch of a large oak tree, and hung.

the murder of Leo FrankAccording to Leonard Dinnerstein, the group of vigilante commandos included two former Superior Court justices and an ex-sheriff, but their actual names never revealed. Later, the name of at least one of the vigilantes came out: D. B. Napier (aka Fred Lockhart). Another source suggested that the posse included a former state governor.

But one Marietta resident, the local judge did intervene when the residents of Marrietta gathered around the body and began to jeer at it and clamor to cut it down and burn it. Newton Morris had the body cut down and secured for burial, but not before one bystander repeatedly kicked the corpse's face. For at least two years, souvenir pictures of the lynching could be purchased in Marietta.

Marietta, it seemed, was indeed the hotbed of the vigilante posse. The local vigilantes gave interviews but the press supported their anonymity. A coroner's inquest concluded that Leo Frank had met his demise at the hands of "persons unknown".

The old South was not done flushing out demons of racial prejudice. Vigilante lynching for unproven sexual offenses was common, especially in regards to African-Americans, then known as Negros. The populist support of Leo Frank's hanging is credited with the 1915 revival of the vile Klu Klux Klan, from the remnants of the Knights of Mary Phagan.

Startled, still the law responded and gave proper consideration to the reality of mob justice culminating in the 1923 decision in Moore v Dempsey when just such a similar conviction was overturned. Later, necessary judicial oversight was reasserted in Brown v. Mississippi, Chambers v. Florida and Ashcraft v Tennessee.

In most other parts of the planet, the unfolding of the Leo Frank drama had been watched first with interest then with growing concern. When the news of the lynching hit the newsreels, society itself had to come face-to-face with its own, of the horrors of arbitrary, selective anarchy.

As justice inched forward in yet another passing storm of civilization-building, Leo Frank had not died in vain.

Jim Conley was later convicted of burglary and served a 20 year sentence, dying in 1962.

John Slaton left Georgia for several years after the commutation but later returned and in 1928, became the first president of the State Bar of Georgia. He died in 1955, eulogized for his integrity shown in 1915.

Hugh Dorsey rode the wave of popularity into the governor's mansion in 1915, and was later appointed a Superior Court judge in Atlanta, where he died in 1949.

Lucille Frank died in 1957.

On March 11, 1986, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon.

The tragedy of Leo Frank's case was later made into a Broadway musical, Parade, still being performed in London as of 2011.

Many observers have since taken the position that the circumstantial evidence used to convict your Frank ought never to have convinced an impartial jury of his guilt. But in the appendices to his book, Professor Dinnerstein reproduced a letter purported to have been written by a contemporary Atlantan Jew who was an acquaintance of Leo Frank and who attended most of the trial. It was his opinion that Leo Frank was guilty of the murder "… committed after an attempted seduction … " The writer noted that Frank had initially misled the police and later lied about Conley's writing abilities. Nor could he ever properly account for the period of time during which Mary Phagan was killed.

The End graphic 

• This is the end of The Leo Frank Affair (913-1915). Click here to return to Part I.

REFERENCES:

  • Ashcraft v Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143 (1944)
  • Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936)
  • Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940)
  • Dinnerstein, Leonard, The Leo Frank Case (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 1987)
  • Frank v. Mangum, 237 U.S. 309 (1915)
  • Loeterman, Leo, The People v Leo Frank, Ben Loeterman Productions, 2009,
  • Moore v Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86 (1923)
  • The People v. Leo Frank: Teacher's Guide (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 2009).
  • Thomas, George, Bigotry, Jury Failures, and the Supreme Court's Feeble Response, 55 Buff. L. Rev. 947 (2007-2008)
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