The Leo Frank Case--Now a PBS Documentary

Culture Watch

Mr. Doherty is a professor in the American Studies Department at Brandeis.

The must-see film of 1915—actually, in the annals of silent cinema—was The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s racist hallucination about the Civil War and its aftermath.  The climatic sequence never failed to wow the crowds. To the strains of a live orchestra playing Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a dauntless band of Ku Klux Klansmen rode to the rescue of white Southern womanhood, determined to exact vengeance on rapacious carpetbaggers, slobbering mullatos, and lecherous blacks. 

     On August 16, 1915, as if taking up the mantle from their cinematic brethren, another band of vengeful nightriders—in automobiles this time—did likewise, with one intriguing variation. At an oak grove outside of Marietta, Georgia, a quietly efficient lynch party hanged Leo M. Frank, a Jew convicted of murdering and suspected of violating his thirteen-year old employee, Mary Phagan. Three months later on Thanksgiving Day, members of the lynch party reconvened at Stone Mountain, Georgia, and lit a huge burning cross to signal the resurrection of Griffith’s screen specters: the KKK would ride again. 

     For nearly a century, the motion picture medium and the story of Leo Frank have shadowed each other—sometimes straight on, more often in veiled allegory. The most recent entry is The People v Leo Frank, written and directed by Ben Loeterman, which was broadcast on PBS in November. An even-tempered, docu-drama destined for a permanent home in undergraduate classrooms and Jewish study groups, it is the most painstaking and fact-based re-creation of the drama that will never have a Hollywood ending. 

     Unlike most sensational true crime stories, the facts of the Frank case are well known and mainly uncontested.  On April 27, 1913, the bloodied and battered body of Mary Phagan was found in the factory basement of the National Pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia.  Initial suspicion fell on the African American night watchman who had discovered Phagan’s body, but police soon turned their attention to the jittery factory supervisor, Leo M. Frank.  A New Yorker, an industrialist in an agrarian culture, and a Jew, Frank was triply alien in the capital of what was still far more Old than New South.  In photographs, Frank-- pallid, bespectacled, and gaunt-- bears an eerie resemblance to Franz Kafka.

      Official cupidity and cruel happenstance conspired to condemn the interloper. Even by the remedial forensic standards of the day, Atlanta’s detectives were a careless and clueless crew: evidence was lost, ruined, perhaps fabricated. An ambitious prosecutor, Hugh M. Dorsey, seized on the case to make a name for himself (successfully: he was elected governor of Georgia in 1916) and a salivating tabloid press amplified the cries for blood ( “Leo Frank is guilty of the foulest crime ever committed on a Georgia girl and he should not be allowed to escape,” snarled the Jeffersonian, a populist weekly). All Atlanta ached to avenge a girl who had come to represent everything that was pure and inviolate in Southern femininity—a girl who, like the brave heroine Little Sister in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, had chosen death before dishonor.       

      With evidence thin, the case against Frank rested largely on the testimony of Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the pencil factory.  After several false starts, Conley settled on a vivid tale: that Frank had murdered Phagan while trying to sexually assault her and then forced Conley to help cover up the crime. When called to the witness stand, Conley, the first black man permitted to give testimony in a capital case against a white man, stuck to his story--and surely an ignorant black man could never have withstood the withering cross-examination of Frank’s defense attorneys.  In less than four hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty; the next day, the judge sentenced Frank to death by hanging.  Ecstatic Atlantans clogged the streets in an orgy of jubilation.      

      By then, Frank’s case had become a national cause célèbre.  From coast to coast, a galvanized Jewish community raised money for appeals and publicized the travails of the man labeled an “American Dreyfus.” The New York Times headlined developments, editorialized against the travesty of justice, and underwrote an independent investigation that exculpated Frank. The most enduring response came from the B’nai B’rith, the Jewish fraternal organization, which within weeks of Frank’s conviction formed its Anti-Defamation League to combat prejudice of all kinds.  

       After two years of unsuccessful court appeals, Frank’s last hope to escape the gallows was a commutation from Georgia Governor John M. Slaton.  Slaton might have passed the buck—his term was expiring and he harbored ambitions for the U.S. Senate-- but he felt the evidence against Frank was weak and the trial a scandal. In a true profile in courage, he commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment (Frank wanted a full pardon: ironically, his lawyers convinced him to go for the commutation fearing that an outright pardon would so enrage the citizenry as to put his life in jeopardy).  Before Slaton announced the commutation, he had Frank secretly transferred to the state prison farm in Milledgeville, about two hours outside Atlanta. Enraged mobs converged on the governor’s mansion, tossed rocks through the windows, and burned Slaton in effigy. The National Guard had to be called out to keep order. 

     What happened next was not a spontaneous uprising by a crowd of liquored-up rednecks bearing torches and howling invective. The lynching of Leo Frank was executed with military precision by pillars of the community—judges, a solicitor general, even a former sheriff.  Under cover of darkness, they cut the telegraph and telephone lines at the prison farm, overpowered the compliant guards, rousted Frank from his bed, and drove him in a multi-car convey to the oak grove outside Marietta, Mary Phagan’s hometown. With due solemnity, the lynch party mounted Frank on a table, fixed an expertly tied noose around his neck, and kicked the table out from under him. By morning light, townspeople had gathered around the dangling body to gape, pose for photographs, and cut strips from his clothing for souvenirs. 

     Though the case was too searing to be blotted totally from memory, for decades the story of Leo Frank was either passed over in silence or treated in coded allegory. As late as 1953, at a soiree celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ADL, a nationally televised event entitled A Dinner with the President with Dwight D. Eisenhower as guest of honor, not a single speaker on the dais uttered the name of the man whose plight had inspired its founding.

        In 1965, the publication of historian Leonard Dinnerstein’s scrupulously researched The Leo Frank Case revived interest in the forgotten man. In the years since, the case and its university-friendly issues of race, religion, and region have sparked an academic growth industry of scholarly articles and books (most notably Steve Oney’s exhaustive 2003 study And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank), museum exhibits, websites, and even a musical, Parade, by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry. Indeed, one might discern something disproportionate in the flood of attention generated by a single Jewish victim of Southern lynch law when the names of thousands of African American victims have disappeared down the rabbit hole of history   

      Not surprisingly, the raw outlines of the scenario have also lured filmmakers. In his recent study Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television, Emory University film historian Matthew H. Bernstein brings to light four fascinating film versions of the Leo Frank case.  The first two were thinly veiled allegories: Murder in Harlem (1936), by the pioneering African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who moved the tale North and Afro-centric for a “race movie” released to segregated theaters; and Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), a Warner Bros. production that disguised the Southern setting and jettisoned the Jewish element but keep true to the spirit of regional animosity and tabloid hysteria.  Not until the age of television were filmmakers free to name the man in the docket: in 1964, an episode of the short lived NBC series Profiles in Courage, based on John Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book and green lighted by the president himself, focused on the decision by Governor Slaton to commute Frank’s sentence; and in 1988, NBC gave the case the movie-of-the week treatment in The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank,  directed by George Stevens Jr. and starring Jack Lemmon as Governor Slaton and Peter Gallagher as Frank. The ace in the deck is They Won’t Forget, a vintage specimen of Depression-bred social consciousness and a case study in the way Hollywood censorship can both restrict and nurture creativity. LeRoy’s evocation of the lynching—an act too gruesome to be depicted under the Production Code—is a masterpiece of visual metonymy: a speeding locomotive hooks two hanging sacks of mail from a wooden post.

       Whether in scholarship or on screen, what has always intrigued about the Leo Frank case is not who killed Mary Phagan—almost all students of the trial indict the janitor Jim Conley for the crime-- but why, with a perfectly logical African American suspect in the vicinity, defenders of the Southern faith choose to vent their rage upon a Jew. Even Dinnerstein’s answer is more descriptive than explanatory: ”at this particular time and in this particular case resentment against a symbol of alien industrialism took precedence over the usual Negro prejudice.” 

       Straightforward description is also what recommends the latest film version. The People v Leo Frank is ur-PBS in format and tone: earnest, informative, and underbudgeted, a respectable audio-visual companion to the scholarship of Dinnerstein and Oney  (Oney served as chief consultant). Talking head experts, archival footage, and dramatic reenactments track the murder, the trial, and the lynching with an understated economy.  The grim facts are enough to pull the viewer along. 

       Taking a counter-intuitive angle of entry, director-writer Loeterman makes William Smith not Governor Slaton his hero and narrator. Smith (Jayson Warner Smith, gamely wrestling with a Georgian accent), was Jim Conley’s conscience-stricken lawyer, an idealist who comes gradually to realize that his client is not an innocent dupe but a masterful liar and cold-blooded murderer. As in previous film versions, the man at the center of the case is hard to figure: Will Janowitz, a dead ringer for the original, plays Frank as just enough of an odd duck to spark the suspicions of a non-bigot.  Fidgety and off-putting at first, he gains stature in the transformation from victim to hero. Throughout,  Dinnerstein, Oney and Parade author Alfred Uhry provide insightful commentary, supplemented by local color recollections from descendents one or two generations removed, including former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes who confides how shocked his wife was to learn that her grandfather was part of Frank’s lynch party  (around Marietta, their identities were an open secret). Also, the film makes no concession to the squeamish (on the morning of the murder, Conley defecated in the elevator shaft of the factory, an act that proves crucial to undermining the timeline in his testimony). 

       Unaccountably, though, The People v Leo Frank omits two important details. While incarcerated at Milledgeville State Prison, Frank was viciously knifed by a fellow prisoner and nearly died; he was in a hospital bed recovering from his wounds when his kidnappers came to collect him. Also, as movingly recounted in both Dinnerstein and Oney, Frank’s unshakeable insistence on his innocence and his stoic courage during the long night ride to the oak grove so moved some of the men in the lynch party that they began to balk at the deed.  But it was getting late, southern honor was at stake, and everyone knew how the drama had to end.

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Richard Mamches - 12/30/2009

Having watched this documentary on PBS, and also having watched the NBC miniseries THE MURDER OF MARY PHAGAN, the reason why Leo Frank's throat slashing at the Milledgeville prison is simple: it was too gruesome to be televised in prime time--for NBC Standards and Practices in 1988, ditto for PBS.

Otherwise, I was very impressed with THE PEOPLE V. LEO FRANK, except I would have preferred that the producer explain that Leo Frank was pardoned in 1986 because the Georgia parole board concluded that Mr. Frank's lynching was per se so egregious an injustice that it trumped the question of his guilt or innocence; it was, as the pardon itself said, "an effort to heal old wounds." In this sense, it was successful; the Jewish community of Atlanta has grown exponentially since the pardon of Leo Frank from 21,000 in 1976 to 70,000 in 1992, to 120,000 in 2006, according to the Atlanta Jewish Federation.

By pardoning Leo Frank, albeit without exonerating him, the state of Georgia has at the very least properly recognized that he was a victim of a terrible wrong instead of maintaining he was a duly convicted criminal--as it had for over 70 years.

Joseph Mutik - 12/14/2009

He got a nice education concerning the Jews, there.