Saturday, July 13, 2013

Death in the Deep South

The above post headline is the title of a novel by Ward Green, based on the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 by leading citizens of the state of Georgia--including a former Governor. Green's novel was the basis for the 1937 Mervyn LeRoy film, They Won't Forget.

The Wikipedia entry for the Atlanta murder case is fairly extensive--though, as always with Wiki, caution should be exercised--and relates a tale of murder (of a young factory girl, Mary Phagan, in 1913), inconclusive evidence, bigotry, poor police methods, political opportunism, and mob mentality. The New York Times covered the case extensively, including the appeals of Frank's conviction, and the evidence put out for his innocence. Chiefly that there was another employee at the pencil factory where Phagan was killed, who was a much better candidate for the crime.  Interestingly, that candidate was a black man, while Frank was a Jew from Brooklyn.

According to a lengthy Times article from March 14, 1914, FRANK CONVICTED BY PUBLIC CLAMOR, there was testimony from witnesses against Leo Frank, that the police had intimidated them, and even in one case, had gotten one woman drunk before inducing her to sign her statement incriminating Frank.  That there had been several unsolved murders of women in the Atlanta area and the police were under public and newspaper pressure to find those responsible.

Also, that during Frank's trial, the courtroom was filled with people antagonistic toward Frank who frequently broke out in jeers against the defendant. The jury often had to walk out of the courtroom surrounded by that crowd. Prejudices against Frank including that he was a Northerner in a city that 50 years ago had been burned by a Union army, he was a manager in a town with strong anti-capitalist feelings, and that he was a Jew. There were even vague charges of sexual impropriety, molestation and frequenting of brothels.

Again according to the Times, before the verdict was announced, the judge in the case called in the Police Chief of Atlanta and a Colonel of the National Guard in anticipation of possible rioting by the thousands of citizens in the streets outside the courtroom. Since Frank was found guilty, that didn't happen.  However, when, after his appeals showed the verdict was dubious, the Governor of Georgia commuted Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment, outraged citizens kidnapped Frank.  He was taken to a rural area and lynched. As the Wiki article has it;
A group of prominent men organized themselves into the "Knights of Mary Phagan," openly planning to kidnap Frank from prison. They recruited men with the necessary skills for a total of 28, including themselves; an electrician was to cut the prison wires, car mechanics were to keep the cars running, and there was a locksmith, a telephone man, a medic, a hangman, and a lay preacher.[64] The ringleaders were well-known locally, but were not named publicly until June 2000, when a local librarian posted a list on the Web....
Which included former Governors, Mayors, police officers and sheriffs, judges, even a Boy Scouts official. Again, from Wikipedia;
Several photographs were taken of the lynching, which were published and sold as postcards in local stores for 25 cents each, a common practice after lynchings, along with pieces of the rope, Frank's nightshirt, and branches from the tree. According to Elaine Marie Alphin, they were selling so fast the police announced that sellers required a city license.[73] Members of the lynch party or crowd can be seen in the postcards posing in front of the body, one of them holding a portable camera.
Given the conduct yesterday in the rebuttal argument by prosecutor John Guy in the George Zimmerman trial--calling for the jurors, not to ponder the evidence, but to look into the human heart for guidance and motivation. He actually told the jury that if they wanted to know what really happened that dark, rainy night in February 2012 they should look into the heart. Interested readers can hear him say it for themselves at the opening here.

Nearly a century after the railroading of Leo Frank by a Southern court, prosecutors still counsel emotion, not reason. Amazing.

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