The Murder and Lynching that Changed America

April 26, 1913 was supposed to have been a good day for 13-year-old Mary Phagan. It was Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived. She was off for the day from her job at the National Pencil Company. Her plans included stopping by work to pick up her pay and then joining family and friends for a party. She made it to her place of work and collected her wages from her boss, Leo Frank. But she would never make it to that party.

At 3 am on April 27, the African-American night watchman, Newt Lee, discovered the body of a girl in the factory basement. She had been brutally beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled to death. After police arrived, the body was identified by a fellow worker as that of Mary Phagan.

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Several strange, handwritten notes were found near the body that described a tall black man. Because of this, Newt Lee was immediately suspected. When it was determined that he could did not commit the murder, suspicion fell on another African-American employee named Jim Conley. This man denied responsibility for the murder, but he did accuse someone else: his Jewish boss, Leo Frank.

Conley stated that Frank made him help move Mary’s body to the basement and also made him write the notes that were then found by the police. Frank vehemently denied this story. And even though Conley had admitted to lying to the police, Frank was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death by hanging in October of 1913.

Anti-Semitism was running rampant in the United States at that time. Though many convincing arguments were put forth proving Frank’s innocence, he remained under sentence of death. No doubt anti-Jewish sentiment played a major role in his continued imprisonment.

Eventually, after a long appeals process, Leo Frank’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the governor of Georgia. Frank was also ordered to be transferred to the state prison at Milledgeville for his protection.

This move angered Atlanta’s numerous anti-Semites. In response to Frank’s commuted sentence, a group that called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan decided to kidnap Frank and take justice into their own hands. To this end, they attacked the Milledgeville prison and kidnapped Frank on August 16, 1915. They then took him to Marietta, Georgia, where they proceeded to lynch him. His dying request was that someone take his wedding ring to his wife, which one of his killers did later on.

Later that year, some of the Knights of Mary Phagan decided to get together with some other like-minded people to revive another group with a similar name. They called themselves the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Many historians believe that the hatred whipped up against Leo Frank was the spark that ignited the Klan’s rebirth that year.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Leo Frank’s innocence was finally proven. That year, an 83-year-old named Alonzo Mann, who worked at the pencil factory at the time of the murder (when he was twelve), admitted that he saw Jim Conley carrying Mary’s body to the basement by himself. Conley threatened to kill him if he said anything to the police, so he and his parents decided that he should keep silent. Had this testimony come to light in 1913, it might have saved Frank’s life and possibly even slowed the resurgence of the KKK.

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