Black-Jewish Relations on Trial : Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South

Format: Hardcover
Pub. Date: 2000-10-01
Publisher(s): Univ Pr of Mississippi
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Examines Atlanta's trial of the century & the split it left in American ethnic relations.

Table of Contents

Preface ix
The Musical
Leo Frank
``The Negro and the Jew Were Both in This''
Leo Frank
Jim Conley
``Frank on His Knees''
Capitalism and Perversion in the New South
``The Night Witch Did It''
Narrating Villainy in the Frank Case
``A Roman Holiday''
Making Leo Frank Signify
Reading Trials, Writing Trials
Notes 137(12)
Works Cited 149(10)
Index 159


Chapter One

Leo Frank, the Musical

Every retelling of the Frank case is bound to offer, to a greater or lesser degree, the same lesson ... The outside world hates Jews and so Jews must cling to one another.

Samuel G. Freedman

In 1998 a musical about the Leo Frank case opened in New York City, with a story by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, a relative unknown. When it came time to release the soundtrack for Parade in 1999, Brown was feeling flushed with success: in the notes to the compact disc, Brown recounts in a breathless rush some of the experiences he had while preparing the show. He remembers the "deafening applause" at the final dress rehearsal, and the gratitude he felt when Harold Prince, the legendary producer of the show, called him "the new Gershwin." Finally, he turns maudlin: "Two weeks before the opening, Alfred and I went to Leo Frank's grave in Brooklyn. Neither of us had been to see it the whole time we were writing together, and as we put two rocks on his simple gravestone, I looked down and thought, `I hope we didn't let you down, Leo,' and as I thought it, Alfred said exactly the same thing" ( Parade 9).

    In 1999, to approach Leo Frank is to visit a shrine. For American Jews in particular, Leo Frank is a sort of talisman--a touchstone for Jews interested in reminding themselves that they must, as Samuel G. Freedman notes, "cling to one another." Freedman's 1999 article on Frank culture in such a public forum is startling; few critics--Jewish or otherwise--have been willing to admit that invoking "the memory of antisemitism serves as a balm for intra-Jewish tension on such issues as intermarriage, conversion standards and the peace process in Israel. If American Jews still had to worry not only about lynch mobs but the exclusionary policies of law firms, country clubs, choice neighborhoods and Ivy League colleges, as they did for the first half of this century, then they wouldn't get so perversely sentimental about the Frank case." Frank's martyrdom has been gaining in power over the years. The weirdest of all visions of Frank, probably, was that wrought by Julie Ellis's 1980 romance novel The Hampton Women , in which a young woman, Elizabeth Hampton, becomes passionately involved with Frank's defense effort. In trying to capture the fervor of this young woman's commitment, Ellis basically turns Leo Frank into Sacco and Vanzetti. The internet has multiplied the opportunities for sanctifying Frank: in the late 1990s it was easy to find resources on the Frank case (including various secondary school curriculum kits) put up by educational and civil rights organizations. Most of these web sites reduce the case to a simple story of anti-Jewish prejudice.

    While the musical Parade stands as perhaps the fullest expression of pro-Frank sentiment, it is important to remember that there was a time when many people thought Frank to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, the first music written about Leo Frank took a much different position than that articulated by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry: when early country singer Fiddlin' John Carson sang three different songs about Frank, starting in public performance in 1913 and continuing on record in the 1920s, he sang of a demon who abused and killed poor Mary Phagan. In between Fiddlin' John's songs and Jason Robert Brown's songs came decades of competition over the meaning of Frank's legacy. But it is the bookends I want to begin with--what I'm calling Leo Frank, The Musical .

    In this chapter I want to trace how Frank's story and image have been fought over--by Jewish Americans, African Americans, and other Americans--and what these fights have to tell us not only about Leo Frank but also about Black-Jewish relations (and race and sexuality more broadly) in American culture. Contests over the meaning of the Frank case and the Frank lynching have been fought out since 1915, when soon after Frank's lynching one Frank partisan wrote to Frank's widow, Lucille, to ask her permission to write a photoplay, which might help clear Frank's name. This woman claimed two major points in her favor: she knew David Belasco, the playwright and theater manager; and, as a Westerner, she was free from "prejudice of race or creed ... unhampered by caste, unburdened by the formality of ancient family traditions which have been a curse to the South." Even while Frank was alive many observers tried to rewrite the case along the lines of recognizable fictional genres and plots.

    My intention is not to challenge the dearly held belief that Frank was innocent of Mary Phagan's murder. Instead, I want to explore why so many have set their sights on Frank and Jim Conley (but rarely Mary Phagan herself) as they make arguments about the relative status of Jews and African Americans in the United States. What has been largely forgotten in the "Frank stories" of the current generation is that Frank exerted enormous power over both Jim Conley and Mary Phagan in the National Pencil Company factory; this fact, and the discomfort it caused so many white southerners is, in large part, what lay behind Frank's arrest, conviction, and lynching. Instead, the late-model Leo Frank is a good boss, a good Jew, and a good husband (and in David Mamet's version, a philosopher too!). When the current generation "whitewashes" Frank, it erases the reality of his power in the National Pencil Company factory, and sidesteps the centrality of Black-Jewish relations to the case and to its legacies.

    The story of the Leo Frank case has been told and retold. If Frank is not quite in the same league as Lizzie Borden, with her children's rhyme, countless true-crime books, and bed and breakfast (extra charge to stay in the actual room where her stepmother was killed!), this case has inspired the kind of cultural response matched by only a very few criminal trials. The case has received extensive coverage over the years, with historians, sociologists, advocacy groups, novelists, playwrights, and musicians all putting forth their own interpretations of it. The "rewriting" of the Frank case began before the trial was even over: according to some accounts, Fiddlin' John Carson was on the courthouse steps every day of the trial singing his ballad "Little Mary Phagan" to an appreciative audience.

    Since then, the case has been revisited by a surprising range of people, including Fiddlin' John Carson himself (with two other songs about the case in the 1920s), two filmmakers in the 1930s, one "serious" novelist in the 1970s and one in the 1980s, a romance novelist in the 1980s, and two of America's most celebrated playwrights in the late 1990s. And this doesn't even account for a few other regional plays produced in the last quarter century. Even among academic historians, the case gets written in very different ways: in the two most recent scholarly accounts, the Leo Frank case has been studied by one as a treasure trove of information on gender and power in the Progressive Era South, and by another as a major anti-Semitic event (MacLean; Lindemann).

    Major criminal trials often hold in them a remarkable amount of cultural energy. The very staginess of courtroom protocol invites participants and observers to create a good show out of what is very often the fairly mundane work of sorting out motive and evidence. Murder trials in particular offer up multiple satisfactions for spectators: invited to "get inside" the murderer's mind, viewers (at the trial in person, or following it in the media) are encouraged to dance with the devil. Come watch as the innocent maiden meets her fatal doom. There is, as many commentators have noticed, something at least faintly pornographic about recounting a murder in all its gory details, whether this retelling happens in the courtroom, in a novel, or on film. On some level, as historian Karen Halttunen has suggested, when men and women are asked to watch these "scenarios of pain," it is because they are meant to develop more sympathy for "the sufferings of others" (83). But it is clear too that murder narratives often titillate their consumers--especially when they emphasize the relationship of sex and violence.

    The Frank case has been the subject of intense cultural scrutiny for much of the time since Mary Phagan was killed. Attention to the case has not been consistent nor has it taken predictable forms: Harold Prince's plans to stage a musical about Leo Frank were met with giggles more than once. Since the "facts" in the Leo Frank case were often obscure and always hotly contested during the trial and the appeals process, it is remarkable that so few of the retellings of the case have been concerned with solving the mystery of the pencil factory.

    Unlike, say, Sacco and Vanzetti, or the Rosenbergs, Leo Frank's guilt or innocence is rarely debated these days. There is near unanimity around the idea that Frank was most certainly innocent of the crime of murdering Mary Phagan; it is something like unspeakable to suggest otherwise. Alan Dershowitz, for instance, begins his review of David Mamet's novel The Old Religion with the confident assertion that Jim Conley admitted to his lawyer that he had killed Mary Phagan himself; Conley's lawyer did make this claim, but no one ever got Conley to say such a thing in public--all other rumors to the contrary (128). In the last twenty years or so, the only people who have proclaimed their belief in Frank's guilt are Mary Phagan Kean, a grandniece of Mary Phagan, who wrote a book about the case; Tom Watson Brown, a grandson of the southern populist leader Tom Watson (who made a second career out of hating Frank); and Dr. Ed Fields, a chiropractor who was raised in Mary Phagan's hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and who is now the publisher of a white supremacist magazine which still carries on about Frank's deviltry.

    If I am going to make any sense out of the "Frank catalog" I will need first to present my own basic outline of the case and its legacies. In my version of the Frank case there are three main characters: Leo Frank, Jim Conley, and Tom Watson. The story I want to set up is one in which Frank and Conley are made to stand as representatives of what has gone wrong with the New South, a story that was largely scripted by Tom Watson. Watson was a populist leader who served in the Congress in the early 1890s, ran for vice president in 1896, and was elected senator in 1920. He also published two magazines (the Jeffersonian and Watson's Magazine ) that carried his loud message: Frank was a lascivious capitalist come South to upset the delicate balance that southern whites and African Americans had achieved in the post-Civil War era.

    Late at night on August 16, 1915, a group of "respectable" white Georgians broke into the State Prison Farm at Milledgeville and, meeting no resistance, abducted its most famous inmate, Leo Frank. By the following morning, Frank's lifeless body was hanging from a tree outside Marietta, the hometown and final resting place of the young woman he had allegedly killed (Dinnerstein 140). After his controversial trial Frank received widespread publicity as his innocence was championed around the world; with his death Frank became a legend and a touchstone.

    Leo Frank was part owner and supervisor of the National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta, and had been found guilty in 1913 of the murder of Mary Phagan, a young white woman who worked for him for twelve cents an hour. Although he was not formally charged with rape at this trial, intimations of Frank's sexual perversion were essential to the prosecution's case and combined with familiar anti-Semitic images to make him a likely villain. What was most unprecedented about the prosecution of Leo Frank was that its linchpin was Jim Conley, an African American janitor who also worked in the factory. This represented the first capital case in postbellum southern history in which a "white" defendant was condemned by the testimony of an African American (Lewis, "Parallels" 547).

    Mary Phagan was brutally murdered in the National Pencil Company factory on April 26, 1913. The day of the murder was Confederate Memorial Day, and Frank was at the factory catching up on some paper work. Here is how one historian of Georgia, writing in 1917, set the scene: "On this anniversary of a Lost Cause, when the state was honoring its Confederate heroes with memorial exercises, when the air was fragrant with garlands plucked by loyal and loving hands to lay upon the graves of the dead, and when every one, in response to an instinct of patriotism, was thinking in tenderness of the past, there occurred in the heart of Atlanta a tragedy of the most revolting character" (Knight 1121). Frank himself took time out to write to his Uncle Moses Frank to describe the parade he saw: "Today was `yontiff' [holiday] here, and the thin gray line of veterans, smaller each year, braved the rather chilly weather to do honor to their fallen comrades" (qtd. in Connolly 36).

    Phagan had not worked for a few days prior to this because a shipment of metal casings for pencil erasers had not come in, and there was no work for her. She came into Atlanta from an outlying suburb in order to pick up the pay that was due her, planning to stay in town to watch the parade. Phagan's family insisted that she worked at the pencil factory by choice, even after her mother remarried and her stepfather requested that she stop (Kean 14). Nonetheless, publicity surrounding the case highlighted the economic oppression of Phagan in the factory system.

    Frank paid Phagan sometime between 12:00 and 12:30 and turned out to be the last person who would admit to seeing the young woman alive. Phagan's corpse was found at approximately 3:30 A.M. on Sunday by Newt Lee, an African American recently hired as night watchman for the factory. When the police arrived they discovered a body so covered with cinders that at first they could not ascertain whether or not it belonged to a white woman. Two notes, purportedly written by Phagan as she lay dying, were found by the body; both seemed to implicate Lee as the culprit. Suspicion attached to Lee briefly, but soon Leo Frank was fixed upon as the most attractive suspect. A few days after Mary Phagan's murder it became clear to Atlanta's police force that Newt Lee, who was being held in solitary confinement, was definitely not responsible for the crime. Further, the police were also starting to feel the pressure of a public clamoring for an appropriate villain to pay penance for this crime. The Atlanta police had been having a difficult time keeping up with increasing crime rates in the city--they had a number of unsolved murders on their hands at the time. Likewise, Solicitor-General Hugh Dorsey had recently "failed to convict two important accused murderers," and it is possible that his career hinged on getting a conviction in this case (Dinnerstein 19).

    On the one hand, these conditions would suggest that a villain, any villain, would do: early suspicion of Newt Lee, with no material evidence against him, speaks clearly to this impulse. But very quickly, if we are to believe contemporary commentators, a special sort of blood lust developed; little Mary was a special victim (pure, innocent, one of "ours"), whose lost life demanded a special, outlandish miscreant as recompense. The pastor of Mary Phagan's church, in a contrite retrospective essay on the case, gives us insight into public sentiment in what has since become the most quoted evidence to support the idea that there was some kind of public call for an extraordinary villain: "My feelings, upon the arrest of the old negro watchman, were to the effect that this one old negro would be poor atonement for the life of this innocent girl. But, when on the next day, the police arrested a Jew, and a Yankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime" (qtd. in Dinnerstein 33).

    It is tempting to contemplate the workings of selective memory here: Pastor L. O. Bricker's testimony is an almost too perfect rendition of the argument that the Atlanta police went searching for an evildoer who would satisfy the public craving for an unusual type of blood. Many later students of the case have argued just this--that some kind of overwhelming public outcry put pressure on the law to come up with a suitable demon. Newt Lee, the night watchman, and Jim Conley, the janitor, both African Americans, simply would not do.

    Let us consider who this "public" was. "Mary's people," as Albert Lindemann has aptly named them, have suffered ignominious description from generations of historians and journalists; in some respect I think this "silent majority" has, in a classic case of historical sleight-of-hand, become the true villain of the affair. Lindemann describes "Mary's people" as emotional, interested in a quick fix, and frankly unsophisticated:

Ordinary people are not always capable of appropriately sifting through legal evidence, even when they have access to reliable information, which was hardly the case in the weeks immediately following the murder.... "Mary's people" did not need to engage in the intellectually taxing effort of sifting the accumulating mass of increasingly confused and contradictory evidence; they did not have to endure the psychologically difficult process of suspending judgment any longer. The "monster" had been caught, and what a satisfying conclusion! (249)

    Steve Oney, in a 1985 article in Esquire , has taken this revisionist tendency to another level entirely. Describing a picture of the crowd surrounding Leo Frank's body after his lynching, Oney writes that most of the observers are "sunken-cheeked, nine-fingered rustics in bib overalls." One man in particular catches Oney's attention: he has a "lopsided jaw, crooked mouth, unfathomably stupid eyes--[he] conjures up the eerie sound of a banjo string tuned to the breaking point, a note of backwoods madness" (92).

    The lynchers of Leo Frank certainly deserve to have calumny heaped upon their memory. But these poor rural people in the picture Oney is gazing at were deliberately excluded from the lynching party; at worst, they approved of the action and protected the identities of the lynchers. The killers of Leo Frank were Marietta, Georgia's "best" citizens; Lucian Lamar Knight described the leader of the lynch mob as having "as reputable a name as you would ever hear" (1181-86). The demonization--or actually, celebration--of poor whites as responsible for lynchings committed by "best" citizens was not uncommon in the time of the Frank case; even as lower-class whites are forbidden from enjoying the pleasures of punishing the malefactor, the caste solidarity of all "normal" white people is reaffirmed by circulating the invented responsibility for the deed (Hall, Revolt 139, 303n24; Brundage 38; Berson 30). Of course this move also assures that the powerful white men responsible for the lynching do not have to fear prosecution.

    But to continue to fasten blame on poor whites is to obscure the terms of the debate over Leo Frank's arrest, conviction, and lynching. No longer is this affair about contending status of African Americans and Jews in the South, no longer does it concern changing power relationships among numerous competing social groups; it now becomes a simple narrative of rural folks come to town to vent a little of their inbred savagery. One important point to make about the approach taken by Oney, Lindemann, and so many others is that they are, in effect, evoking a "third man theme"--popular among some creative artists too--in order to release the pressure that the Frank case put (and continues to put) on Black-Jewish relations. Drawing attention away from the complicated drama that pit Conley against Frank, and focusing mainly on Frank's martyrdom at the hands of a howling poor-white mob, these reports render the competition of African American and Jew in this case as an insignificant subplot. Blaming poor whites cannot erase the fact that Black-Jewish tension has long been a feature of the Frank case.

    A starting point of the present study is that "Black-Jewish relations" is best understood as a Jewish story--a narrative of intergroup activity that speaks mainly to the desires of specific Jews. In this light it is important to understand how the persecution of Leo Frank has come to be a sacred text of American Jewish history, a key moment that revealed the vulnerability of Jews in America; stitching Leo Frank into this narrative has meant ignoring the "insides" of the case in order to squeeze it into a preshaped mold.

    Once Newt Lee was cleared of any connection with Mary Phagan's death, Leo Frank loomed as the most realistic suspect. Complaints about his lascivious behavior were "discovered"; Frank was not only an employer of cheap labor and a Jew but he also had no supportable alibi at the time of the murder. But in the course of Jim Conley's affidavits to the police, it also became clear that Conley was a potential suspect. Conley seemed much more frightening than Lee; he had a prison record and a reputation for drunkenness, and, most telling, admitted to helping Frank dispose of Mary Phagan's body. Where Frank would never concede any guilt, Conley allowed himself to be implicated, at least as an accessory after the fact.

    Why then was Conley not fixed as the prime (and only) suspect in the case? Here, as many have argued, seems to be where a real, if unarticulated, need for a "big" villain comes in. One observer of the trial and its aftermath argued for a police conspiracy to produce an appropriate criminal: "Conley was only a friendless negro, and to convict a mere negro of this crime, after the carnival of sensation and the mystery that had surrounded it, would make [the police] the butt of the community" (Connolly 50-51 ). A letter writer to Governor John Slaton made a similar point, with irony: "A mere roustabout, drunken, brutal, criminal negro would not satisfy this all permeating, absorbing, high class, soul stirring deman.... It would be too plain, too simple, too commonplace, lacking in mystery and sensation. Too much like things that had happened before to be the public solution of a `great mystery.'" Again, this writer reminds us that once the details of Mary Phagan's death became public, the "plot" of her murder had to be made to fit a satisfying pattern.


Excerpted from Black-Jewish Relations on Trial by Jeffrey Melnick. Copyright © 2000 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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