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The Nation

Murder and Injustice in the Old South

A book lays bare Georgia girl's death and reveals the powers behind a plot.

November 09, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MARIETTA, Ga. — In a corner of a cedar-scented Confederate graveyard stands a marker to Mary Anne Phagan. Little Mary, as they know her around here, of legend and song.

Nearby rests Herbert Clay, mayor, prosecutor and leader of the lynch mob that exacted its own justice in Mary's death. If one were possessed of a sufficiently gothic imagination, one might declare it fitting that Mary, the eternal victim, lies almost within the embrace of Clay, her everlasting avenger.

Trouble is, Clay almost certainly got the wrong man.

A new book that has captured the attention of this former cotton-ginning center outside Atlanta offers evidence that would exonerate Leo Frank of strangling and brutalizing the 13-year-old girl in the basement of his pencil factory. To the chagrin of some of Marietta's most esteemed families, it also lays bare the audacious plot to kidnap Frank from a state prison and drive him through six counties to his hanging tree.

Planners of the lynching, said Steve Oney, author of "And The Dead Shall Rise," included judges, lawmen and a former governor -- some of whose descendants are prominent in present-day Marietta society.

"I'm not normally a believer in conspiracies," said Oney, 49, who spent 17 years looking into the case. "But this was an unofficial state-sponsored lynching."

Southerners don't spend a lot of time listening to the ghosts of the Old South rattle their chains. Like everyone else, they're more worried about gridlock and mortgages.

But this is not just another true crime story. What the Manson Family murders were to California in terms of offering a snapshot of a time and its toxic social forces, Mary's killing and the subsequent lynching of Jewish industrialist Frank were to Georgia.

Even though the events are 90 years old, a standing-room-only audience of 700 recently gathered in Atlanta to hear Oney tell his story. The book, released last month by Pantheon Books, has been selling briskly at local stores.

The new interest in the case has also spurred a flurry of commentary in the local papers. Even though Marietta, with its sports bars, theme restaurants and multiplying housing developments, is a vastly different place than the mercantile outpost of 5,000 it was at the time of Mary's slaying, people are aware of their pasts.

Some descendants of lynch-mob members have been surprised to learn their forebears were involved. Some are angry at seeing their family's soiled linen flapping in the breeze.

"This is just muckraking," said Charles M. Brown, 77, a retired aerospace worker. His grandfather, former Georgia Gov. Joseph M. Brown, was identified in the book as a conspirator. His grandfather was a "very opinionated man," Brown said. As to whether he participated in the lynching plot, Brown said he had no idea.

But he is upset it has all come up again. "They're just trying to make the South look bad, like they've been doing for years."

Others are embracing the book in the hope it will at last end speculation surrounding one of the region's most sensational crimes, one that was covered by newspapers around the country, including the New York Times, which argued Frank's cause.

"It has been a huge secret for years and years," said Dan Cox, 64, executive director of the Marietta Museum of History. "I think this will finally put it to rest."

Mary's bloody and despoiled body was found April 26, 1913, covered in black soot and pencil shavings. Suspicion immediately fell on the factory's night watchman. But police quickly shifted their focus to Frank.

A slender, dignified man who loved classical music, Frank was married, happily it seemed to all who knew the couple in the thriving Jewish community. But stories soon emerged that he was something of a masher, making insinuating remarks to the girls he employed. On her last day of life, when Mary went to pick up her $1.20 in wages, she told a friend she didn't like being alone with Frank.

By this time, Frank was already half-convicted in the minds of newspaper readers, their opinions enflamed by anger toward factory owners, particularly Northern industrialists like Frank, who made their fortunes on the backs of child labor. Mary's boss was a tailor-made villain -- her own Simon Legree -- for a region still nursing its wounds from the Civil War.

The scales tipped firmly against Frank when a factory worker said that, at Frank's behest, he wrote two notes found under Mary's body. The notes, in semi-literate English, were intended to implicate the night watchman.

Frank was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. When then-Gov. John M. Slaton commuted the sentence to life in prison, a populist rage erupted against the North and, in particular, wealthy Jews who were believed to have manipulated Slaton behind the scenes.

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