On April 27, 1913, the body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found in the basement of the National Pencil Co. factory in Atlanta, where she worked. She had been raped and strangled.
What was already a horrible crime quickly became a national maelstrom revealing the ragged schisms of post-Civil War America. Based on the coached testimony of the only other suspect, plant supervisor Leo Frank, a Northern Jew, was convicted and sentenced to death. When the governor, believing him innocent, subsequently commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, Frank was lynched.
Nearly 100 years later, the case continues to captivate. Countless books have been written; "Parade," a musical based on the events, is playing at the Mark Taper Forum downtown, and "The People v. Leo Frank" premieres Sunday on KCET.
A clearly told and haunting reenactment documentary, "The People v. Leo Frank" identifies the many forces behind this destructive gale.
Written and directed by Ben Loeterman, the film re-creates the world of turn-of-the-century Atlanta, a society that accepts the early German Jewish immigrants as long as they refrain from being "too Jewish." When a second wave of more conservative Jews arrive from Poland and the Ukraine, they are seen as interlopers, igniting the embers of anti-Semitism.
Frank was a German Jew raised in New York, a spectacled Cornell graduate of intellectual appearance and nervous demeanor. His agitated reaction when informed of the crime, followed by his contradictory interpretation of time cards -- which seemed to be intentionally throwing suspicion on the black Southern night watchman who found Phagan's body -- raised suspicions. Frank, by his own admission the last to see Phagan alive, was arrested to banner headlines and public rejoicing.
Lacking the type of forensic tools we take for granted today, the Atlanta police relied on their own interpretation of a crime scene that contained a few bizarre elements. Two notes lay next to Phagan's body, written as if by her, naming the black "witch man" as her assailant. The body had been moved and, bizarrely, there was fresh human feces in the elevator shaft, left there by janitor Jim Conley.
Conley, a man seen washing something red from his shirt a few days after the murder, was the only other suspect. But although he repeatedly lied to police, when he finally "admitted" that Frank paid him to move Phagan's body, he was believed. Frank was convicted almost exclusively on the testimony of the man who, in all likelihood, killed Mary Phagan.
The grisly nature of the murder made it a media event. When the verdict was returned, Frank was not in the courtroom -- for his own safety he remained in his cell. When the defense argued prejudice, the prosecution laughed -- how could they be accused of prejudice when they had taken the word of a black man over that of a white?
The Jewish community turned north for aid, enlisting the help of Alfred Ochs, publisher of the New York Times. He began a paper-wide campaign to prove Frank's innocence, a crusade met blow for blow by politician and publisher Tom Watson. Using the Weekly Jeffersonian as a platform, Watson defended Southern Christianity from the corrupt forces of Northern Jewry and turned Phagan's murder into a banner of class oppression.
"The People v. Leo Frank" is an artful autopsy of tragedy. A girl was murdered, a man was murdered and men became monsters. Frank's behavior was just as damning as his religion; Conley's personal attorney, who stepped forward so yet another black man would not be wrongfully accused, realized too late that his client was a liar, and a community, justifiably incensed by the rape and murder of a child, allowed itself to be whipped into regional and anti-Semitic hysteria.
Loeterman has given us a fine historical document that captures many facets of American life through the prism of a single event. But more than that, he reminds us that while technology and social mores have advanced and shifted, human nature has not. And in times of national outrage and fear, we would do well to remember that we put a blindfold on Justice, and we had good reason.
v. Leo Frank'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)