The Case of Leo Frank

One hundred years after Mr. Frank’s lynching, experts on the case discuss details of his conviction and death at the hands of a Georgia mob.

The Case of Leo Frank
Steve Oney, center, talks with Blake Morant, dean of GW Law, as David Kendall, a renowned D.C. lawyer and veteran of the civil rights movement, listens in during the Q & A session. (Dave Scavone/For GW Today)
October 28, 2015

By Matthew Stoss

Steve Oney took less than four minutes to describe the 1915 racially motivated lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory superintendent convicted of the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan.

Mr. Oney—who spent nearly two decades writing And the Dead Shall Rise, considered the definitive work on the case—sat, hands clasped, and spoke reverently to a quiet audience on the fifth floor of the Jacob Burns Law Library.

“He was lynched at dawn,” Mr. Oney said. “At first, there was stillness. There was an oak grove. There were cicadas buzzing in the background, and then a crowd started to boil up out of nowhere. People came running and on horseback and on bicycles and in cars.

“By five hours after the lynching, there were 5,000 people around the body, and a reprobate named Robert E. Lee Howell emerged firing his gun over his head and cut the body down and stomped on it with his boots.”

People in the audience winced and gasped, but Mr. Oney continued, the audience as transfixed as it was at any moment Tuesday night as George Washington University hosted “Reckoning with the Ghosts of Leo Frank: A Conversation with David Kendall, Steve Oney and Blake Morant.”

“He’s able to bring the event back to life in this very vivid way,” George Washington President Steven Knapp said of Mr. Oney after the discussion. “That is what the study of history and humanities is all about. It is giving us a personal connection to experiences very removed from ourselves, whether in time or in space, and doing it in a way that brings out the humanity of those situations.”

Mr. Morant, dean of GW Law, moderated the hour-long Q & A between Mr. Oney and Mr. Kendall, a renowned D.C. lawyer and veteran of the civil rights movement who offered legal perspective on the controversial case, which ended with Mr. Frank, a Jewish white man, being found guilty by a white jury, largely on the testimony of Jim Conley, a black man. This was unprecedented in the Jim Crow south.

“One of things it should tell us is that bigotry is really non-discriminatory,” Mr. Kendall said. “And by that I mean, you start defining yourself and the other. The lines in the other are very fluid.”

The Georgia governor later commuted Mr. Frank’s death sentence, but two years into Mr. Frank’s life prison term, a mob broke into prison, snatched Mr. Frank and lynched him. The trial and death of Mr. Frank were key factors in the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence, as well as the creation of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It’s a fascinating case because it brings together a number of strands,” Mr. Kendall said. “The death penalty, how you determine who is guilty of a crime, the economic issues. The issues of violence are very real and mob domination of the processes of justice, I think, are still with us.

“I think for all those reasons the case is a fascinating one and an important one.”

Mr. Oney first wrote about Mr. Frank in 1984 when an Esquire editor assigned him a story on Alonzo Mann, Mr. Frank’s “office boy” who was at the pencil factory the day Ms. Phagan, a child laborer at the factory, was killed in 1913. Mr. Mann, on his deathbed, said he’d withheld evidence about what happened and then accused Mr. Conley. The resulting 10,000-word piece ran in Esquire in September 1985 and earned Mr. Oney the book deal for what would become And the Dead Shall Rise.

A silver-haired native Atlantan who now lives in Los Angeles, Mr. Oney said he became obsessed with writing the book, joking almost too darkly that he thought it would kill him. Mr. Oney—who said he believes Mr. Frank is “98 percent innocent”—worked on it in chunks for 17 years, taking breaks to do freelance journalism while becoming Leo Frank’s Robert Caro.

“I tried to keep a distance and tried to let the story speak for itself,” Mr. Oney said. “Because one of the problems with an inflammatory case like this is people get very charged up. They get angry. They get sad. I felt that was to no one’s benefit.

“I wanted to answer the simple question: ‘What happened?’ as best I could. Who killed Mary Phagan? Who lynched Leo Frank? And how did things get out of hand? I wanted to explain and illuminate all that.”

Reckoning with the Ghosts of Leo Frank was made possible thanks to the generous support of the David D. and Betty Cooper Wallerstein Fund for Judaic Studies, the GW Law School, the Program in Judaic Studies and the Department of History.