Chapter 9 – Reverberations

The Knights of Mary Phagan stood guard for at least one day and one night at the tree from which they had hung Leo Frank, apparently expecting that someone—perhaps souvenir hunters or someone on the orders of Governor Harris, who had offered a reward for the conviction of any of the lynch party—might cut it down. Two months after the lynching, the group climbed to the top of Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, and burned a large cross. They say it was visible all over Atlanta. On October 26, 1915, William J. Simmons, an ex-Methodist minister and a member of at least eight fraternal orders, gathered together thirty-four men, including members of the Knights of Mary Phagan and three former Ku Klux Klan members, and signed an application to the State of Georgia to charter the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. On November 25, Thanksgiving Day, Simmons again convened this group and they again ascended Stone Mountain and formally inaugurated the new Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. They again burned a large cross. The original Ku Klux Klan, founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1867, was a secret society opposed to the Reconstruction policies of the radical Republican Congress and whose purpose was the re-establishment of white supremacy in the South. General N. B. Forrest, well known Confederate cavalry leader, was the first Grand Wizard of the Empire. The Empire immediately began a campaign of terror against ex-slaves and whites who involved themselves in black causes. They operated at night, their identities obliterated under white sheets. Their methods were flogging, torture, and lynching. They usually planted a burning cross on the property of someone whom they felt they had to threaten. It was their calling card. It has been said that the Mary Phagan-Leo Frank case was the spark that rekindled the Ku Klux Klan. As whites regained control of state governments in the South the Klan’s power faded. In 1869 General Forrest ordered the abandonment of the Klan and resigned as Grand Wizard. But local organizations continued, some for many years. The release, in 1915, of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” further fueled the fires of the new Invisible Empire, which added to its motto of “white supremacy” anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Its appeal, therefore, was wider than that of the original Klan. In the early 1920s, with the help of experienced promoters and fundraisers Edward Y. Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, the Klan began exercising strong control over local politics throughout the South and spread rapidly into the North, especially Oregon, Oklahoma, Indiana, Maine, and Illinois. In 1922, 1924, and 1926, it elected many state officials and a number of Congressmen. At one point the Invisible Empire claimed a million members.

For ten years after its inauguration—or re-inauguration—the Klan exercised a career of terror. Then the death of another girl destroyed its power. In 1926, David C. Stephenson, who had ousted William Simmons from the leadership of the Klan and was at that time Imperial Wizard, was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of Madge Oberholtzer, whom, in consort with other Klansmen, he had kidnapped, raped, and abducted to Chicago from Irvington, Indiana. The case, which included some revolting perversions, created a widespread revulsion against the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the 1930s its influence weakened irreparably. In 1944 it was formally dissolved. Five years later, however, groups from six Southern states met to attempt to reform a national organization. During the Civil Rights era, the Klan again raised its head. It has never really died. It is recruiting members today. It recently attempted to involve my family. In the months following the lynching about three thousand Jews left the State of Georgia. Those who remained—and particularly those in Atlanta—were financially crippled by a huge boycott of Jewish businesses. The Jewish community, or at least some of its more prominent members, had felt, in fact, an increasing anti-Semitism for the previous three decades or so. This feeling mounted as resentment of the monies which poured in from Jewish organizations around the country—particularly in the North—to aid in Leo Frank’s defense and subsequent appeals soared. If Mary Phagan’s death and Leo Frank’s lynching gave impetus to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, they also gave impetus to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. At the time of his arrest, Leo Frank was president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith, the Jewish fraternal order which had been founded in 1843. There were plans for the organization of its Anti-Defamation League, to combat antiSemitism in the United States and “to work for equality of opportunity for all Americans in our time,” as their charter reads, but it took the condemnation of Leo Frank to galvanize it into being. The League was established four weeks after Leo Frank’s trial ended. As Dave Schary, the fourth national chairman of the League has stated, “Certainly the B’nai B’rith would have founded the League sooner or later, but the story of Leo Frank struck the American Jewish community like nothing be-fore in its experience. It was Frank’s destiny to give the League a sense of urgency that characterizes its operations to this day.” At the founding ceremonies of the League, Adolph Kraus, then national president of B’nai B’rith, commenting on the widespread prejudice and discrimination, said: Remarkable as it is, this condition has gone so far as to manifest itself recently in an attempt to influence courts of law where a Jew happened to be a party to the litigation. This symptom, standing by itself, while contemptible, would not constitute a menace, but forming as it does but one incident in a continuing chain of occasions of discrimination, it demands organized and systematic effort on behalf of all right-thinking Americans to put a stop to this most pernicious and un-American tendency.

The Anti-Defamation League practically from its inception vigorously opposed all lynchings. It, along with the NAACP, works to correct falsehoods in all forms of media and to distribute information correcting misconceptions about Judaism. It owes its genesis to Leo Frank. And to Mary Phagan. After Leo Frank’s death, Lucile Frank became a pillar of the Atlanta Jewish community. She worked in one of the better women’s clothing shops, never remarried, and until she died, in 1957, signed all her checks and papers “Mrs. Leo M. Frank.” In March 1916 Fannie Phagan Coleman sued the National Pencil Company for damages. It was settled out of court and she was awarded several thousand dollars. She died in August 1947 at age seventy-five. She was buried beside Mary. Tom Watson was indicted and tried in the United States District Court for sending obscene matter through the mail and was acquitted in 1916. Initially he supported Hugh Dorsey in the gubernatorial race. Dorsey won, and remained governor of Georgia until 1921. In 1920 Dorsey ran for the United States Senate, but Watson himself ran and won. Two years later he died from a bronchial attack. One of the memorials on his grave was a cross, eight feet high, made of roses. The Ku Klux Klan had sent it. Jim Conley served less than a year of his sentence on a chain gang. Some months after that, he was convicted of breaking and entering a business establishment in the vicinity of the Fulton County court house, and was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment, which he served. It was after that that he and my grandfather and my aunt had the famous (in our family) conversation about little Mary Phagan. Then he apparently disappeared. In 1941 he was among a group picked up for gambling by the Atlanta police. In 1947 he was again arrested—on a charge of drunkenness. He died in 1962. Rumors of a deathbed confession of his having killed Mary Phagan have grown increasingly more persistent. On April 6, 1987 my father and I spoke with three members of the Anti-Defamation League—Stuart Lewengrub, Regional Director of the Southeast Office; Betty Canter, Assistant Regional Director of the Southeast Office; and Charles Wittenstein, Counsel for the Southeast Office. The League, we felt, would certainly have tracked down and confirmed this rumor. All three were emphatic: the rumor had no basis in truth. Publications, films and plays concerning the Mary Phagan-Leo Frank case began even before Leo Frank was lynched: 1914—The Frank Case: Inside Story of Georgia’s Murder, published by Atlanta Publishing Company. Argument of Hugh Dorsey, Solicitor for Fulton County, published.

1915—C. P. Connolly reported the trial in Collier’s Weekly and then published a book, The Truth About the Frank Case.

1922—The French journalist, Van Paassen, claims that the teeth marks on Mary Phagan’s head and shoulders do not match the X-rays of Leo Frank’s teeth. He publishes his findings in the book, To Number Our Days, in 1964.

1936—Death in the Deep South by Ward Greene published.

1937—”They Won’t Forget,” a movie based on Ward Greene’s novel and starring Lana Turner as little Mary Clay appears.

1938—Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel by C. Vann Woodward published.

1943—I Can Go Home Again by Arthur Powell published.

1952—Guilty or Not Guilty by Francis X. Busch published.

1956—Night Fell on Georgia by Charles and Louise Samuels published.

1959—Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer by Allen Lumpkin Henson published.

1962—”Profile in Courage” series is aired by NBC. One deals with John M. Slaton.

1965—A Little Girl is Dead by Harry Golden published.

1967—A five-part series on the trial appears in the Atlanta Constitution, and the play, “Night Witch” has a short run.

1968—The Leo Frank Case by Leonard Dinnerstein published, reissued in 1987. There have been innumerable murders in Georgia since April 26, 1913, when little Mary Phagan was murdered. None have continued to fascinate the public as my great-aunt’s tradgedy has. Students, writers, and the curious continue yearly to visit the Georgia Department of Archives, Georgia State University, and Emory University to study the case. And many people still pay tribute to little Mary Phagan by visiting her grave. It is the history of Georgia. It is my history.