Leo Frank was the victim of a twisted mentality—a mob mentality rooted not only in anti-Semitism, but in a weakness in Georgia’s legal system, national economic and political turmoil and complex psychological factors involving gender, fear and stereotypes, says Professor William Carrigan.
Dr. Carrigan, a Professor of History at Rowan University in New Jersey and keynote speaker at the Museum’s opening reception for the newest exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited,” is an expert on lynching.
The Museum’s comprehensive exhibit on the Leo Frank Case tells how in 1913 a jury convicted Frank, a superintendent in a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, of the murder of a child laborer who worked in the factory. Thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan’s body was found in the pencil factory cellar.
To the outrage of many, Governor John Slaton, who believed Frank was innocent, commuted the former superintendent’s sentence to life in prison on his last day in office in June 1915.
Two months later, a lynch mob of 25 armed men, which included a judge, a solicitor general of a local circuit, a state legislator and an ex-governor, kidnapped Frank from prison. The mob drove Frank 150 miles to Frey’s Gin, near Phagan’s home in Marietta, and hanged him. A large crowd gathered and took photographs.
“There are just evil, bad people in the world,” Dr. Carrigan told a crowd of 85 people who attended his presentation in the Museum’s Theater on Sept. 9. “But in nearly all cases, lynching involves a mob culture ruled by a mentality permitted by a weakness in the legal system and support…by local law enforcement.”
Dr. Carrigan said a lynching culture—a phenomena seen around the globe, historically—viewed the alleged perpetrator’s crime as so heinous that mob members were permitted to act as jury, judges and executioners, nearly always before a large, cheering crowd.
In the U.S., nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968, mostly from 1882 to 1920, according to figures collected by the Archives of the Tuskegee Institute. Other people of color were also lynched—Native Americans and Mexicans.
It wasn’t until the practice was confronted and condemned by good people and a concerted effort to prosecute violators initiated, that it ended, said Dr. Carrigan, whose many books on the subject include The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916 (University of Illinois Press, 2004).
The Frankcase was the ultimate catalyst for the fledgling Anti-Defamation League in 1913. The NAACP—formed in 1909—also contributed greatly to confronting ethnic and racial discrimination, and specifically lynching in early 20th century America, Dr. Carrigan said. Tragically however, the case helped ignite the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I would like to create our own ‘garden of the righteous’ to remember those who stood up against the lynch mobs,” Dr. Carrigan said. “We would be a better society to remember those folks rather than the mobsters.”
In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Leo Frank, citing the state’s failure to protect the superintendent and bring his killers to justice as reasons for the pardoning.
The Museum presents this exhibit with the same intent as The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, which developed it. To revisit the case of Leo Frank and pose critical questions relating to individual and moral responsibility, respect for individual difference, the fragility of the democratic process, responsible citizenship, and the importance of community.
The exhibit presents the complicated and nuanced story of Mary Phagan’s murder, Leo Frank’s fate, and the historical, cultural, and political backdrop against which these events took place.
“Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited” will run through Dec. 31. The exhibit is generously supported by The Dallas Morning News and Brian Lidji, attorney and co-founder of the Lidji Dorey & Hooper law firm in Dallas.
Exhibit Dates: September 9, 2013 through December 31, 2013
Location: Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, 211 N. Record Street, Dallas, TX 75202 (In the West End Historic District of downtown Dallas at the southwest corner of Pacific and Record.)
Hours: Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.—5 p.m.
Community Partners: African-American Museum, Dallas; Anti-Defamation League; Black Classic Books, Baltimore, MD; Human Rights Initiative of North Texas; NAACP Dallas Chapter; SMU Embrey Human Rights Program; University of North Texas, Jewish Studies Program.
-Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum