“The Poison of Unspeakable Things”: Parade and the Leo Frank Case

This essay was written during the production run of "Parade," at the Ford's Theater, September 23-October 30, 2011. Another version appears on the Ford's website.

“The Poison of Unspeakable Things”: Parade and the Leo Frank Case
by Gerri Williams 
A desperate man trapped in a legal nightmare. A grieving widow who must live with the knowledge that the unpunished murderers of her husband are also her neighbors. An African American man, accused of murder, manipulates a racist system to save his neck, only to end his life indigent and rootless.

After almost 100 years, the power of the Leo Frank case continues to haunt, horrify and fascinate us. With its combustible elements of race and religion, it has inspired books, articles, movies and now a musical play. What is it about the story of this northern Jew, accused and convicted of child murder in the south, and subsequently lynched, that carries so much emotional freight with us even today?
The Leo Frank case still resonates because it breaches the limits of two of our country’s most treasured values: inclusion and justice. After all, we are the nation of E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One.” We fought a war on our own soil that established once and for all our unified destiny. Our legal system mandates equality and fairness. Although we may never realize them fully, inclusion and justice remain high standards to which we aspire as a country.  When these values are betrayed, the country suffers wounds that linger until healing takes place through redress and recommitment.

As “Parade” opens, it is 1862, and a young Confederate soldier prepares to depart his home state of Georgia for war. He evokes his love of the land he swears to protect:  “God bless the sight of the old red Hills of Home…” This veneration of region will play out in “Parade” in ways both benign and murderous.  There have to be enemies, and the soldier identifies them as Yankees: “Let all the blood of the North spill upon them, ‘ til they’ve paid for what they wrought, taken back the lies they taught…” A fast-forward to 1913 places the action on the day of the Confederate Memorial Day Parade. The same soldier, maimed and 51 years older, leads the throng. Southern pride endures, but the fratricidal trauma of the Civil War has left the combatants and their descendants backward, bitter, and defiant.
Leo Frank appears in this tableau, a New York transplant, college-educated, a factory boss, and a Jew. Standing apart and alone from the parade revelers, it is clear he’s an outsider; the first time we hear Frank’s voice, he is yearning to be “Home again in Brooklyn/ Back with people who look like I do, and talk like I do and think like I do…”

The Atlanta of 1913 was one of the south’s most industrialized cities, but with alienating social rifts at its conflicted heart. To be a white, male Christian, with assets and social standing, was to have a favored position in the winner’s circle of life.

By contrast, the thousands of poor whites who had streamed into Atlanta following post-war economic turmoil had few prospects. These rural people, dispossessed of their former landholdings, eked out a living on the city’s outskirts. Most had no choice but to seek work in the new mills and factories, many of which had been set up by northern cartels.  These were hated industrial symbols, places where both women and children were exposed to the dangers of city life. As a character accuses, “People of Atlanta fought for freedom to their graves/And now their city is a factory and their children are its slaves.”

Fifty years after emancipation, millions of southern blacks remained mired in a state of virtual serfdom as sharecroppers. In small towns and cities, arbitrary arrests for loitering or other minor offense resulted in imprisonment and forced labor. In the widespread practice of convict “leasing,” black men toiled indefinitely and without pay in turpentine farms, railroads, mines, and lumber camps. There was little legal recourse to escape these gulag-like conditions. Indeed, as Douglas Blackmon writes in Slavery by Another Name,“By 1900 the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social and labor demands of whites.”

Even those blacks who lived and worked in comparatively progressive cities like Atlanta were consigned to menial occupations, like Jim Conley, the janitor in the National Pencil Company that Leo Frank managed, or Minola McKnight, the Frank household’s cook. The memory of a 1906 race riot that left 25 African Americans dead and 150 wounded still simmered. The year before, Atlanta’s city fathers had imposed Jim Crow laws segregating public facilities such as parks and libraries. Georgia had one of the highest rates of lynching in the south, with blacks numbering a near total of the victims. In short, life for African Americans in Georgia meant social exclusion, disenfranchisement, and the ever-present threat of terror.

Jews introduced an irreconcilable ambiguity to the black/white binary social equation. Their whiteness and attendant privilege were in constant flux in the US and in the south.  Jews might have been welcomed in Atlanta for the capital, services, and industry they brought, but as non-Anglo Saxons they lived behind an invisible wall of exclusion. The assimilationist strategy for many, particularly the affluent and long-established members of the Jewish community, was to practice a diffident Judaism that blended with, and complemented, the Christian practice of their social peers. For resentful working class whites in subordinate positions as low-paid labor, however, Jews were interlopers, a convenient target for suspicion and superstition.

This is the society that Leo Frank navigated on April 26, 1913, when his 13-year-old factory employee, Mary Phagan, was found beaten and strangled on the soot-covered floor of the National Pencil Factory.
Justice means protection and equal standing, representation under the law and restitution when the justice system errs.  The Frank case provides lessons on how social circumstances determine access to justice.

The sordid, shocking murder of young Mary Phagan set off a wave of rage in the city. Hundreds of Atlanta citizens attended her funeral. There were several suspects, but suspicion eventually landed on Leo Frank, who consistently asserted his innocence. He was arrested on his admission that he was the last person to see Mary alive. Janitor Jim Conley, who had also been in the factory at the time, was arrested as well but never indicted. On the basis of other circumstantial evidence, Frank was charged with killing Mary Phagan.

 Local newspapers dealt a blow against a fair trial even before his arrest, publishing speculation and unfounded rumors. Populist journalist Tom Watson’s few appearances in “Parade” only hint at his impact on the Leo Frank case. His invective was the most sustained, intemperate and damaging of all of Frank’s detractors. Watson’s monthly Watson’s Magazine and weekly newspaper, The Jeffersonian, had a widespread readership in Georgia and other southern states; his favored storyline accused Jews of violations against the purity of white Southern womanhood. He kept up a drumbeat of charges that “Jew money” was attempting to buy off lawmakers and corrupt the judiciary.

Investigators leaked false rumors that Frank frequented brothels, had a wife in Brooklyn (in fact, he had married Atlanta-born Lucille Selig three years earlier), had fathered out-of-wedlock children. The effect was to render Frank as alien, perverted, unfit for the community and ultimately, outside of the bounds of justice. As Frank told the judge at his sentencing, “Your honor… On the streets, rumor and gossip carried vile, vicious and damning stories concerning my life and me.  These stories were absolutely false, and did me great harm, as they beclouded and obsessed the public mind and outraged it against me… The virus of these damning insinuations entered the minds of the twelve men and stole away their judicial frame of mind and their moral courage.  The issues at bar were lost.  The poison of unspeakable things took their place.” 

Soon northern newspaper reporters and Frank supporters from around the country poured into Atlanta. Adolph Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, dedicated the paper to extensive, sympathetic coverage of the trial.  In “Parade,” a group of African Americans caustically comment on the motives of the arrivals: “They’re comin, yessiree, ‘cause a white man’s gonna get hung, you see/There’s a black man hanging from every tree/But they don’t never pay attention.”

Leo Frank hired Atlanta’s finest legal counsel; he had financial resources at his disposal, connections and his own advantages of a superior education. Nevertheless, Frank’s case from arrest to sentencing was so egregiously mismanaged that it was a legal textbook on how not to conduct a legal proceeding. Forensic investigation was inept, even considering the low standards of the era. The case was riddled with loss, suppression and destruction of evidence; perjured testimony and coerced witnesses; and official corruption and bribery.

During the trial, throngs overflowed into the streets outside the courtroom. Their shouts heard through the courtroom’s open windows added to the frenzied, circus-like atmosphere. A real-life local troubadour, Fiddling John Carson --briefly seen in the musical--sang his “Ballad of Mary Phagan” to the crowds: “Little Mary Phagan/She went to work one day/She went to the pencil factory/To get her little pay/Leo Frank he met her/With a brutely heart we know/He smiled and said, ‘Little Mary/Now you go home no more.’ ”

For their part, neither Frank nor his defense team hesitated to employ racist language against the factory janitor Jim Conley, who was now a witness for the prosecution. They routinely referred to him as “the negro Conley” in the newspapers and other records to advance their case. (Indeed, Frank, as portrayed in “Parade” is no paragon of tolerance; he is contemptuous of the southern citizens he lives among, comparing them to animals in a zoo.)

Conley remained imprisoned but his story that he was only an accomplice to Frank’s murder of Mary Phagan became a linchpin in the prosecution’s case, despite Conley’s long record of arrests for drunk and disorderly and one armed robbery attempt.  It is believed that the Frank case is the first in which a black man testified against a white man in a capital trial.

That Conley’s word outweighed that of a white man introduced a conundrum. It meant re-evaluating the absoluteness of whiteness. And so, Leo Frank had to be so completely demonized as to be unrecognizable as even a nominal white man. Conley supplied this with lurid stories about Frank’s trysts with women in the factory and his deviant sexual practices. Black newspapers and spokesmen, located chiefly in the north, were wary of championing a career criminal like Conley even as they emphasized the double standard or denial of justice for the majority of African Americans.
Despite Frank’s sterling defense legal team, ultimately Conley prevailed. He skillfully exploited a white stereotype that a black man would be too unintelligent to plot, execute and hide a murder on his own.  His testimony proved credible to the all-white jury, even after the serial prevarications in his numerous affidavits were exposed. With few resources, financial or social, Conley used the rigged justice system to his advantage. Ultimately, he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment as accessory to a crime after the fact. Soon after, Conley’s lawyer stated his belief in his own client’s guilt, and years later signed a deathbed note to that effect.

After a month-long trial, the jury deliberated for less than three hours, returning with a guilty verdict for Leo Frank. He was sentenced to death by hanging. His many appeals, all the way to the US Supreme Court, were denied. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of two dissenters on the bench, wrote about the trial, “We are not speaking of mere disorder, or mere irregularities in procedure, but of a case where the processes of justice were actually subverted.”

As more retractions and anomalies about the prosecution’s methods surfaced, the governor of Georgia, John Slaton, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Frank initially had rejected a clemency plea, stating, “I am not asking for mercy. I am innocent and have been unjustly convicted. What I want is justice.” Upon learning of the commutation, enraged citizens stormed the governor’s mansion. Slaton was hung in effigy; a sign attached read “King of the Jews.”

Frank was transferred from the Fulton jail in Atlanta to Milledgeville State Prison. Considering the commutation proof of favoritism and deceit, the imprisonment inflamed his detractors even more. Tom Watson, charging in his publication that “the filthy Sodomite will disappear from the state farm to resume his pursuit of little Gentile girls,” also challenged, “Hereafter, let no man reproach the South with Lynch law… let him say whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.

Frank continued to press for his freedom. His correspondence from before and during this period poignantly reveals how completely Leo Frank believed that the justice system would vindicate him. In arguing for his appeals, he invoked Section 1 of the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which defines citizenship, extending its rights and obligations, and with it, protection and due process of law as the birthright to every person born on US soil. Ironically, this Section had been added in 1897 to protect the rights of newly freed slaves.

Three months before his death, he wrote one of his attorneys: “While I am sorely distressed by the many reverses I have had, I can but feel that eventually the cause of innocence, justice and truth will be vindicated, and that I will again take my place among the world of men, with name and liberty restored."
The noxious atmosphere of prejudice, invective, and impunity culminated in the lynching of Leo Frank.  The ultimate in dehumanization and objectification, lynching violently thrusts the victim outside the circle of human society and legal protection. The victim is, as the title of a book about the subject suggests, “Without Sanctuary.” It is a ritual of punishment and revenge in which the perpetrators experience catharsis, disgust, satisfaction, and even entertainment.
(And in this regard, “Parade” disappoints in its misleading portrayal of Frank’s lynching as a spontaneous  mob action by a few peripheral characters in the play, some of them fictional. In fact, it was a well-organized group of at least 25 leading citizens, including a solicitor general, the mayor of Atlanta’s neighboring town of Marietta, a former sheriff, and prominent business owners, that carried out the deed with the collusion of state prison officials. Using their influence in the community, they escaped punishment and were able to obscure their participation in the plot for decades. “Parade’s” evasion, presumably for dramatic effect, of the culpability of vested power in the lynching blurs the historical record and is a disservice to the audience.)

Snatched from his prison cell and driven to an oak grove by his abductors, Leo Frank was blindfolded and hanged on August 17, 1915. He was the first and only Jew to be lynched on American soil.
 “Parade” ends on an ambiguous note. The definitive question of who had committed Mary Phagan’s murder remains unanswered. Frank’s widow vows to remain in the state in which she was born, claiming her ground as a Georgian. The cast unites in a final song, perhaps suggesting a common destiny in the land they love (although one wonders what the words “Praise those who’d fight for the old hills of Georgia! /For those proud and valiant men/We’ll sing ‘Dixie’ once again” might mean to the black “Atlantans” on stage.) What lessons have been learned must wait for the future to be realized.
 “Parade” captures a moment in time when two long-reviled groups were on the cusp of dynamic change.  Frank’s trial and subsequent lynching coincided with the rise of newspapers and magazines of national reach. The coverage of The New York Timesand other major papers modeled standards of journalistic accuracy and objectivity that informed national opinion. Lynchings had been local affairs, with largely anonymous victims and perpetrators. The intensive press coverage of the Frank case shined a spotlight on the practice, leading to widespread condemnation among readers throughout the U.S.

At the same time, the dire state of tolerance and human rights in the south galvanized a national, organized response. Within a month of Frank’s lynching, the B’nai Brith launched the Anti-Defamation League. Its purpose as stated in the charter: “To stop, by appeals to reason and conscience, and if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. . . to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike . . . to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” With the founding of the ADL, Jews staked out and announced their intent to defend their right to full inclusion in the American family.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 with significant Jewish support and involvement, leveraged Leo Frank’s lynching to raise awareness of discrimination and inequality among black Americans. In years to come, black and Jewish organizations would collaborate in transformative campaigns for civil and human rights, adding to a trajectory of social gains that endure to today. But the persistent vilification of racial and religious groups (witness the contemporary treatment of U.S. Muslims) and the racial disparities and inequities in our prison system remind us that the task for an inclusive, just America is ongoing.

Gerri Williams is a writer, editor and community activist. A former Foreign Service Officer, she served in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy and Human Rights. She is currently a research associate at the University of the District of Columbia. Her writings and activities focus on the power of civic engagement to meet social and environmental challenges with resilience and imagination.
©  2011 Gerri L. Williams. All rights reserved. For inquiries, contact ww.WilliardWorks.com
Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Doubleday, 2008. Not explicitly about the Leo Frank case, the book provides essential documentation about the legal and social suppression of African Americans in the south. It supplies context for the racial and labor conflicts at the heart of the Frank case. Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
Dinnerstein, Leonard. The Leo Frank Case. Columbia University Press, 1968. A compact, early book with extensive and still useful bibliographic information.
Melnick, Jeffrey.Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South.University Press of Mississippi, 2000. Melnick’s original and provocative book focuses on power relations between blacks, whites and Jews in a newly industrializing south. The author skillfully cites examples of how popular culture has influenced the framing of the Frank case up to the present.
Oney, Steve. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. Vintage Books (pb), 2003. At almost 700 pages, this most recent account of the case contains a wealth of details and photos, with meticulous citation of hundreds of sources. It is especially strong in its description of Atlanta social history and the distortions and sensationalized treatment of the case by the press. Much of the book draws on testimony and other court records. It investigates the impact of Frank’s death among the survivors, and for the first time, fully identifies all of Frank’s lynchers by name.
Bernstein, Matthew H. Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television, University of Georgia Press, 2009. Particularly useful for film studies courses, the book analyzes and contrasts four films (“Murder in Harlem,” “Profiles in Courage” episode on Georgia governor John Slaton, “They Won’t Forget,” “The Murder of Mary Phagan”) and the various lenses through which they examine the Frank case. It covers the work of pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s whodunit based on Frank, as well as the reactions of the black press to the case at the time. Extensive production notes and numerous photos.
“And the Dead Shall Rise.” This article from GM (the University of Georgia Magazine) reveals Steve Oney’s painstaking research methods over 17 years to write the book of the same name. An instructive exploration of the persistence, sleuthing and hard work (and the occasional stroke of luck) that informs comprehensive research. March 2004: Vol. 83, No. 2. http://www.uga.edu/gm/304/304Main.html Accessed 9/25/11.
“Wrongly Accused, Falsely Convicted, Wantonly Murdered.” Author Donald E. Wilkes, Jr. is a professor at the University of Georgia Law School. In addition to a thorough dissection of the legal issues in the Frank case, the author presents biographies of principal characters and a useful chronology up to 2005.  The bibliography, which repeats some of Steve Oney’s citations, is available online at http://www.law.uga.edu/dwilkes_more/his38_wrongly.html(2004). Accessed October 3, 2011.
“The People v. Leo Frank,” directed by Ben Loeterman. An indictment of the legal system and the many flaws in the Frank case. The centerpiece of the film is William Smith, the lawyer for suspect Jim Conley, who became convinced of his client’s guilt and devoted much of his life to proving it. Features interviews with historians, social scientists, and local experts. All dialogue is taken from primary sources.
Parade (1998 Original Broadway Cast Recording). RCA Victor Broadway.B00000IMFL
©  2011 Gerri L. Williams. All rights reserved.