This photograph records one of the most infamous lynchings in American history, that of Jewish pencil factory superintendent Leo Frank, convicted in 1913 for murdering his young employee, 13-year-old Mary Phagan.
The Brooklyn-raised, Cornell University-educated Frank moved from New York to Atlanta in 1908 to run his uncle’s pencil factory. He prospered, marrying into a prominent and cultured family and settling into the city’s German Jewish community, the largest in the post-Civil War south.
In April 1913, a night watchman discovered Mary Phagan’s body in the factory’s basement. She had been strangled and possibly sexually assaulted. Frank was among the suspects, as he was the last who admitted to having seen her alive. Mary, having been laid off, had come to the factory on Saturday to collect her $1.20 wages from Frank before attending a Confederate Day Parade. Others were suspected of the crime, including factory janitor Jim Conley, a petty criminal who claimed to have helped Frank dispose of the body.
The evidence was contradictory, circumstantial, and coerced, but sensationalist newspapers rallied southerners against Frank, who was painted as a Jewish Yankee capitalist exploiter. In this charged atmosphere, Frank was convicted after only two hours of jury deliberation and sentenced to death. His conviction became a national cause célèbre, and when the U. S. Supreme Court denied Frank’s request for a new trial, more than two million successfully petitioned Georgia Governor John Slaton to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment, resulting in local outrage.
On 16 August 1915, a lynch mob of 25 prominent men from Marietta, later identified as a former Georgia governor, sheriffs, the then- and former mayors of Marietta, a judge, local businessmen, a doctor, a banker, lawyers, and an assemblyman, kidnapped Frank from Milledgeville State Penitentiary. They drove to Frey’s Gin, two miles east of Marietta, and hanged him from a tree on August 17. When word got out, more than 3,000 onlookers arrived at the scene.
An important legacy of Leo Frank’s wrongful treatment was the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, whose purpose is to fight anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism.