The Lynching of Leo Frank

Seventy years too late, a witness came forward to prove that Frank’s only crime was being a stranger in the Old South.

  1. Under the cover of the lengthening shadows of a sleepy August afternoon in 1915, five Model T's loaded with armed men quietly departed the northwest Atlanta suburb of Marietta. The men had told their wives they were going fishing. But this was no ordinary group of anglers. To avoid identification, several members of the party—whose number included mechanics, telephone linemen, explosives experts, a doctor, a preacher, and a lawyer—wore leather goggles. To escape detection, the drivers took different back roads out of town. By the time light was gone from the summer sky, the men were alone in the Georgia countryside, barreling south through cotton fields toward Milledgeville, 175 miles away.

    In his quarters at the Georgia State Prison Farm just outside Milledgeville, Leo Max Frank lay in bed. A nervous, circumspect Brooklyn Jew whose bulging eyes and wiry build lent him an unfortunate resemblance to a praying mantis, Frank had been convicted in 1913 of killing Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old Marietta girl who worked for him at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta. Frank had been condemned to die for the crime, and his conviction had been upheld by both the Georgia and the United States supreme courts. Nevertheless, Georgia governor John Slaton believed the evidence was inconclusive—on June 21, 1915, the eve of Frank's execution date, Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. That night an angry mob marched on the governor's mansion, burning Slaton in effigy. "Our ...

Originally published in Esquire, September 1985