Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South

Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South

by Jeffrey Melnick

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An analysis of the Leo Frank case as a measure of the complexities characterizing the relationship between African Americans and Jews in America

In 1915 Leo Frank, a Northern Jew, was lynched in Georgia. He had been convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan, a young white woman who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory managed by Frank. In a tumultuous trial in 1913 Frank's main accuser was Jim Conley, an African American employee in the factory. Was Frank guilty?

In our time a martyr's aura falls over Frank as a victim of religious and regional bigotry. The unending controversy has inspired debates, movies, books, songs, and theatrical productions. Among the creative works focused on the case are a ballad by Fiddlin' John Carson, David Mamet's novel The Old Religion in 1997, and Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's musical Parade in 1998.

Indeed, the Frank case has become a touchstone in the history of black-Jewish cultural relations. How- ever, for too long the trial has been oversimplified as the moment when Jews recognized their vulnerability in America and began to make common cause with African Americans.

This study has a different tale to tell. It casts off old political and cultural baggage in order to assess the cultural context of Frank's trial, and to examine the stress placed on the relationship of African Americans and Jews by it. The interpretation offered here is based on deep archival research, analyses of the court records, and study of various artistic creations inspired by the case. It suggests that the case should be understood as providing conclusive early evidence of the deep mutual distrust between African Americans and Jews, a distrust that has been skillfully and cynically manipulated by powerful white people.

Black-Jewish Relations on Trial is concerned less with what actually happened in the National Pencil Company factory than with how Frank's trial, conviction, and lynching have been used as an occasion to explore black-Jewish relations and the New South. Just as with the O. J. Simpson trial, the Frank trial requires that Americans make a profound examination of their essential beliefs about race, sexuality, and power.

Jeffrey Melnick is an assistant professor of American studies at Babson College and the author of A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604735956
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Publication date: 09/01/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 301 KB

About the Author

Jeffrey Melnick is an assistant professor of American studies at Babson College and the author of A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Leo Frank, the Musical

Every retelling of the Frank case is bound to offer, to a greater or lesser degree, the same lesson ... The outside world hates Jews and so Jews must cling to one another.

Samuel G. Freedman

In 1998 a musical about the Leo Frank case opened in New York City,with a story by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame) and music andlyrics by Jason Robert Brown, a relative unknown. When it came time torelease the soundtrack for Parade in 1999, Brown was feeling flushed withsuccess: in the notes to the compact disc, Brown recounts in a breathless rushsome of the experiences he had while preparing the show. He remembers the"deafening applause" at the final dress rehearsal, and the gratitude he felt whenHarold Prince, the legendary producer of the show, called him "the newGershwin." Finally, he turns maudlin: "Two weeks before the opening, Alfredand I went to Leo Frank's grave in Brooklyn. Neither of us had been to see itthe whole time we were writing together, and as we put two rocks on his simplegravestone, I looked down and thought, 'I hope we didn't let you down,Leo,' and as I thought it, Alfred said exactly the same thing" (Parade 9).

    In 1999, to approach Leo Frank is to visit a shrine. For American Jews inparticular, Leo Frank is a sort of talisman—a touchstone for Jews interestedin reminding themselves that they must, as Samuel G. Freedman notes, "clingto one another." Freedman's 1999 article onFrank culture in such a publicforum is startling; few critics—Jewish or otherwise—have been willing toadmit that invoking "the memory of antisemitism serves as a balm for intra-Jewishtension on such issues as intermarriage, conversion standards and thepeace process in Israel. If American Jews still had to worry not only aboutlynch mobs but the exclusionary policies of law firms, country clubs, choiceneighborhoods and Ivy League colleges, as they did for the first half of thiscentury, then they wouldn't get so perversely sentimental about the Frankcase." Frank's martyrdom has been gaining in power over the years. The weirdestof all visions of Frank, probably, was that wrought by Julie Ellis's 1980romance novel The Hampton Women, in which a young woman, ElizabethHampton, becomes passionately involved with Frank's defense effort. In tryingto capture the fervor of this young woman's commitment, Ellis basicallyturns Leo Frank into Sacco and Vanzetti. The internet has multiplied the opportunitiesfor sanctifying Frank: in the late 1990s it was easy to find resourceson the Frank case (including various secondary school curriculum kits) putup by educational and civil rights organizations. Most of these web sites reducethe case to a simple story of anti-Jewish prejudice.

    While the musical Parade stands as perhaps the fullest expression of pro-Franksentiment, it is important to remember that there was a time whenmany people thought Frank to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact,the first music written about Leo Frank took a much different position thanthat articulated by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry: when early countrysinger Fiddlin' John Carson sang three different songs about Frank, startingin public performance in 1913 and continuing on record in the 1920s, hesang of a demon who abused and killed poor Mary Phagan. In between Fiddlin'John's songs and Jason Robert Brown's songs came decades of competitionover the meaning of Frank's legacy. But it is the bookends I want to beginwith—what I'm calling Leo Frank, The Musical.

    In this chapter I want to trace how Frank's story and image have beenfought over—by Jewish Americans, African Americans, and other Americans—andwhat these fights have to tell us not only about Leo Frank but alsoabout Black-Jewish relations (and race and sexuality more broadly) in Americanculture. Contests over the meaning of the Frank case and the Franklynching have been fought out since 1915, when soon after Frank's lynchingone Frank partisan wrote to Frank's widow, Lucille, to ask her permission towrite a photoplay, which might help clear Frank's name. This woman claimedtwo major points in her favor: she knew David Belasco, the playwright andtheater manager; and, as a Westerner, she was free from "prejudice of race orcreed ... unhampered by caste, unburdened by the formality of ancient familytraditions which have been a curse to the South." Even while Frank wasalive many observers tried to rewrite the case along the lines of recognizablefictional genres and plots.

    My intention is not to challenge the dearly held belief that Frank was innocentof Mary Phagan's murder. Instead, I want to explore why so many haveset their sights on Frank and Jim Conley (but rarely Mary Phagan herself) asthey make arguments about the relative status of Jews and African Americansin the United States. What has been largely forgotten in the "Frank stories"of the current generation is that Frank exerted enormous power over bothJim Conley and Mary Phagan in the National Pencil Company factory; thisfact, and the discomfort it caused so many white southerners is, in large part,what lay behind Frank's arrest, conviction, and lynching. Instead, the late-modelLeo Frank is a good boss, a good Jew, and a good husband (and in DavidMamet's version, a philosopher too!). When the current generation "whitewashes"Frank, it erases the reality of his power in the National Pencil Companyfactory, and sidesteps the centrality of Black-Jewish relations to the caseand to its legacies.

    The story of the Leo Frank case has been told and retold. If Frank is notquite in the same league as Lizzie Borden, with her children's rhyme, countlesstrue-crime books, and bed and breakfast (extra charge to stay in the actualroom where her stepmother was killed!), this case has inspired the kind ofcultural response matched by only a very few criminal trials. The case has receivedextensive coverage over the years, with historians, sociologists, advocacygroups, novelists, playwrights, and musicians all putting forth their owninterpretations of it. The "rewriting" of the Frank case began before the trialwas even over: according to some accounts, Fiddlin' John Carson was on thecourthouse steps every day of the trial singing his ballad "Little Mary Phagan"to an appreciative audience.

    Since then, the case has been revisited by a surprising range of people, includingFiddlin' John Carson himself (with two other songs about the case inthe 1920s), two filmmakers in the 1930s, one "serious" novelist in the 1970sand one in the 1980s, a romance novelist in the 1980s, and two of America'smost celebrated playwrights in the late 1990s. And this doesn't even accountfor a few other regional plays produced in the last quarter century. Evenamong academic historians, the case gets written in very different ways: inthe two most recent scholarly accounts, the Leo Frank case has been studiedby one as a treasure trove of information on gender and power in the ProgressiveEra South, and by another as a major anti-Semitic event (MacLean;Lindemann).

    Major criminal trials often hold in them a remarkable amount of culturalenergy. The very staginess of courtroom protocol invites participants and observersto create a good show out of what is very often the fairly mundanework of sorting out motive and evidence. Murder trials in particular offer upmultiple satisfactions for spectators: invited to "get inside" the murderer'smind, viewers (at the trial in person, or following it in the media) are encouragedto dance with the devil. Come watch as the innocent maiden meetsher fatal doom. There is, as many commentators have noticed, something atleast faintly pornographic about recounting a murder in all its gory details,whether this retelling happens in the courtroom, in a novel, or on film. Onsome level, as historian Karen Halttunen has suggested, when men and womenare asked to watch these "scenarios of pain," it is because they are meant todevelop more sympathy for "the sufferings of others" (83). But it is clear toothat murder narratives often titillate their consumers—especially when theyemphasize the relationship of sex and violence.

    The Frank case has been the subject of intense cultural scrutiny for muchof the time since Mary Phagan was killed. Attention to the case has not beenconsistent nor has it taken predictable forms: Harold Prince's plans to stage amusical about Leo Frank were met with giggles more than once. Since the"facts" in the Leo Frank case were often obscure and always hotly contestedduring the trial and the appeals process, it is remarkable that so few of theretellings of the case have been concerned with solving the mystery of thepencil factory.

    Unlike, say, Sacco and Vanzetti, or the Rosenbergs, Leo Frank's guilt orinnocence is rarely debated these days. There is near unanimity around theidea that Frank was most certainly innocent of the crime of murdering MaryPhagan; it is something like unspeakable to suggest otherwise. Alan Dershowitz,for instance, begins his review of David Mamet's novel The Old Religionwith the confident assertion that Jim Conley admitted to his lawyer that hehad killed Mary Phagan himself; Conley's lawyer did make this claim, but noone ever got Conley to say such a thing in public—all other rumors to thecontrary (128). In the last twenty years or so, the only people who have proclaimedtheir belief in Frank's guilt are Mary Phagan Kean, a grandniece ofMary Phagan, who wrote a book about the case; Tom Watson Brown, a grandsonof the southern populist leader Tom Watson (who made a second careerout of hating Frank); and Dr. Ed Fields, a chiropractor who was raised in MaryPhagan's hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and who is now the publisher of awhite supremacist magazine which still carries on about Frank's deviltry.

    If I am going to make any sense out of the "Frank catalog" I will need firstto present my own basic outline of the case and its legacies. In my version ofthe Frank case there are three main characters: Leo Frank, Jim Conley, andTom Watson. The story I want to set up is one in which Frank and Conleyare made to stand as representatives of what has gone wrong with the NewSouth, a story that was largely scripted by Tom Watson. Watson was a populistleader who served in the Congress in the early 1890s, ran for vice presidentin 1896, and was elected senator in 1920. He also published two magazines(the Jeffersonian and Watson's Magazine) that carried his loud message: Frankwas a lascivious capitalist come South to upset the delicate balance that southernwhites and African Americans had achieved in the post-Civil War era.

    Late at night on August 16, 1915, a group of "respectable" white Georgiansbroke into the State Prison Farm at Milledgeville and, meeting no resistance,abducted its most famous inmate, Leo Frank. By the following morning, Frank'slifeless body was hanging from a tree outside Marietta, the hometown and finalresting place of the young woman he had allegedly killed (Dinnerstein 140).After his controversial trial Frank received widespread publicity as his innocencewas championed around the world; with his death Frank became a legendand a touchstone.

    Leo Frank was part owner and supervisor of the National Pencil Companyfactory in Atlanta, and had been found guilty in 1913 of the murder of MaryPhagan, a young white woman who worked for him for twelve cents an hour.Although he was not formally charged with rape at this trial, intimations ofFrank's sexual perversion were essential to the prosecution's case and combinedwith familiar anti-Semitic images to make him a likely villain. Whatwas most unprecedented about the prosecution of Leo Frank was that its linchpinwas Jim Conley, an African American janitor who also worked in thefactory. This represented the first capital case in postbellum southern historyin which a "white" defendant was condemned by the testimony of an AfricanAmerican (Lewis, "Parallels" 547).

    Mary Phagan was brutally murdered in the National Pencil Company factoryon April 26, 1913. The day of the murder was Confederate Memorial Day,and Frank was at the factory catching up on some paper work. Here is howone historian of Georgia, writing in 1917, set the scene: "On this anniversaryof a Lost Cause, when the state was honoring its Confederate heroes withmemorial exercises, when the air was fragrant with garlands plucked by loyaland loving hands to lay upon the graves of the dead, and when every one, inresponse to an instinct of patriotism, was thinking in tenderness of the past,there occurred in the heart of Atlanta a tragedy of the most revolting character"(Knight 1121). Frank himself took time out to write to his Uncle MosesFrank to describe the parade he saw: "Today was 'yontiff' [holiday] here, andthe thin gray line of veterans, smaller each year, braved the rather chillyweather to do honor to their fallen comrades" (qtd. in Connolly 36).

    Phagan had not worked for a few days prior to this because a shipment ofmetal casings for pencil erasers had not come in, and there was no work forher. She came into Atlanta from an outlying suburb in order to pick up the paythat was due her, planning to stay in town to watch the parade. Phagan'sfamily insisted that she worked at the pencil factory by choice, even afterher mother remarried and her stepfather requested that she stop (Kean 14).Nonetheless, publicity surrounding the case highlighted the economic oppressionof Phagan in the factory system.

    Frank paid Phagan sometime between 12:00 and 12:30 and turned out tobe the last person who would admit to seeing the young woman alive. Phagan'scorpse was found at approximately 3:30 A.M. on Sunday by Newt Lee, anAfrican American recently hired as night watchman for the factory. Whenthe police arrived they discovered a body so covered with cinders that at firstthey could not ascertain whether or not it belonged to a white woman. Twonotes, purportedly written by Phagan as she lay dying, were found by the body;both seemed to implicate Lee as the culprit. Suspicion attached to Lee briefly,but soon Leo Frank was fixed upon as the most attractive suspect. A few daysafter Mary Phagan's murder it became clear to Atlanta's police force that NewtLee, who was being held in solitary confinement, was definitely not responsiblefor the crime. Further, the police were also starting to feel the pressureof a public clamoring for an appropriate villain to pay penance for this crime.The Atlanta police had been having a difficult time keeping up with increasingcrime rates in the city—they had a number of unsolved murders on their handsat the time. Likewise, Solicitor-General Hugh Dorsey had recently "failed toconvict two important accused murderers," and it is possible that his careerhinged on getting a conviction in this case (Dinnerstein 19).

    On the one hand, these conditions would suggest that a villain, any villain,would do: early suspicion of Newt Lee, with no material evidence against him,speaks clearly to this impulse. But very quickly, if we are to believe contemporarycommentators, a special sort of blood lust developed; little Mary was aspecial victim (pure, innocent, one of "ours"), whose lost life demanded aspecial, outlandish miscreant as recompense. The pastor of Mary Phagan'schurch, in a contrite retrospective essay on the case, gives us insight intopublic sentiment in what has since become the most quoted evidence to supportthe idea that there was some kind of public call for an extraordinary villain:"My feelings, upon the arrest of the old negro watchman, were to theeffect that this one old negro would be poor atonement for the life of thisinnocent girl. But, when on the next day, the police arrested a Jew, and aYankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against Jews rose up in a feelingof satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime"(qtd. in Dinnerstein 33).

    It is tempting to contemplate the workings of selective memory here: PastorL. O. Bricker's testimony is an almost too perfect rendition of the argumentthat the Atlanta police went searching for an evildoer who would satisfythe public craving for an unusual type of blood. Many later students ofthe case have argued just this—that some kind of overwhelming public outcryput pressure on the law to come up with a suitable demon. Newt Lee, thenight watchman, and Jim Conley, the janitor, both African Americans, simplywould not do.

    Let us consider who this "public" was. "Mary's people," as Albert Lindemannhas aptly named them, have suffered ignominious description fromgenerations of historians and journalists; in some respect I think this "silentmajority" has, in a classic case of historical sleight-of-hand, become the truevillain of the affair. Lindemann describes "Mary's people" as emotional, interestedin a quick fix, and frankly unsophisticated:

Ordinary people are not always capable of appropriately sifting through legal evidence, even when they have access to reliable information, which was hardly the case in the weeks immediately following the murder.... "Mary's people" did not need to engage in the intellectually taxing effort of sifting the accumulating mass of increasingly confused and contradictory evidence; they did not have to endure the psychologically difficult process of suspending judgment any longer. The "monster" had been caught, and what a satisfying conclusion! (249)

    Steve Oney, in a 1985 article in Esquire, has taken this revisionist tendencyto another level entirely. Describing a picture of the crowd surrounding LeoFrank's body after his lynching, Oney writes that most of the observers are"sunken-cheeked, nine-fingered rustics in bib overalls." One man in particularcatches Oney's attention: he has a "lopsided jaw, crooked mouth, unfathomablystupid eyes—[he] conjures up the eerie sound of a banjo string tunedto the breaking point, a note of backwoods madness" (92).

    The lynchers of Leo Frank certainly deserve to have calumny heaped upontheir memory. But these poor rural people in the picture Oney is gazing atwere deliberately excluded from the lynching party; at worst, they approvedof the action and protected the identities of the lynchers. The killers of LeoFrank were Marietta, Georgia's "best" citizens; Lucian Lamar Knight describedthe leader of the lynch mob as having "as reputable a name as you wouldever hear" (1181-86). The demonization—or actually, celebration—of poorwhites as responsible for lynchings committed by "best" citizens was not uncommonin the time of the Frank case; even as lower-class whites are forbiddenfrom enjoying the pleasures of punishing the malefactor, the caste solidarityof all "normal" white people is reaffirmed by circulating the inventedresponsibility for the deed (Hall, Revolt 139, 303n24; Brundage 38; Berson30). Of course this move also assures that the powerful white men responsiblefor the lynching do not have to fear prosecution.

    But to continue to fasten blame on poor whites is to obscure the terms ofthe debate over Leo Frank's arrest, conviction, and lynching. No longer isthis affair about contending status of African Americans and Jews in the South,no longer does it concern changing power relationships among numerous competingsocial groups; it now becomes a simple narrative of rural folks come totown to vent a little of their inbred savagery. One important point to makeabout the approach taken by Oney, Lindemann, and so many others is thatthey are, in effect, evoking a "third man theme"—popular among some creativeartists too—in order to release the pressure that the Frank case put (andcontinues to put) on Black-Jewish relations. Drawing attention away fromthe complicated drama that pit Conley against Frank, and focusing mainlyon Frank's martyrdom at the hands of a howling poor-white mob, these reportsrender the competition of African American and Jew in this case as aninsignificant subplot. Blaming poor whites cannot erase the fact that Black-Jewishtension has long been a feature of the Frank case.

    A starting point of the present study is that "Black-Jewish relations" isbest understood as a Jewish story—a narrative of intergroup activity thatspeaks mainly to the desires of specific Jews. In this light it is important tounderstand how the persecution of Leo Frank has come to be a sacred text ofAmerican Jewish history, a key moment that revealed the vulnerability of Jewsin America; stitching Leo Frank into this narrative has meant ignoring the"insides" of the case in order to squeeze it into a preshaped mold.

    Once Newt Lee was cleared of any connection with Mary Phagan's death,Leo Frank loomed as the most realistic suspect. Complaints about his lasciviousbehavior were "discovered"; Frank was not only an employer of cheap laborand a Jew but he also had no supportable alibi at the time of the murder. Butin the course of Jim Conley's affidavits to the police, it also became clear thatConley was a potential suspect. Conley seemed much more frightening thanLee; he had a prison record and a reputation for drunkenness, and, most telling,admitted to helping Frank dispose of Mary Phagan's body. Where Frankwould never concede any guilt, Conley allowed himself to be implicated, atleast as an accessory after the fact.

    Why then was Conley not fixed as the prime (and only) suspect in thecase? Here, as many have argued, seems to be where a real, if unarticulated,need for a "big" villain comes in. One observer of the trial and its aftermathargued for a police conspiracy to produce an appropriate criminal: "Conleywas only a friendless negro, and to convict a mere negro of this crime, afterthe carnival of sensation and the mystery that had surrounded it, would make[the police] the butt of the community" (Connolly 50-51 ). A letter writer toGovernor John Slaton made a similar point, with irony: "A mere roustabout,drunken, brutal, criminal negro would not satisfy this all permeating, absorbing,high class, soul stirring deman.... It would be too plain, too simple, toocommonplace, lacking in mystery and sensation. Too much like things thathad happened before to be the public solution of a 'great mystery.'" Again,this writer reminds us that once the details of Mary Phagan's death becamepublic, the "plot" of her murder had to be made to fit a satisfying pattern.


Excerpted from Black-Jewish Relations on Trial by Jeffrey Melnick. Copyright © 2000 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Leo Frank, the Musical3
"The Negro and the Jew Were Both in This" Leo Frank
and Jim Conley in Atlanta30
"Frank on His Knees" Capitalism and Perversion in
the New South47
"The Night Witch Did It" Narrating Villainy in the
Frank Case88
"A Roman Holiday" Making Leo Frank Signify109
Epilogue Reading Trials, Writing Trials131
Works Cited149

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