Magician behind Bars

Michael Rogin

  • The Old Religion by David Mamet
    Faber, 194 pp, £9.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 571 19260 2

On 15 August 1915, a band of 25 men, among them the leading citizens of Marietta, Georgia, kidnapped Leo Frank from the Milledgeville Prison Farm, tied a rope around his neck and lynched him. Frank, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory owned by his uncle, had been convicted of the perverted sexual abuse and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked at the factory. He was convicted on the testimony of the actual murderer, Jim Conley, a black sweeper at the factory, who claimed that Frank had ordered him to remove the girl’s body from the main floor to the basement (where it had been found) and to write the notes implicating Newt Lee, the black nightwatchman who found the corpse.

The jury voted to convict Frank in an atmosphere of mob hysteria. Conley’s testimony had been well rehearsed; and the prosecution intimidated two other African Americans, Conley’s girlfriend and the husband of Frank’s cook, into retracting evidence favourable to the accused man, who was duly sentenced to death. A massive national campaign to force a new trial failed before the Georgia and US Supreme Courts, while the former Populist Tom Watson used his newspaper to whip up rural Georgia into an anti-semitic frenzy. In the midst of all this, the outgoing Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. The Governor’s own investigation had uncovered a conclusive flaw in Conley’s story: if the sweeper had used the elevator merely to transport the dead body to the basement, as he claimed, then the excrement he admitted depositing at the bottom of the elevator shaft that morning would have been crushed on the day of the murder rather than when the police went down in the elevator to recover the body. ‘Two thousand years ago another governor washed his hands of a case and turned over a Jew to a mob,’ Slaton explained. ‘If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands.’ Watson’s newspaper fulminated against Slaton’s decision to commute the sentence and the good citizens of Marietta enforced the ‘lynch law’ he had urged against ‘the satyr-faced New York Jew’.

The Leo Frank case, which occurred in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair in France and at the time of the imprisonment of the Ukrainian Jewish factory manager Mendel Beilis on a charge of ritual murder, was a highwater mark in American anti-semitism. Shortly after the Georgia jury convicted Frank, a jury of Ukrainian peasants acquitted Beilis. Yet during the decades when tens of thousands of innocent African Americans were imprisoned or murdered in the South, it was Ukrainian – not American – Jews who fell victim to anti-semitic pogroms. The puzzling feature of what was called the ‘American Dreyfus case’ was that, in the state with the greatest number of lynchings of black men between 1889 and 1928, a guilty black man was let off with a year in prison so that an innocent Jew could be hanged.

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