Atlanta, Georgia's capital city, had been going through significant economic and social change in the first years of the 20th century. To serve a growing economy based on manufacturing and commerce, large numbers of people were relocating in Atlanta, often in "squalid slums", from a failing rural situation. Employment conditions included child labor, a 66-hour work week, low wages, and unregulated and unsafe work sites. Men from the traditional and paternalistic rural society felt it degrading that their womenfolk were forced into the city to work in factories. Mixed gender workplaces were seen as places for potential corruption.
During this same period, Southern Jews felt ambivalent about their status. Generally they were able to economically thrive while getting along with their neighbors, and the Atlanta Jewish elite was unusually assimilated into the political, economic, and social fabric of the city. Despite their success, they nevertheless recognized themselves as a "people apart", leaving them "with a pervasive sense of anxiety". One of their responses was to select rabbis and leaders who could put the best face forward for their people in order to eliminate frictions that would threaten the existing equilibrium. In Atlanta, the leader from 1895 to 1946 was David Marx. In order to "enhance the image of Jews in the dominant society", Marx's Reform temple adopted Americanized appearances. Despite his acceptance by the Gentile community, Marx believed that "in isolated instances there is no prejudice entertained for the individual Jew, but there exists wide-spread and deep seated prejudice against Jews as an entire people."
An example of the type of tension that Rabbi Marx feared occurred in April 1913. At a conference involving the child labor problem, a myriad of proposed solutions were presented that covered the entire political spectrum. Author Steve Oney wrote, "At the radical end of the spectrum could be heard alarming notions inspired by the fact that many of Atlanta's factories ... were Jewish owned." Historian Leonard Dinnerstein offered the following summation of the Atlanta situation in 1913:
The pathological conditions in the city menaced the home, the state, the schools, the churches, and, in the words of a contemporary Southern sociologist, the 'wholesome industrial life.' The institutions of the city were obviously unfit to handle urban problems. Against this background, the murder of a young girl in 1913 triggered a violent reaction of mass aggression, hysteria, and prejudice."
Frank was born in Cuero, Texas on April 17, 1884 to Rudolph Frank and Rachel "Rae" Jacobs. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1884 when Frank was three months old. He attended New York City public schools and graduated from Pratt Institute in 1902. He then attended Cornell University, where he studied mechanical engineering. After graduation in 1906, Frank worked briefly as a draftsman and as a testing engineer.
At the invitation of his uncle Moses Frank, Leo traveled to Atlanta for two weeks in late October 1907 to meet a delegation of investors for a position with the National Pencil Company, a manufacturing plant in which Moses was a major shareholder. Frank accepted the position, and traveled to Germany to study pencil manufacturing at Eberhard Faber in Bavaria. After a nine-month apprenticeship, Frank returned to the United States and began working at the National Pencil Company in August 1908. Leo Frank became superintendent of the factory the following month, earning $180 per month plus a portion of the factory's profits.
Frank was introduced to Lucille Selig shortly after he arrived in Atlanta. She came from a prominent and upper middle class Jewish family of industrialists who, two generations earlier, had founded the first synagogue in Atlanta. Though she was very different from Frank, and laughed at the idea of speaking Yiddish, they were married in November 1910, at the Selig residence in Atlanta. Frank described his married life as happy.
Frank was elected president of the Atlanta chapter of the B'nai B'rith, a Jewish fraternal organization, in 1912. The Jewish community in Atlanta was the largest in the South, and the Franks belonged to a cultured and philanthropic social environment whose leisure pursuits included opera and bridge. Although the American South was not known for its antisemitism, Frank's northern culture and Jewish faith added to the sense that he was different.
Mary Phagan was born June 1, 1899 in her father's state of Alabama, into an established Georgia family of tenant farmers. Her father died before she was born, and shortly after her birth Phagan's mother, Frances Phagan, moved the family back to their hometown of Marietta, Georgia. At some point in or after 1907 she moved the family to East Point, Georgia in southwest Atlanta, where she opened a boarding house. Phagan left school at age 10 to work part-time in a textile mill. In 1912, her mother married John William Coleman, and the family moved into the city of Atlanta. Phagan took a job with the National Pencil Company in the spring of 1912, where she earned $4.05 per week for working 55 hours. She worked in the metal room on the second floor of the factory in a section called the tipping department, across the hallway from Frank's office.
Phagan had been laid off on April 21 due to a shortage of brass sheet metal. About noon on April 26, she went to the factory to claim her pay of $1.20. Shortly before 3:00 a.m., the factory's night-watchman Newt Lee went to the factory basement to use the toilet. After leaving the toilet, Lee discovered the body in the rear of the basement near an incinerator, and called the police. Phagan's dress was up around her waist and a strip from her petticoat had been torn off and wrapped around her neck. Her face was blackened and scratched. Her head was bruised and battered. A 7-foot (2.1 m) strip of 1⁄4-inch (6.4 mm) wrapping cord tied into a loop was around her neck buried 1⁄4 in (6.4 mm) deep. There was the appearance of rape. Her underwear was still around her hips, but torn open across the vulva and stained with blood. Based on the ashes and dirt from the floor that were stuck to her skin, it initially appeared that she and her assailant had struggled in the basement.
A service ramp at the rear of the basement led to a sliding door that opened into the alley; the police found it had been tampered with so it could be opened without unlocking it. Later examination found bloody fingerprints on the door, as well as a metal pipe that had been used as a crowbar. Some evidence at the crime scene was improperly handled by the police investigators. A trail in the dirt (from the elevator shaft) along which police believed Phagan had been dragged was trampled; the footprints were not identified.
Two notes were found in a pile of rubbish by Phagan's head, and became known as the "murder notes". One said: "he said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it but that long tall black negro did boy his slef." The other said, "mam that negro hire down here did this i went to make water and he push me down that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it wase long sleam tall negro i write while play with me." The phrase "night witch" was interpreted to mean "night watch[man]"; when the notes were initially read aloud, night watchman Newt Lee said, "Boss, it looks like they are trying to lay it on me" (or words to that effect). Lee was arrested that morning based on these notes and his apparent familiarity with the body, in that his initial statements were that the girl was white when the police, because of the filth and darkness in the basement, had thought she was black. It also appeared to the police that the body had been moved by Lee.
In addition to Lee, the police also arrested a friend of Phagan's for the crime. Gradually they became convinced that they were not the culprits. By Monday police had theorized, based on hair found on a lathe and what appeared to be blood on the floor, that the murder occurred on the 2nd floor (the same floor as Frank's office).
The police had unsuccessfully attempted to telephone Frank by phone just after 4 a.m. on Sunday; Newt Lee had also tried to call Frank soon after the discovery of Phagan's body. Later that morning they were successful and Frank agreed to accompany them to the factory. When the police arrived after 7 a.m. without telling the specifics of what happened at the factory, Frank seemed extremely nervous, trembling, pale, his voice was hoarse, he was rubbing his hands and asking questions before the police could answer. Frank said he was not familiar with the name Mary Phagan, but would need to check his payroll book. The detectives took Leo Frank to the morgue to view the body of Mary Phagan and then to the factory. Here Frank viewed the crime scene and walked the police through the entire building. Frank returned home about 10:45 a.m. At this point Frank was not considered a suspect.
On Monday morning Frank, accompanied by his attorney, Luther Rosser, gave a written deposition to the police that provided a brief timeline of his activities on Saturday. He said Phagan was in between 12:05 and 12:10 p.m., that Lee had arrived at 4 p.m. but was asked to return later, and explained a confrontation with an ex-employee James Gantt at 6 p.m. as Frank was leaving and Lee arriving. Frank explained that Lee's time card for Sunday morning had several gaps (Lee was supposed to punch in every half hour) which Frank had missed when he discussed the time card with police on Sunday. At Rosser's insistence, Frank exposed his body to demonstrate that he had no cuts or injuries and the police found no blood on Frank's suit which he said he had worn Saturday. The police followed up at Frank's house and found no blood stains on his laundry.
A detective went to Lee's residence at 11 a.m. looking for evidence and found a blood-smeared shirt at the bottom of a burn barrel. The blood was smeared high up on the armpits and the shirt smelled unused, suggesting to the police that the shirt was a plant. The detectives, suspicious of Frank due to his nervous behavior throughout his interviews, believed that Frank had arranged for the plant.
Frank was subsequently arrested around 11:30 at the factory. Steve Oney stated that "no single development had persuaded ... [the police] that Leo Frank had murdered Mary Phagan. Instead, to the cumulative weight of Sunday's suspicions and Monday's misgivings had been added several last factors that tipped the scale against the superintendent." These factors were the dropped charges against two suspects, the rejection of rumors that Phagan had been seen on the streets making Frank the last person to admit seeing Phagan, a late Monday meeting called by Frank in which he tried to implicate Gantt and mentioned an unidentified Negro seen in a building around noon on the day of the murder by a Mr. Darley, and a "shifting view of Newt Lee's role in the affair." The police were convinced Lee was involved as Frank's accomplice and that Frank was trying to implicate him. To bolster their case, the police staged a confrontation between Lee and Frank while both were still in custody; there were conflicting accounts of this meeting but the police interpreted it as further implicating Frank. A coroner's inquest was held on Wednesday April 30. Frank testified about his activities on Saturday and other witnesses produced corroboration. A young man said that Phagan had complained to him about Frank and several former employees spoke of Frank flirting with other women (one said she was actually propositioned). The detectives admitted that "they so far had obtained no conclusive evidence or clues in the baffling mystery...". Lee and Frank were both ordered to be detained. Jim Conley, the janitor at the factory, was arrested on May 1 and would remain in custody until the trial.
The prosecution based much of its case on the testimony of Jim Conley, the factory's janitor, who many historians believe to be the actual murderer. The police had arrested Conley on May 1, after he had been seen washing a blue work shirt. Detectives examined it for blood, found none, and returned it. Conley was still in police custody two weeks later when he gave his first formal statement. He said that, on the day of the murder, he had been visiting saloons, shooting dice, and drinking. His story was called into question when a witness told detectives that "a black negro . . . dressed in dark blue clothing and hat" had been seen in the lobby of the factory on the day of the murder. Further investigation determined that Conley could read and write, and there were similarities in his spelling with that found on the murder notes. On May 24, he admitted he had written the notes, swearing that Frank had called him to his office the day before the murder and told him to write them. After testing Conley again on his spelling—he spelled "night watchman" as "night witch"—the police were convinced he had written the notes. They were skeptical about the rest of his story, not only because it implied premeditation by Frank, but also because it suggested that Frank had confessed to Conley and involved him.
In a new affidavit (his second affidavit and third statement), Conley admitted he had lied about his Friday meeting with Frank. He said he had met Frank on the street on Saturday, and was told to follow him to the factory. Frank told him to hide in a wardrobe to avoid being seen by two women who were visiting Frank in his office. He said Frank dictated the murder notes for him to write, gave him cigarettes, and told him to leave the factory. Afterward, Conley said he went out drinking and saw a movie. He said he did not learn of the murder until he went to work on Monday.
The police were satisfied with the new story, and both The Atlanta Journal and the Georgian gave the story front-page coverage. Three officials of the pencil company were not convinced and said so to the Journal. They contended Conley had followed another employee into the building intending to rob her, but instead found Phagan was a more ready target. The police placed little credence in the employees' theory, but had no explanation for the failure to locate the purse (that other witnesses had testified she carried that day), and were concerned that Conley had made no mention that he was aware that a crime had been committed when he wrote the notes. To resolve their doubts, the police attempted on May 28 to arrange a confrontation between Frank and Conley. Frank exercised his right not to meet without his attorney, who was out of town. The police announced this refusal was an indication of Frank's guilt, and the meeting never took place.
On May 29, Conley was interviewed for four hours. His new affidavit said that Frank told him, "he had picked up a girl back there and let her fall and that her head hit against something." Conley said he and Frank took the body to the basement via the elevator, then returned to Frank's office where the murder notes were dictated. Conley then hid in the wardrobe after the two had returned to the office. He said Frank gave him two hundred dollars, but took it back, saying, "Let me have that and I will make it all right with you Monday if I live and nothing happens." Conley's affidavit concluded, "The reason I have not told this before is I thought Mr. Frank would get out and help me out and I decided to tell the whole truth about this matter." At trial, Conley changed his story concerning the $200. He said the money was withheld until Conley had burned Phagan's body in the basement furnace.
The Georgian hired William Manning Smith to represent Conley for $40. Smith was known for specializing in representing black clients, and had successfully defended a black man against an accusation of rape by a white woman. He had also taken an elderly black woman's civil case as far as the Georgia Supreme Court. Although Smith believed Conley had told the truth in his final affidavit, he became concerned that Conley was giving long jailhouse interviews with crowds of reporters. Smith was also concerned about reporters from the Hearst papers, who had taken Frank's side. He arranged for Conley to be moved to a different jail, and severed his own relationship with the Georgian.
On February 24, 1914, Conley was sentenced to a year in jail for being an accomplice after the fact to the murder of Mary Phagan.
The Atlanta Constitution broke the story of the murder and was soon in competition with The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Georgian. As many as 40 extra editions came out the day Phagan's murder was reported. The Atlanta Georgian published a doctored morgue photo of Phagan, in which her head was shown spliced onto the body of another girl. The papers offered a total of $1,800 in reward money for information leading to the apprehension of the murderer. Soon after the murder, Atlanta's mayor criticized the police for their steady release of information to the public. The governor, noting the reaction of the public to press sensationalism soon after Lee's and Frank's arrests, prepared ten militia companies in case they were needed to repulse mob action against the prisoners. Coverage of the case in the local press continued nearly unabated throughout the investigation, trial, and subsequent appeal process.
Newspaper reports throughout the period combined real evidence, unsubstantiated rumors, and journalistic speculation. Dinnerstein wrote, "Characterized by innuendo, misrepresentation, and distortion, the yellow journalism account of Mary Phagan's death aroused an anxious city, and within a few days, a shocked state." Different segments of the population focused on different aspects. Atlanta's working class saw Frank as "a defiler of young girls" while the German-Jewish community saw him as "an exemplary man and loyal husband." Lindemann's opinion is that the "ordinary people" may have had "difficulty" in evaluating the often unreliable information and "suspend[ing] judgment over a long period of time" while the case developed. As the press shaped public opinion, much of the attention was directed at the police and the prosecution. Dorsey had recently lost two high profile murder cases and one state newspaper wrote that "another defeat, and in a case where the feeling was so intense, would have been, in all likelihood, the end of Mr. Dorsey, as solicitor."
A grand jury convened on May 23, 1913 to hear evidence for an indictment against Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan. The prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, presented only enough information to obtain the indictment, assuring the jury that additional information would be provided during the trial. The next day, May 24, the jury voted for an indictment. Frank's legal team, meanwhile, passed on suggestions to the media that Conley was the actual killer, and put pressure on the July grand jury to indict Jim Conley. The jury foreman on his own authority convened the jury on July 21, though they decided, on the advice of Dorsey, not to indict Conley.
The trial began on July 28 at the Fulton County Superior Court (old city hall building). In addition to the hundreds of spectators inside, a large crowd gathered outside to watch the trial through the windows. The defense would later cite the crowds as factors in intimidation of the witnesses and jury in their legal appeals. The judge, Leonard S. Roan, had been serving as a judge in Georgia since 1900. The prosecution team was led by Dorsey and included William Smith, Conley's attorney and Dorsey's jury consultant. Frank was represented by a team of eight lawyers, including jury selection specialists, led by Luther Rosser, Reuben Arnold and Herbert Haas.
Both legal teams, in planning their trial strategy, considered the implications of trying a white man based on the testimony of a black man in front of an early 1900s Georgia jury. Jeffrey Melnick wrote that the defense tried to picture Conley as "a new kind of African American anarchic, degraded, and dangerous". Dorsey, however, pictured Conley as "a familiar type" of "old negro", like a minstrel or plantation worker. Dorsey's strategy played on the white 1900s Georgia observers, believing that a black man could not have been intelligent enough to make up a complicated story. The prosecution argued that Conley's statement explaining the immediate aftermath of the murder was true, that Frank was the murderer, and that Frank had dictated the murder notes in an effort to pin the crime on Newt Lee, the night watchman.
The prosecution presented witnesses who testified to blood stains and strands of hair found on the lathe to support its theory that the murder occurred in the machine room on the factory's second floor near Frank's office. The defense theory denied that the murder occurred on the second floor and both sides contested the significance of physical evidence that suggested the place of the murder. Material found around Phagan's neck was shown to be present throughout the factory. The prosecution interpreted the scene in the basement to support Conley's story that the body was carried there by elevator while the defense suggested that the drag marks on the floor indicated that Conley carried the body down a ladder and then pulled it across the floor. The defense argued that Conley was the murderer and that Newt Lee, the night watchman, helped Conley write the two murder notes. The defense brought numerous witnesses to support Frank's timeline alibi which suggested he did not have enough time to commit the crime.
To support its theory that Conley murdered Phagan in a robbery, the defense focused on Phagan's missing purse. Conley claimed in court that he saw Frank place the purse in his office safe; though, prior to the trial he had denied seeing the purse. Another witness testified that on the Monday after the murder the safe was open and there was no purse in it. The significance of Phagan's torn pay envelope was disputed by both sides.
Analysis of Phagan's body brought conflicting medical testimony. The prosecution's analysis of stomach contents (Phagan had eaten cabbage and biscuits at 11:00 a.m.) placed the time of death at thirty to forty five minutes after the last meal. The defense expert witness contested both the methodology and the conclusions. The prosecution's two medical experts disagreed on whether Phagan had been raped and the defense argued that the inflammation around Phagan's vagina could have been caused by the original post mortem examination. The prosecution said Phagan's black eye could have been caused by a fist and the injury on the back of the head came from falling back against the lathe. Conflicting testimony suggested both injuries could have been caused by falling into the basement.
Leo Frank's alleged sexual behavior was a focus for the prosecution. The prosecution alleged that Frank, with Conley's assistance, regularly met with women in his office for sexual relations. On the day of the murder, Conley said he saw Phagan go upstairs, heard a scream, and then saw Monteen Stover, another employee, go upstairs and leave after a while. Conley said he dozed off and when he woke up Frank called him upstairs where Frank showed Conley the body and admitted that he had hurt her. He repeated information from his affidavits that he and Frank took Phagan's body to the basement via the elevator and returned to the office in the elevator where Frank dictated the murder notes to Conley.
Conley was cross-examined unsuccessfully by the defense for 16 hours over three days. The defense subsequently moved to have Conley's entire testimony concerning the alleged rendezvous stricken from the record. Judge Roan recognized that an early objection might have been upheld, but since the jury could not forget what it had heard, he allowed it to stand. To support Frank's purported expectation of a visit from Phagan, the prosecution produced Helen Ferguson. Ferguson testified that she had tried to get Phagan's pay on Friday directly from Frank, but told her Phagan would have to come in person. Disputing Ferguson's claim, both the person who worked the pay window and the woman behind Ferguson in line testified that Frank, consistent with his normal practice, did not disburse pay that day.
The defense called a number of employees, including female factory workers, who testified that they had never seen Frank flirting with or touching the girls, and that they considered him to be of good character. Dorsey, in cross examination, asked leading questions concerning what Frank might have done, but the answers came back negative. In the prosecution's rebuttal case, Dorsey called "a steady parade of former factory workers" to ask them the question, "Do you know Mr. Frank's character for lasciviousness?" The answers were usually "bad."
The prosecution realized early on that issues relating to time would be an essential part of its case. At trial, both sides presented witnesses to support their version of the timeline for the hours before and after the murder. The starting point was the time of death; the prosecution, relying on the analysis of stomach contents by its expert witness, argued that Phagan died between 12:00 and 12:15 p.m. A prosecution witness, Monteen Stover, stated she had gone into the office to get her paycheck, waiting there from 12:05 to 12:10, and did not see Frank in his office. The prosecution theory was that Stover did not see Frank because he was at that point murdering Phagan. Stover's account did not match Frank's initial account that he had not left the office between noon and 12:30. Other testimony indicated that Phagan exited the trolley (or tram) between 12:07 and 12:10. From the stop it was a two- to four-minute walk. This suggested that Stover arrived first, making Stover's testimony and its implications irrelevant: Frank could not be killing Phagan because she had not yet arrived.
In his third affidavit, Conley testified that he had hidden in a wardrobe in Frank's office when two ladies showed up. Conley said this occurred after Phagan's body had been moved to the basement. However, these ladies Emma Clark and Corinthia Hall testified that they had been in the office between 11:35 and 11:45 a.m., contradicting one of the most vivid parts of Conley's testimony.
Lemmie Quinn, foreman of the metal room, testified that he spoke very briefly with Frank in Frank's office at 12:20. Frank had not mentioned Quinn when the police first interviewed him about his whereabouts concerning the noontime of April 26. Frank had said at the coroner's inquest that Quinn arrived less than ten minutes after Phagan had left his office and during the murder trial said Quinn arrived hardly five minutes after Phagan left. According to Conley and others, it would have taken at least thirty minutes to murder Phagan, take the body to the basement, return to the office, and write the murder notes. By the defense's calculations, Frank's time was fully accounted for from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with the exception of eighteen minutes between 12:02 and 12:20. Hattie Hall, a stenographer, stated at trial that Frank had specifically requested that she come in that Saturday and that Frank had been working in his office from 11:00 to nearly noon. As noted above, Quinn placed Frank in his office at 12:20. The prosecution labelled Quinn's testimony as "a fraud" and reminded the jury that early in the police investigation Frank had not mentioned Quinn.
Frank said he had left the factory for lunch by 1:10. Helen Kerns reported seeing Frank, who she recognized from a job interview, at 1:10 waiting for the trolley to take him home. A neighbor, Mrs. Albert Levy stated that she saw him exiting the trolley at 1:20. Franks in-laws also placed him arriving home at 1:20. Conley however, in his third affidavit, had Frank dictating the murder notes to him at 1:00. All of this presented a problem for the prosecution since Frank could not have finished the notes, gone upstairs and checked on two workers, Arthur White and Harry Denham, escorted Mrs. White out of the building, taken a ten-minute trolley ride, and still arrived home at 1:20. The prosecution did imply that Kerns, whose father worked for the Montags who owned a controlling interest in the pencil factory, may have had a motive for lying. Frank's attorneys were able to locate witnesses to dispute the alleged early departure from lunch. A neighbor of Frank's, Hennie Wolfsheimer, a relative of Mrs. Frank, and Mrs. M. G. Michael all confirmed that they saw Frank get on the trolley at 2:00. Rebecca Carson, a former employee of the pencil factory, testified that she saw Frank near Rich's Department Store at 2:25 and at Jacob's Pharmacy around 2:35.
At 3:00 Frank said he returned to the office. The two workers White and Denham, who Frank had left at the locked up factory, were still there. The time cards indicated that they checked out at 3:15. Frank recollected that Mr. White stopped in his office before he left and received an advance on his pay. Newt Lee, the night watchman, arrived at work shortly before 4:00 and Frank, who was normally calm, came bustling out of his office. Frank told Lee that he had not yet finished his own work and asked Lee to return at 6:00. Newt Lee noticed that Frank was very agitated and asked if he could sleep in the packing room, but Frank was insistent that Lee leave the building and told Lee to go out and have a good time in town, before coming back.
When Lee returned at 6:00, James Gantt also arrived. Lee told police that Gantt, a former employee that had been fired by Frank after $2 was found missing from the cash box, wanted to look for two pairs of shoes he had left at the factory. Frank allowed Gantt in, although Lee indicated Frank appeared to be upset by Gantt's appearance. Frank arrived home at 6:25 and at 7:00 he called Lee to determine if everything had gone all right with Gantt.
On August 25, Frank was convicted of murder. The Constitution described the scene as Dorsey emerged from the steps of city hall: "The solicitor reached no farther than the sidewalk. While mounted men rode like Cossacks through the human swarm, three muscular men slung Mr. Dorsey on their shoulders and passed him over the heads of the crowd across the street." Lindemann suggests "the powerless experienced a moment of exhilaration in seeing the defeat and humiliation of a normally powerful and inaccessible oppressor". On August 26, the day after the decision of guilty was reached by the jury, Judge Roan brought counsel into private chambers and sentenced Leo Frank to death by hanging with the date set to October 10. The defense team issued a public protest alleging that "the temper of the public mind" "unconsciously" influenced the jury to the prejudice of Frank. This argument would be carried forward throughout the appeal process.
Under Georgia law, appeals of death penalty cases had to be based on errors of law, not a reevaluation of the evidence presented at trial. The appeals process began with a reconsideration by the original trial judge. The defense presented a written appeal alleging 115 procedural problems. These included claims of jury prejudice, intimidation of the jury by the crowds outside the courthouse, the admission of Conley's testimony concerning Frank's alleged sexual perversions and activities, and the return of a verdict based on an improper weighting of the evidence. Both sides called witnesses involving the charges of prejudice and intimidation, but while the defense relied on non-involved witness testimony, the prosecutor was able to find support from the testimony of the jurors themselves. On October 31, 1913, Judge Roan denied the motion, but added, "Gentlemen, I have thought about this case more than any other I have ever tried. With all the thought I have put on this case, I am not thoroughly convinced that Frank is guilty or innocent. But I do not have to be convinced. The jury was convinced. There is no room to doubt that."
The next step, a hearing before the Georgia Supreme Court, was held on December 15. In addition to presenting the existing written record, each side was granted two hours of oral arguments. In addition to the old arguments, the defense focused on the reservations expressed by Judge Roan at the reconsideration hearing, citing six cases where new trials had been granted after the trial judge expressed misgivings about the jury verdict. The State countered with arguments that the evidence convicting Frank was substantial and that listing Judge Roan's doubts in the defense's bill of exceptions was not the proper vehicle for "carry[ing] the views of the judge." On February 17, 1914, in an 142-page decision, the court by a 4-2 vote denied Frank a new trial. The majority dismissed the allegations of bias by the jurors, saying the power of determining this rested strictly with the trial judge except when an "abuse of discretion" was proved. It also ruled that spectator influence could only be the basis of a new trial if ruled so by the trial judge. Conley's testimony was found to be admissible because, even though it suggested Frank had committed other crimes for which he was not charged, it reflected on Conley's veracity and Frank's motivation. On Roan's stated reservations, the court ruled that these did not trump his legal decision to deny a motion for a new trial. The dissenting justices restricted their opinion to Conley's testimony. In declaring that the testimony should not have been allowed to stand, they wrote, "It is perfectly clear to us that evidence of prior bad acts of lasciviousness committed by the defendant ... did not tend to prove a preexisting design, system, plan, or scheme, directed toward making an assault upon the deceased or killing her to prevent its disclosure." The evidence prejudiced Frank in the jurors eyes and denied him a fair trial.
The last hearing exhausted Frank's ordinary state appeal rights. On March 7, 1914, Frank's execution was set for April 17, his birthday. The defense had continued to investigate the case and filed an extraordinary motion before the Georgia Supreme Court. This appeal, which would be held before a single justice, Ben Hill, was restricted to raising facts not available at the original trial. The application for appeal resulted in a stay of execution and the hearing opened on April 23, 1914. The defense was successful in obtaining a number of affidavits from witnesses repudiating their testimony. A state biologist stated in a newspaper interview that his microscopic examination of the hair shortly after the murder on the lathe did not match Phagan's. At the same time that the various repudiations were leaked to the newspapers, the state was busy seeking repudiations of the new affidavits. The murder notes, which had only been addressed in any detail in the closing arguments, were analyzed to suggest Conley composed them in the basement rather than simply writing what Frank told him to write in the office. Prison letters written by Conley to Annie Maud Carter were discovered and the defense would argue that the letters, along with Carter's testimony, implicated Conley as the actual murderer.
The defense also raised a federal constitutional issue on whether Frank's absence from the court when the verdict was announced "constituted deprivation of the due process of law." Different attorneys were brought in to argue this point since Rosser and Arnold had acquiesced in Frank's exclusion. There was a debate within the Frank camp on whether this should be raised at this point since its significance might be lost with all of the other evidence being presented, but the decision was made that it should be made clear that if the extraordinary motion was rejected they intended to appeal through the federal court system. The prosecution was prepared for most of the defense's arguments. For almost every issue presented by the defense the state had a response. Most of the repudiations were either retracted or disavowed by the witnesses. The blood and murder note were disputed by the state's own witnesses. The integrity of the defense's investigators were questioned and intimidation and bribery were charged. The significance of the Carter letters was disputed. The defense, in its rebuttal, tried to shore up the testimony as it related to the murder notes and the Carter letters. These issues would be reexamined later when the governor considered commuting Frank's sentence. During the defense's closing argument, the issue of the repudiations was put to rest by Judge Hill's ruling that the court could only consider the revocation of testimony if the subject were tried and found guilty of perjury. The judge denied Frank a new trial and the full court upheld the decision on November 14, 1914. The full court also said that the due process issue should have been raised earlier in the process, characterizing what it considered a belated effort as "trifling with the court."
The next step for the Frank team was to appeal the issue through the federal system. The original request for a writ of error on the absence of Frank from the jury's announcement of the verdict was first denied by Justice Joseph R. Lamar and then Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Both denied the request because they agreed with the Georgia court that the issue was raised too late. The full Supreme Court then heard arguments but denied the motion without issuing a written decision. Holmes however said "I very seriously doubt if the petitioner ... has had due process of law ... because of the trial taking place in the presence of a hostile demonstration and seemingly dangerous crowd, thought by the presiding Judge to be ready for violence unless a verdict of guilty was rendered." Holmes' statement as well as public indignation over this latest rejection by the courts encouraged Frank's team to attempt a habeas corpus motion, arguing that the threat of crowd violence had forced Frank to absent himself from the verdict hearing and constituted a violation of due process. Justice Lamar heard the motion and agreed that the full Supreme Court should hear the appeal. On April 19, 1915, the court denied the appeal by a 7-2 vote in the case Frank v. Mangum. Part of the decision reiterated the message of the last decision that Frank failed "to raise the objection in due season when fully cognizant of the fact." Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes dissented, with Holmes writing, "It is our duty ... to declare lynch law as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death."
On April 22, 1915, an application for a commutation of his death sentence was submitted to a three-person Prison Commission, which was rejected on June 9 by a vote of 2-1. The dissenter indicated that he felt it was wrong to execute a man "on the testimony of an accomplice, when the circumstances of the crime tend to fix the guilt upon the accomplice." The application now passed to Governor John Slaton. Slaton had been elected in 1912 and his term would end four days after Frank's scheduled execution. In 1913, before Phagan's murder, Slaton agreed to merge his law firm with that of Luther Rosser, who became Frank's lead attorney, though Slaton was not directly involved in the trial. After the commutation, popular Georgia politician Tom Watson would attack Slaton, often focusing on his partnership with Rosser as a conflict of interest.
Slaton opened hearings on June 12. In addition to receiving presentations from both sides with new arguments and evidence, Slaton visited the crime scene and reviewed over 10,000 pages of documents, plus various letters, including one written by Judge Roan shortly before he died asking him to correct his mistake. Slaton also received more than 1,000 death threats. During the hearing, former Governor Joseph Brown warned Slaton, "In all frankness, if Your Excellency wishes to invoke lynch law in Georgia and destroy trial by jury, the way to do it is by retrying this case and reversing all the courts." According to Woodward: "While the hearings of the petition to commute were in progress Watson sent a friend to the governor with the promise that if Slaton allowed Frank to hang, Watson would be his 'friend', which would result in his 'becoming United States senator and the master of Georgia politics for twenty years to come.'"
Slaton produced a "nuanced" 29-page report. The first part of the document criticized outsiders who were unfamiliar with the evidence, especially the press in the North. He defended the trial courts decision, which he felt was sufficient for a guilty verdict. He summarized points of the state's case against Frank that "any reasonable person" would accept and said of Conley that "It is hard to conceive that any man's power of fabrication of minute details could reach that which Conley showed, unless it be the truth." After having made these points, Slaton's narrative changed course and asked the rhetorical question, "Did Conley speak the truth?" Leonard Dinnerstein wrote, "Slaton based his opinions primarily upon the inconsistencies he had discovered in the narrative of Jim Conley. Two factors particularly stood out: the first had to do with the transporting of the body to the basement, and the second related to the murder notes.Transport of the body
During investigation, police had noted undisturbed human excrement in the elevator shaft, which Conley stated he had deposited there before the murder. Use of the elevator on the Monday after the murder crushed the excrement, which Slaton concluded indicated that the elevator could not have been used as described by Conley, throwing doubt on his testimony.
During the commutation hearing, Slaton asked Dorsey to address this issue. Dorsey said that the elevator did not always go all the way to the bottom and could be stopped anywhere. Frank's attorney rebutted this by quoting Conley who said that the elevator stops when it hits the bottom. Slaton interviewed others and conducted his own tests on his visit to the factory and concluded that every time the elevator made the trip to the basement it touched the bottom. The governor stated in his opinion, "If the elevator was not used by Conley and Frank in taking the body to the basement, then the explanation of Conley cannot be accepted."Murder notes
The murder notes had been analyzed before at the extraordinary motion hearing. At the commutation hearings, a new expert reviewed the previous evidence and noted, for the first time, that the notes were written in the third person rather than the first person, which would have been more logical since they were intended to be the final statements of a dying Phagan. He argued this was not the type of error that Conley, rather than Frank, would have made.
Conley's former attorney, William Smith, had become convinced that his client had committed the murder. Smith did a detailed analysis of the notes and produced a 100-page analysis for the defense. He analyzed "speech and writing patterns" and "spelling, grammar, repetition of adjectives, favorite verb forms." He concluded, "In this article I show clearly that Conley did not tell the truth about those notes." Slaton, in his opinion, specifically mentioned comparisons between the murder notes and Conley's letters to Annie Maud Carter and his trial testimony. His use of words "like", "play", "lay", "love", "hisself" were similar in his letters, the murder notes, and his trial testimony. Examples of using double adjectives included "long tall negro", "tall, slim build heavy man", and "good long wide piece of cord in his hands."
The governor was also convinced that the murder notes were written in the basement, not in Frank's office. Slaton accepted the defense's argument that the notes were written on dated order pads signed by a former employee that were only kept in the basement, not in Frank's office. Slaton wrote that the employee signed an affidavit that when he left the company in 1912 "he personally packed up all of the duplicate orders ... and sent them down to the basement to be burned. This evidence was never passed upon by the jury and developed since the trial."
Slaton's narrative touched on other aspects of the evidence and testimony that suggested reasonable doubt. For example, he accepted the defense argument that charges by Conley of perversion were based on someone coaching him that Jews were circumcised. He accepted the defense interpretation of the timeline. Citing the evidence produced at trial (including the possibility that Stover did not see Frank because she did not proceed further than the outer office), he wrote, "Therefore, Monteen Stover must have arrived before Mary Phagan, and while Monteen Stover was in the room it hardly seems possible under the evidence, that Mary Phagan was at that time being murdered." The governor also noted that Phagan's head wound must have bled profusely, yet there was no blood found on the lathe, the floor nearby, in the elevator, or the steps leading downstairs. He also noted that Phagan's nostrils and mouth were filled with dirt and sawdust which could only have come from the basement.
The governor also added these comments on Conley's story that he was watching out for the arrival of a lady for Frank on the day of the murder:
His story necessarily bears the construction that Frank had an engagement with Mary Phagan which no evidence in the case would justify. If Frank had engaged Conley to watch for him, it could only have been for Mary Phagan, since he made no improper suggestion to any other female on that day, and it was undisputed that many did come up prior to 12.00 o’clock, and whom could Frank have been expecting except Mary Phagan under Conley’s story. This view cannot be entertained, as an unjustifiable reflection on the young girl.
Slaton released the order to commute Frank's murder conviction to life imprisonment on Sunday. The legal rationale offered by Slaton was that there was sufficient new evidence not available at the original trial to justify his actions. He wrote:
In the Frank case three matters have developed since the trial which did not come before the jury, to-wit: The Carter notes, the testimony of Becker, indicating the death notes were written in the basement, and the testimony of Dr. Harris, that he was under the impression that the hair on the lathe was not that of Mary Phagan, and thus tending to show that the crime was not committed on the floor of Frank's office. While defense made the subject an extraordinary for a new trial, it is well known that it is almost a practical impossibility to have a verdict set aside by this procedure.
The commutation was headline news that Monday. In the afternoon he invited the press to his home. He told them, "All I ask is that the people of Georgia read my statement and consider calmly the reasons I have given for commuting Leo. M. Frank's sentence. Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed that man to hang. I would rather be ploughing in a field than to feel for the rest of my life that I had that man's blood on my hands." He also told reporters that he was certain that Jim Conley was the actual murderer. Slaton privately told friends that he would have issued a full pardon except for his belief that Frank would soon be able to prove his innocence.
The public was outraged. A mob threatened to attack the governor at his home. A detachment of the Georgia National Guard, along with county policemen and a group of Slaton's friends who were sworn in as deputies, dispersed the mob. Slaton had been a popular governor, but he and his wife left Georgia immediately thereafter.
For Frank's protection, he was taken to the Milledgeville State Penitentiary in the middle of the night before the commutation was announced. Also protecting Frank was the fact that the penitentiary was "strongly garrisoned and newly bristling with arms" and he was separated from Marietta by 150 miles (240 km) of mostly unpaved road. However, on July 17, fellow inmate William Creen tried to kill him, slashing his throat with a 7-inch (18 cm) butcher knife and severing his jugular vein, according to The New York Times. The attacker told the authorities he "wanted to keep the other inmates safe from mob violence, Frank's presence was a disgrace to the prison, and he was sure he would be pardoned if he killed Frank".
The sensationalism by the press that started before the trial continued throughout the trial, the appeals process, and through the commutation decision and beyond. At the same time the coverage evolved, local papers were still the dominant source of information, but they were not entirely anti-Frank. The Constitution alone assumed Frank's guilt, while both the Georgian and the Journal would later comment about the public hysteria in Atlanta during the trial and each would suggest the necessity for reexamining the evidence against the defendant. On March 14, 1914, while the extraordinary motion hearing was pending, the Journal called for a new trial, saying that to execute Frank based on the atmosphere both within and outside the courtroom would "amount to judicial murder". Other newspapers in the state followed suit and many ministers spoke from the pulpit supporting a new trial. L. O. Bricker, the pastor of the church attended by Phagan's family, said that based on "the awful tension of public feeling, it was next to impossible for a jury of our fellow human beings to have granted him a fair, fearless and impartial trial."
On October 12, 1913, the New York Sun became the first major northern paper to give a detailed account of the Frank trial. In discussing the charges of antisemitism in the trial, it described Atlanta as more liberal on the subject than any other southern cities. However, it went on to say that antisemitism did arise during the trial as Atlantans reacted to statements attributed to Frank's Jewish supporters who dismissed Phagan as "nothing but a factory girl". The paper said, "The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him." On November 8, 1913, right after Judge Roan rejected Frank's reconsideration motion and cognizant of the issues raised by the Sun, the executive committee of the American Jewish Committee, headed by Louis Marshall, addressed the Frank case. Choosing not to take a public stance, they nevertheless resolved as individuals to raise funds and influence public opinion in favor of Frank.
Albert Lasker, a wealthy advertising magnate, responded to these calls to help Frank. Lasker contributed personal funds as well as his talents at advertising. In Atlanta, during the time of the extraordinary motion, Lasker coordinated Frank's meetings with the press and coined the slogan "The Truth Is on the March" to characterize the efforts of Frank's defense team. He persuaded prominent figures such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Jane Addams to make statements supporting Frank. During the commutation hearing, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall weighed in as did a dozen leading magazine and newspaper editors, including Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic; C.P.J. Mooney, editor of the Chicago Tribune; Mark Sullivan, editor of Collier's; R. E. Stafford, editor of the Daily Oklahoman; and D. D. Moore, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times became involved about the same time as Lasker, conducting a "protracted" campaign advocating for a new trial for Frank. Both Ochs and Lasker attempted to heed Louis Marshall's warnings about antagonizing the "sensitiveness of the southern people and engender the feeling that the north is criticizing the courts and the people of Georgia." Dinnerstein wrote that these efforts at sensitivity failed "because many Georgians interpreted every item favorable to Frank as a hostile act."
Tom Watson, editor of the Jeffersonian, had remained publicly silent during Frank's trial. Among Watson's political enemies was Senator Hoke Smith, former owner of the Atlanta Journal which was still considered to be Smith's political organ. When the Journal called for a reevaluation of the evidence against Frank, Watson, in a March 19, 1913 edition of his magazine, attacked Smith for trying "to bring the courts into disrepute, drag down the judges to the level of criminals, and destroy the confidence of the people in the orderly process of the law." Watson also questioned whether Frank expected "extraordinary favors and immunities because of his race" and questioned the wisdom of Jews to "risk the good name ... of the whole race" in order to save "the decadent offshoot of a great people." Subsequent articles concentrated on the Frank case and became more and more vehement in their attacks. His biographer C. Vann Woodward wrote that Watson "pulled all the stops: Southern chivalry, sectional animus, race prejudice, class consciousness, agrarian resentment, state pride."
In trying to explain the public reaction to Frank, historians inevitably mention his class and ethnicity while avoiding any single variant explanation for what befell him. Historian John Higham wrote that "economic resentment, frustrated progressivism, and race consciousness combined to produce a classic case of lynch law. ... Hatred of organized wealth reaching into Georgia from outside became a hatred of Jewish wealth." Historian Nancy MacLean wrote that some historians have argued that this was "an American Dreyfus case" that could "be explained only in light of the social tensions unleashed by the growth of industry and cities in the turn-of-the-century South. These circumstances made a Jewish employer a more fitting scapegoat for disgruntled whites than the other leading suspect in the case, a black worker." Albert Lindemann noted that Frank on trial found himself "in a position of much latent tension and symbolism." Stating that it is impossible to determine the extent to which antisemitism contributed to his image, he concluded that Frank was seen as "a representative of Yankee capitalism in a southern city, with row upon row of southern women, often the daughters and wives of ruined farmers, 'at his mercy' a rich, punctilious, northern Jew lording it over vulnerable and impoverished working women."
The June 21, 1915 commutation provoked Tom Watson into advocating for Frank's lynching. He wrote in the pages of The Jeffersonian and Watson's Magazine: "This country has nothing to fear from its rural communities. Lynch law is a good sign; it shows that a sense of justice lives among the people." A group of prominent men organized themselves into the "Knights of Mary Phagan", openly planning to kidnap Frank from prison. They recruited 28 men with various skills, including themselves; an electrician was to cut the prison wires, car mechanics were to keep the cars running, and there was a locksmith, a telephone man, a medic, a hangman, and a lay preacher. The ringleaders were well known locally, but were not named publicly until June 2000, when a local librarian posted a list on the Web, based on information compiled by Mary Phagan's great-niece Mary Phagan Kean (b. 1953). The list included Joseph Mackey Brown, former governor of Georgia, Eugene Herbert Clay, former mayor of Marietta and later president of the Georgia Senate, E. P. Dobbs, mayor of Marietta at the time, Moultrie McKinney Sessions, lawyer and banker, part of the Marietta delegation at Governor Slaton's clemency hearing, several current and former Cobb County sheriffs, and other individuals of various professions.
On the afternoon of August 16, the eight cars of the lynch mob left Marietta separately for Milledgeville. They arrived at the prison at around 10:00 p.m., and the electrician cut the telephone wires, members of the group emptied the gas from the prison's automobiles, handcuffed the warden, seized Frank, and drove away. The 175-mile (282 km) trip took about seven hours at a top speed of 18 miles per hour (29 km/h) through small towns on back roads. Lookouts in the towns telephoned ahead to the next town as soon as they saw the line of open cars pass by. A site at Frey's Gin, two miles (3 km) east of Marietta, had been prepared, complete with a rope and table supplied by former Sheriff William Frey. The New York Times reported Frank was handcuffed, his legs tied at the ankles, and he was hanged from a branch of a tree at around 7:00 a.m., facing the direction of the house where Phagan had lived.
The Atlanta Journal wrote that a crowd of men, women, and children arrived on foot, in cars, and on horses, and souvenir hunters cut away parts of his shirt sleeves. According to The New York Times, one of the onlookers, Robert E. Lee Howell – related to Clark Howell, editor of The Atlanta Constitution – wanted to have the body cut into pieces and burned, and began to run around, screaming, whipping up the mob. Judge Newt Morris tried to restore order, and asked for a vote on whether the body should be returned to the parents intact; only Howell disagreed. When the body was cut down, Howell started stamping on Frank's face and chest; Morris quickly placed the body in a basket, and he and his driver John Stephens Wood drove it out of Marietta.
In Atlanta, thousands besieged the undertaker's parlor, demanding to see the body; after they began throwing bricks, they were allowed to file past the corpse. Frank's body was transported by rail on Southern Railway's train No. 36 from Atlanta to New York and was buried in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, New York on August 20, 1915. The New York Times wrote that the vast majority of Cobb County believed he had received his "just deserts", and that the lynch party had simply stepped in to uphold the law after Governor Slaton arbitrarily set it aside. A Cobb County grand jury was convened to indict the lynchers; although they were well known locally, none were identified. Nat Harris, the newly elected governor who succeeded Slaton, promised to punish the mob and issued a $1,500 state reward for information. Despite this, Charles Willis Thompson of The New York Times said that the citizens of Marietta "would die rather than reveal their knowledge or even their suspicion" of the identities of the lynchers, and the local Macon Telegraph quipped, "Doubtless they can be apprehended – doubtful they will."
Several photographs were taken of the lynching, which were published and sold as postcards in local stores for 25 cents each, a common practice after lynchings, along with pieces of the rope, Frank's nightshirt, and branches from the tree. According to Elaine Marie Alphin, they were selling so fast, the police announced that sellers required a city license. Members of the lynch party or crowd can be seen in the postcards posing in front of the body, one of them holding a portable camera. Historian Amy Louise Wood writes that the local newspapers did not publish the photographs: it would have been too controversial, given that the lynch party can be seen clearly and that the lynching was being condemned around the country. The Columbia State, which opposed lynching, wrote: "The heroic Marietta lynchers are too modest to give their photographs to the newspapers." Wood also writes that a news film of the lynching was released, which included the photographs, though it focused on the crowds without showing Frank's body; its showing was prevented by censorship boards around the U.S., though according to Wood there is no evidence that it was stopped in Atlanta.
Leo Frank's case was mentioned by Adolf Kraus when he announced the creation of the Anti-Defamation League in October 1913. After Frank's lynching, around half of Georgia's 3,000 Jews left the state. According to author Steve Oney, “What it did to Southern Jews can’t be discounted.... It drove them into a state of denial about their Judaism. They became even more assimilated, anti-Israel, Episcopalian. The Temple did away with chupahs at weddings – anything that would draw attention." Many American Jews saw Frank as an American Alfred Dreyfus because both were perceived as being victims of antisemitic persecution.
Two weeks after the lynching, in the September 2, 1915 issue of The Jeffersonian, Watson wrote, "the voice of the people is the voice of God", capitalizing on his sensational coverage of the controversial trial. In 1914, when Watson began reporting his anti-Frank message, The Jeffersonian's circulation had been 25,000; by September 2, 1915, its circulation was 87,000. On November 25, 1915, a group led by William Joseph Simmons burned a cross on top of Stone Mountain, inaugurating a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
The consensus of researchers on the subject is that Frank was wrongly convicted. Jeffrey Melnick wrote, "There is near unanimity around the idea that Frank was most certainly innocent of the crime of murdering Mary Phagan". Other historians and journalists have written that the trial was "a miscarriage of justice", "a gross injustice", "a mockery of justice", that "there can be no doubt, of course, that...[Frank was] innocent", that "Leo Frank ... was unjustly and wrongly convicted of murder", that he "was falsely convicted", and that "the evidence against Frank was shaky, to say the least". C. Vann Woodward, like many other authors, believed that Conley was the actual murderer and was "implicated by evidence overwhelmingly more incriminating than any produced against Frank."
Critics cite a number of problems with the conviction. Local newspaper coverage, even before Frank was officially charged, was deemed to be inaccurate and prejudicial. Physical evidence was unexamined, mishandled, or lost in the police investigation. Some claimed that the prosecutor Hugh Dorsey was under pressure for a quick conviction because of recent unsolved murders and made a premature decision that Frank was guilty, a decision that his personal ambition would not allow him to reconsider. Later analysis of evidence, primarily by Governor Slaton and Conley's attorney William Smith, seemed to exculpate Frank while implicating Conley.
Websites supporting the view that Frank was guilty of murdering Phagan emerged around the centennial of the Phagan murder in 2013. The Anti-Defamation League issued a press release comdemning what it called "misleading websites" from "anti-Semites...to promote anti-Jewish views".
In 1982, Alonzo Mann, who had been Frank's office boy at the time of Phagan's murder, told The Tennessean that he had seen Jim Conley alone shortly after noon carrying Phagan's body through the lobby toward the ladder descending to the basement. Mann's deposition was the basis of an attempt by Charles Wittenstein, southern counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, and Dale Schwartz, an Atlanta lawyer, to obtain a posthumous pardon for Frank from the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles; though Mann's testimony was not sufficient to settle the issue. The board also reviewed the files from Slaton's commutation decision. It denied the pardon in 1983, hindered in its investigation by the lack of available records. It concluded that, "After exhaustive review and many hours of deliberation, it is impossible to decide conclusively the guilt or innocence of Leo M. Frank. For the board to grant a pardon, the innocence of the subject must be shown conclusively." At the time, the lead editorial in the Atlanta Constitution began, 'Leo Frank has been lynched a second time'.
Frank supporters submitted a second application for pardon in 1986, asking the state only to recognize its culpability over his death. The board granted the pardon on March 11, 1986. It said:
Without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the State's failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the State's failure to bring his killers to justice, and as an effort to heal old wounds, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, in compliance with its Constitutional and statutory authority, hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a Pardon.
An editorial by Fred Grimm in the Miami Herald declared, "A salve for one of the South's most hateful, festering memories, was finally applied."
In 2008, a state historical marker was erected by the Georgia Historical Society, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, and Temple Kol Emeth, near the building at 1200 Roswell Road, Marietta where Frank was lynched. On June 17, 2015, the Georgia Historical Society, the Atlanta History Center and the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation dedicated a Georgia Historical Society marker honoring Governor John M. Slaton at the Atlanta History Center.
During the trial, an Atlanta musician and millworker named Fiddlin' John Carson wrote and performed a murder ballad entitled "Little Mary Phagan". During the mill strikes of 1914, Carson sang "Little Mary Phagan" to crowds from the Fulton County courthouse steps. His daughter, Moonshine Kate, later recorded the song. An unrecorded Carson song, "Dear Old Oak in Georgia", sentimentalizes the tree from which Leo Frank was hanged.
The Frank case has been the subject of several film adaptations. African-American director Oscar Micheaux directed a silent race film titled The Gunsaulus Mystery in 1921, followed by Murder in Harlem in 1935. In 1937, They Won't Forget was released, directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The film was based on a novel by Ward Greene called Death in The Deep South, which was in turn inspired by the Frank case. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, this was the first major film adaptation based on the Frank case. The 1964 television series Profiles in Courage dramatized Governor John M. Slaton's decision to commute Frank's sentence. The episode starred Walter Matthau as Governor Slaton and Michael Constantine as Tom Watson. A 1988 American TV miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan was broadcast on NBC, starring Jack Lemmon as Gov. John Slaton and also including Kevin Spacey. The 1998 Broadway musical Parade won two Tony Awards. In 2009, a documentary film entitled The People v. Leo Frank was released, directed by Ben Loeterman.