Burying Leo Frank
Revisiting his horrific story, a century later.
It’s a simple gravestone, a small, groundlevel marker identical to the four stones beside it. Nothing about the inscription, “Semper Idem” —“Always the same” — hints at the significance of this 31-year-old man’s untimely death.
But here, at the edge of Mount Carmel Cemetery, in New York City, 100 feet from traffic streaming by on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, lies Leo Max Frank.
Frank’s conviction in Atlanta in 1913 on charges of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl are well known. So, too, is the lynching of Frank, on August 17, 1915, after his death sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Less well known is the journey Frank’s body took after it was cut down from an oak tree in Marietta, Georgia, and transported to New York City, where, on August 20, 1915, as the Forverts reported, “softly in a soundless dawn his body was lowered in a wooden coffin, into the deep grave.”
It was to be a tumultuous journey.
Frank’s corpse was displayed and celebrated like a trophy by the thousands who reveled in his murder. In New York City, thousands more turned out to mourn or to catch a glimpse of Frank’s casket, his bereaved parents or his widow.
Frank’s final hours alive began on August 16, when a group of armed men woke him up in the middle of the night. The men dragged Frank, who was wearing only a nightshirt, from his jail cell in Milledgeville, southeast of Atlanta, and bundled him into one of seven waiting cars.
As his car bumped along country roads, heading more than 100 miles northwest through the night, toward the town of Marietta, Frank’s captors gave him one final opportunity to admit raping and murdering Mary Phagan. Frank, who had professed his innocence for more than two years, remained silent, according to Steve Oney’s painstakingly researched book about the Frank case, “And the Dead Shall Rise.”
Shortly after daybreak, the car stopped at the edge of a wood close to the homestead where Phagan had grown up. The men walked Frank to an oak tree, helped him onto a table and looped a noose around his neck.
At around 7 a.m., Frank was asked if he had any final words. “‘I think now more about my wife and mother than about my own life,” he is reported to have said before the table was kicked away and Frank, his arms and legs bound, swung in the air.
As the minutes and then the hours passed, thousands came from the surrounding towns and countryside. They cheered, and posed for photographs. They cut away pieces of the rope that bound Frank and ripped off swatches of his clothing.
A local judge, Newt Morris, waded into the crowd, imploring the men and women to allow Frank’s body to be taken away. The Forverts, which had covered Frank’s case relentlessly since 1913, reported that Morris begged, “Whatever sin the living Frank committed, he has a mother and father — have mercy on them.”
But no sooner had Frank been cut down than the mob swarmed the body. Among that mob was Robert E. Lee Howell who, according to the Atlanta Journal, stomped repeatedly
with a “crunching sound” on Frank’s face. Later that day, at an undertaker’s in Atlanta, a doctor noted the well-defined markings of the sole of a shoe on Frank’s nose and close to his left eye.
Even in Atlanta, Frank’s body was not left in peace. As The New York Sun reported, crowds swarmed the undertaker’s garage threatening to break down the doors if they were not allowed to see Frank. The mob smashed a pane of glass, prompting the police to escort Frank’s body to the undertaker’s chapel, where, over the space of five hours, about 15,000 people filed in to view Frank’s body.
That evening, Frank’s casket was placed on a train and, along with his widow, Lucille Frank, a few of her relatives and Rabbi David Marx, spiritual leader of the Franks’ synagogue in Atlanta, The Temple, the party departed for New York City.
Over the days that followed, newspapers across the country reported Frank’s kidnapping and lynching. Early on, they noted that though it was well known that the lynch party was organized by civic leaders of Marietta and Cobb County, including lawyers, businesspeople and politicians, no one had been arrested. Indeed, many in Georgia supported the lynching. The mayor of Atlanta, J.G. Woodward, announced that “when it comes to woman’s honor there is no limit to which we will not go to avenge and to protect it.”
Much of the rest of the country was horrified. Former president William Howard Taft called the lynching “a damnable outrage.” The Jews of New York City, who had been so concerned about murderous anti- Semitism in the Old Country, were forced to confront a similar crime committed in their new home. On the Lower East Side, they gathered outside the
Laid to Rest: Leo Frank’s grave in Mount Carmel Cemetery, in New York City.
The Accused: Frank was convicted of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl in Atlanta.
Frontpage News: Page 1 of the Forverts on Aug 17, 1915, the day that Frank was lynched.