The case of Leo Frank—the Cornell-educated, Jewish supervisor of the Atlanta Pencil Factory who was convicted for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913 and lynched for the same in 1915—has been with me much as of late. In the last three weeks, I have reviewed Steve Oney’s And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (Pantheon, 2003); attended another performance of Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s musical “Parade” (this time with my 13-year-old daughter); and shopped the Austin Jewish Book Fair where I bought a young adult book by Elaine Marie Alphin: An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank (CarolRhoda Books, 2010).
Would that for every superb work of adult nonfiction (such as Mr. Oney’s), there were another equally compelling, young adult version (such as Ms. Alphin’s). Let’s face it: We can’t all invest the time to read the definitive work on every topic of interest. And the Dead Shall Rise is over 700 pages long. An Unspeakable Crime is only 152.
If you want concise, yet substantial information on an important subject, look to the young adult section of your bookstore or library. You may even find, as I have, that reading the young adult version enhances your experience of the adult version. For instance, Alphin provides a timeline and a list of characters—something I had wished for while reading Oney. Most importantly, Alphin offers a trim storyline which is worth reading before the Oney book as a preview or after it as a review.
Alphin successfully presents her young readers with the social context in which this drama unfolded, explaining that not only was Frank a Jew, but also a northerner and an industrialist who was perceived as imposing a new and unwelcome order on the traditionally agrarian south. Just when the teen reader would feel overwhelmed by the failure of Frank’s appeals, Alphin explains: “. . . each court’s decision had to be based on points of law, not common sense.” There were also political scores to be settled and elections to be won—complicated motives that challenge how a teen understands justice and society.
Alphin does not shy away from grim details—the condition Mary’s strangled body was found in, the possibility that blood on her dress was the result of menstruation rather than rape, the knife-wielding inmate at the Georgia State Prison Farm who slashed Leo’s throat, or the grinding of Leo’s face in the dirt after he was cut down from the tree.
There are lurid details that Alphin thankfully left out (my daughter does not need to read about Jim Conley’s anal intercourse with Annie Maude Carter). But there’s one detail I wish Alphin had kept in: the shit in the shaft. When detectives escorted Frank to the factory to identify the body, they rode the elevator to the basement where they were met by a horrible stench as the elevator car landed on fresh feces. Jim Conley had moved his bowels on the basement floor in the elevator shaft while the elevator car was parked above; ergo, he could not have carried Mary’s body with Frank on the elevator to the basement—as he testified in court—without disturbing the feces. Interestingly, the logistics of the elevator car, shaft, basement, and trap door finally made sense to me because of an illustration in Alphin’s book.
Teenage workers in the pencil factory played a pivotal role in Frank’s trial, and Alphin uses their stories to pose important questions to her young readers: Why did so many people lie on the witness stand? Was it peer pressure or emotional mass hysteria? She concludes the book with the story of Alonzo Mann, Frank’s 14-year-old office boy, who, almost 70 years later in 1982, signed an affidavit stating that he saw Conley carrying Mary’s body, but failed to testify to this because he feared retaliation from Conley and because his parents told him not to get involved.
In 2011, An Unspeakable Crime received both IPPY (Independent Publishers) and NCSS (National Council for the Social Sciences) Carter G. Woodson awards for young adult nonfiction. I look forward to giving my daughter this book for Hanukkah.
Six or seven years ago my advice to aspiring authors of nonfiction books was to build an audience platform by blogging. An example of how critical blogging could be to securing a publishing contract can be found in the case of Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. After an initial assessment of her manuscript, I had recommended she start a historical true-crime blog, and she did. In fact, the editor of the ideal book series at Kent State University Press became a fan ofRead more…