In 2009, when my boss offered me tickets to see the musical “Parade,” I of course said “yes.” I knew that “Parade” retells the story of Leo Frank, the German-Jewish superintendent of Atlanta’s National Pencil Factory, who was convicted of slaying 13-year-old factory worker, Mary Phagan, in 1913. Later, when Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison, an angry mob sprung him from prison and lynched him. The Frank case gave rise to the Anti-Defamation League. Surely, “Parade” would be an edifying performance.
To say the show moved me is an understatement. I emerged a weeping wreck. But a week later, I began feeling that I had been “had”—taken for an emotional roller coaster ride on a script that played too purposefully to my 21st Century sensibilities. Needing to know the true story, I hunted down its most thorough telling by Steve Oney in And the Dead Shall Rise: The Killing of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of
Leo Frank (Pantheon: 2003).
Reading And the Dead Shall Rise proved my hunches right. Frank’s wife, Lucille, did not spearhead his legal appeals or campaign publicly for his exoneration. Frank was not simply the victim of anti-Semites and “bad Yahoos” in a kangaroo court—as much as we 21st Century Yankees would like to believe. The story is far more complex, and if you value complexity and objectivity along with brilliant reportorial skill in a 650-page-turner, this tome is for you.
Where “Parade” plays to audience expectations, Oney’s book surprises. As Oney observes, Frank’s conviction was more the result of a botched defense, the defendant’s yekke* inclinations, and the racism of an all-white jury that, paradoxically, couldn’t imagine the black man as the white girl’s killer because his alibi was so fantastic. No Negro, the thinking went, could invent such an outlandish tale; therefore, it had to be true.
One of the most memorable and profound events in the two-year drama of Frank’s imprisonment is lawyer William Smith’s change of heart. Knowing how the cards were stacked against black suspect, Jim Conley, Smith eagerly came to his defense. After Frank’s conviction, Smith and his wife, a school teacher, dedicated themselves to comparing the murder notes with Conley’s “talk dirty” love letters. After copying the contents of these missives onto index cards which they clothes-pinned to strings running across their kitchen, the couple performed a painstaking analysis of Conley’s language. Not only had Conley written the murder notes—which was a given in the trial—he had composed them without assistance; Conley, most likely, was the killer. Years later, Smith, on his death bed, penned a note stating his belief in Frank’s innocence—it was that important to him.
Although I read And the Dead Shall Rise two years ago after seeing “Parade,” it came to mind again while I was editing doctoral dissertations, all of which bemoaned the state of the news media. “You don’t know from media frenzy and hype,” I thought, “until you study the Leo Frank case.” Three Atlanta newspapers—one owned by Hearst—vied for the most sellable headlines, shamelessly pronouncing guilt and innocence as if a judicial trial were unnecessary. Apparently, the term “alleged” had not made its way into the lexicon of journalists. Which brings me to what I enjoy most about Oney’s book—insights into the past which develop appreciation for and understanding of the present.
Oney spent 17 years researching and writing And the Dead Shall Rise, which won the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for history. Simon & Schuster will be publishing Oney’s second book on the
trials and tribulations of National Public Radio (NPR). We have much to look
forward to with its release.
*Wikipedia defines “yekke” as a generally jovial, mildly derogatory term used by Jews in reference to the German Jews’ legendary attention to detail and punctuality.