A particularly notorious, long-overlooked ethnic incident in southern history comes in for careful reconsideration, and many are found wanting in the bargain.
On the morning of April 26, 1913, writes former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffer Oney, a 13-year-old “hillbilly” girl named Mary Phagan, a worker at Atlanta’s National Pencil Factory, disappeared. She was discovered in the back of the factory’s basement, so blackened with soot that her ethnic identity could not be ascertained until a detective lifted her skirt--whereupon it was discovered that Mary had been the victim of a particularly vicious rape—“outraged,” in the parlance of the day. Penciled notes near the girl’s body implicated “a long tall negro black” named Newt Lee, a watchman who had led police to it; a chronicler of events would go on to describe Lee as a “black, ignorant, corn-field, pot likker-fed darky.” But, for all the racial virulence of the era and the convenience of a suspect who wouldn’t much be missed, suspicion quickly fell on a factory manager, a Jewish northerner named Leo Frank. Effectively tried and convicted in the city’s leading newspaper—owned by William Randolph Hearst, who took a particular interest in the case—Frank protested his innocence even as the Phagan murder whipped up a storm of hitherto hidden anti-Semitism and brought national attention to the trial. And when the case dragged on in court a little too long for the liking of the citizenry, Frank was kidnapped and lynched (strangely, with a judge in attendance). To these already ugly facts Oney adds any number of surprising twists that, coupled with his careful, almost minute-by-minute reconstruction of the matter, yields a very big but economical narrative. One of those twists reveals the complicity of the state’s leading citizens—including a future governor—in Frank’s murder; another shows how protests by northerners over Frank’s railroading inspired Georgia racists to revive the Ku Klux Klan, disbanded in 1869 but obviously ripe for revival.
A superb work of true crime—and an altogether remarkable exercise in what might be called judicial archaeology.