Kirkus Reviews QR Code
AND THE DEAD SHALL RISE by Steve Oney Kirkus Star

AND THE DEAD SHALL RISE

The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank

By Steve Oney

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 2003
ISBN: 0-679-42147-5
Publisher: Pantheon

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.