Atlanta loved Gone with the Wind. Atlanta hated They Won’t Forget. An editorial on the subject in the
Southern Israelite commented that: “It is safe to wager that the majority of Atlantans are grateful to Warner Brothers, for withholding, at considerable loss to the film producers, the showing in Atlanta…” This viewpoint is noteworthy because the Jewish people of Atlanta would have had something to gain from the showing of the film: a possible amelioration of feelings against them that had fomented out of the Leo Frank case.
The case was one that perplexes even now, because the race and religious prejudices of the time and the wounds still open in the aftermath of the Civil War made it impossible for true justice to prevail. There were too many conflicting needs in the
Southern community in 1915 to allow for a simple criminal investigation when teenaged Mary Phagan was murdered in the basement of a pencil factory managed by Leo Frank. The bulk of the testimony against Frank was offered by two African Americans, a janitor and a night watchman. The janitor, Jim Conley, changed his sworn statement more than once. The night watchman, who discovered the body and some undoubtedly contrived notes beside it, testified that Frank was a pervert who often pressed his favors on the young women who worked for him.
It seemed that the Atlanta police (known for their corruption) were happier to believe the blacks (one of whom was an early suspect) than the respectable young Jew. Frank had lived in Atlanta five years – hardly long enough to wipe away the stigma of Yankee-ism, redolent of carpetbaggers and the exploitation through industry of poor whites now unable to live on the farm, forced into the city to work for pennies an hour like little Mary Phagan. It was Frank who came to represent all that was wrong with
Southern society. After being sentenced to die and following many appeals, his sentence was commuted by the governor to life in prison. Soon after, he was assailed by a lynch mob in a well-orchestrated break-in, carried off and hanged. His body was left dangling for many hours as sensation-hungry citizens cut off pieces of his clothing.
Michael H. Bernstein is director of graduate studies in the Film Studies Department at Emory University and author of other books about popular film. In this one, he deftly describes a complex murder mystery as seen through the eyes of the media.
A number of films were made about the case. The first were made by Oscar Micheaux, a successful black entrepreneur who created what were called “race” movies for black audiences. He examined the Frank case not once but many times with several scripts, including
Murder in Harlem, a fictional retelling that expressed Micheaux’s evolving take on the events, incorporating stereotypes that were targeted to his upwardly mobile black audiences. Hollywood soon stepped in with the aforementioned
They Won’t Forget, featuring a young Lana Turner and Claude Rains. In that film the press was vilified, portrayed as so zealous for a story that they pillaged Mrs. Frank’s home hours after her husband’s death. The Warner Brothers movie, based on a book about the case, made little mention of Frank’s ethnicity, probably because there were many Jews in the highest echelons of the film industry who did not want to raise the specter of anti-Semitism.
The case was also the source of a program in the television series, Profiles in Courage, initially spearheaded by John F. Kennedy. The subject of that show was Gov. John M. Slaton, who issued the life sentence. The show focused on the governor’s courage in making a decision against his own political best interests.
The most comprehensive delineation of the facts was a TV miniseries that aired in the 1980s with an all-star cast including Jack Lemmon as Governor Slaton. The series,
The Murder of Mary Phagan, examined all aspects of the case utilizing evidence that had come to light in the years following the crime. By that era, Americans and even Atlantans were more prepared to deal with issues of race and religion.
Yet the crime even now remains unsolved. Frank was almost certainly not the perpetrator, and one of the two black men, most likely Conley, is the likely suspect, just as he was initially in 1915. The truth will never be known, and the events stand as an indictment against Atlanta’s power structure at many levels, and a reflection of the strong passions of its populace in the troubled years following the Civil War and Reconstruction.