For all the flaws in the United States' judicial system, today’s telecommunications allow some modicum of public oversight. Such was not the case at the beginning of the twentieth century, when 13-year-old Mary Phagan was murdered at the pencil factory where she worked in Atlanta, Georgia, and the eventual lynching of the man arrested for the crime. This 1913 murder would have been processed like any other crime but for the confluence of circumstances that served up Leo Frank -- a Jew -- as the culprit.
Behind the scenes, detectives gathered often-conflicting evidence and witness statements, while the newspapers ran sensational headlines describing the atrocities of the murder. In the North, especially the Hearst newspaper empire in New York, the papers pointed to the long history of anti-Semitism in the South. But in the South, the papers pointedly editorialized against the outside influence of moneyed capitalists interfering with home rule. As a result, this violent era ushered in the establishment of the infamous Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Defamation League.
The people of Atlanta, white and black alike, trained their sights on Leo Frank and the fear and hatred of all he represented as a Jew. The deeply rooted race issues focused the force of the town’s wrath on an innocent man, and the damning testimony of a black man of questionable repute accepted without question. There is an obvious subversion of justice in the court testimony and the bias of the court.
By its very detailed account, And the Dead Shall Rise is an indictment of a warped judicial system in a city blinded by its anti-Semitism, fear and prejudice inflamed by facile politicians with their own agendas. Political careers were made during the Phagan affair and, to date, no one has been indicted for the abduction and lynching of Leo Frank soon after his sentence was commuted by the governor. However, this book does what none other has accomplished: it names the politicians behind the manipulation of facts that resulted in the lynching.
Author Steve Oney tackles a virtual mountain of relevant material, court records, affidavits, notes and transcripts, sorting through a constantly shifting landscape of facts. Unfortunately, all of the handwritten records were lost, leaving any forensic evidence forever in doubt. Of all the witnesses at the trial, one kept his silence who could have made a difference: Alonzo Mann, who came forward in 1983, when he was eighty-five-years-old, to admit that he had seen the real killer, Jim Conley, carrying the girl. Supposedly Conley threatened Mann, who kept silent out of fear for his life.
This work is an enormous undertaking, made more fascinating in the complexities of motives, a portrait of greed and political self-promotion, even a murderer set free in lieu of the innocent Leo Frank. Oney calls it “the conflict than transformed murder into myth." Likely the definitive book on the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank, And the Dead Shall Rise catalogues the people and events of a shameful time in our history, a story as complicated and dense as the issues that have long divided this country: race, greed and prejudice.