Leo Frank’s ghost still haunts us

It's not just a Broadway musical. It is a pervasive memory. Jew hatred persists.

The word is “shushky.”

It means to shush something — to not speak about something, to silence a conversation. It is a uniquely Southern Jewish Yiddishism.

Let me tell you about the first time that I heard that word.

I was with a group of Jews in Atlanta, Georgia. The conversation turned to the topic of Leo Frank. I suggested that it might be a “nice idea” to have a monument for him, somewhere in Atlanta.

As they say — awkward.

“Under no circumstances,” someone said.

“It’s too raw. It’s too fresh,” another person said.

“Let’s just shushky the whole thing, shall we?” yet another person said.

Consider the musical, “Parade,” with the book by Alfred Uhry, author of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Last Night of Ballyhoo,” now revived on Broadway. It has gotten good reviews, along with some harassment by antisemites.

Why “Parade,” and why now?

Because “Parade” is the story of the life and death of Leo Frank. His story will no longer be shushkied. 

Leo Frank grew up in Brooklyn, and attended Pratt Institute and Cornell University. His uncle, Moses Frank, invited him to manage the National Pencil Company in Atlanta.

In 1910, Leo married Lucille, who came from a prominent Atlanta Jewish family. Two years later he became president of the B’nai B’rith Gate City Lodge. Their home was in the middle of what is now Turner Field in Atlanta.

In August, 1913, a thirteen year old worker, Mary Phagan from Marietta, Georgia, in east Cobb county, was found murdered in the National Pencil Company factory. As a Northerner and a Jew, Frank was automatically, doubly, the Other, and automatically the suspect.

Frank was arrested for the crime and brought to trial. The mobs screamed: “The Jew is the synagogue of Satan!” “Crack that Jew’s neck!” “Hang that damned sheeny!'” — echoes of the Dreyfus trial in France, twenty years prior to that. Their main inspiration was the Georgia politician, Thomas Watson, a populist who called for Frank’s lynching – writing, as Mark Twain sardonically put it, “with a pen warmed in hell.”

The jury needed less than four hours to convict Frank. He was sentenced to death.  A round of appeals lasted nearly two years. The case became a cause celebre. It involved a number of national Jewish organizations, as well as public figures like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford (before he turned to his own form of Jew-baiting), and New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, himself a Southern Jew.

When Frank finally lost the appeal, Georgia Governor Frank Slaton commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. Ultimately, Slaton had to flee Georgia because of the many death threats against him. He had always believed that the truth would come to light and that Leo Frank would be vindicated and released.

It was not to be. Leo Frank was transferred to the state prison farm at Milledgeville, southeast of Atlanta. 

On the afternoon of August 16, 1915, a group of twenty-five men drove from Marietta to Milledgeville.

The drive would have taken about an hour and a half, over what were then dirt roads.

They practiced the drive, over the course of several nights.

They broke into the prison farm. They abducted Frank.

Early the next morning, they hanged Leo Frank from a massive oak tree in Marietta, which today has a sizable Jewish population.

It took Leo Frank nearly ten minutes to die. The murderers posed proudly with the corpse, still hanging from the tree. Those photographs became postcards. They were sold as souvenirs. So were pieces of the rope from which Leo Frank hung.  

Frank was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York.

In the wake of the lynching, there was a wave of anti-Jewish violence in Atlanta and Marietta. Jewish merchants were expelled from Marietta. Many Jews fled Atlanta, never to return.

The Leo Frank case inspired the formation of two radically different groups. It led to the revival and re-branding of the Ku Klux Klan. It also led to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

But, most people don’t know that the story of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan became a disturbing part of Southern folk culture.

Fiddlin’ John Carson, the first commercially successful hillbilly recording artist, composed and recorded an entire genre of Mary Phagan-themed songs: “Little Mary Phagan,” “The Grave of Little Mary Phagan,” “The Ballad of Mary Phagan,” and “Dear Old Oak in Georgia.”

In 1983, eight-five year old Alonzo Mann, who had been Frank’s office boy, finally admitted a seventy year old secret: Frank had not killed Mary Phagan.

So, why “Parade,” and why Leo Frank? And why now?

Because the Leo Frank case is Antisemitism 101:

  • Medieval antisemitism? The Leo Frank case was a blood libel.
  • Early modern antisemitism? Leo Frank was the Jew, who symbolized industrialization and social change.
  • The Holocaust, even? As Chris Browning taught in his studies of the Holocaust, “ordinary men” are capable of perpetuating great horrors. So it was with the Leo Frank story. Men in suits — community leaders from prominent families — planned and perpetrated his murder. They posed proudly for the photographer’s camera before their demonic handiwork, as did Nazi soldiers.

A postscript.

Every year on the anniversary of Leo Frank’s death, a man lights a memorial candle for him – as if Frank had been a member of his own family.

When he attends yizkor services on Yom Kippur, he says Kaddish for Leo and Lucille Frank, along with the names of his parents and other departed relatives.

I knew that man, and I asked him why he recited the names of Leo and Lucille.

“They never had children,” he told me. “So I guess I adopted them. Their memory is my responsibility now.”

And ours, as well.

You might have seen those new sky blue emblems that proclaim: “Stand Up To Jewish Hate.” They are the result of a $25 million dollar campaign from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

We are still living with the aftermath of the Leo Frank case. He was the first American Jew to die because he was Jewish. Most renditions of antisemitism in this country are not lethal, thank God — but some have been, and those memories haunt us like ghosts.

The Leo Frank case was the first story to teach us a powerful lesson: that we American Jews will not shushky Jew hatred.

Nor should they — and nor should anyone.

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