The People Vs. Leo Frank

Kelly Baker

The lynching of Leo Frank remains a subject of historical and popular interest. Frank, a Northern Jew, was accused of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan. For crime show buffs, the case contains mishandled evidence, questionable testimony, and good old fashioned prejudice. Modern audiences might have a hard time believing the mismanagement of the case, but the historical record clearly shows the political as well as social pressures that the judge, jury and prosecutor faced to find Phagan's murderer.

The trial and the resulting lynching have been dramatized in film and literature since the 1920s, and the most recent dramatization, The People Vs. Leo Frank, airs on PBS tonight at 10 pm EST.

The new film combines reenactment and interviews to shed light on this case. CNN describes the film:

It's a classic whodunit, starting with the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl and ending in a lynching. It was grist for a prosecutor's political aspirations, a case that was appealed all the way to the country's highest court and a story hotly debated in the national press.

At the center of it all was Leo Frank, a northern Jew who'd moved to Atlanta to supervise the National Pencil Company factory. When the body of Mary Phagan, a white child laborer, was found in the basement, law enforcement homed in on Frank. He was tried and convicted, based on what most historians say was the perjured testimony of a black man, and sentenced to death. But when the governor commuted his sentence in 1915, about 25 men abducted Frank, 31, from the state prison and hung him from a tree in Marietta, Georgia.

Considered one of the most sensational trials of the early 20th century, the Frank case seemed to press every hot-button issue of the time: North vs. South, black vs. white, Jew vs. Christian, industrial vs. agrarian. In the years since, it has inspired numerous books and films, TV programs, plays, musicals and songs. It has fueled legal discussions, spawned a traveling exhibition and driven public forums.

The answers to these questions, or theories, keep coming.Who murdered Mary Phagan? What forces were behind the lynching of Frank? Why should we still care?

"Leo Frank was not a good ole Southern boy. He was different and not ashamed of being different," said Ben Loeterman, whose new documentary, "The People v. Leo Frank," will air Monday on PBS. "The test of us as a society is not necessarily how we treat the best among us but how we treat the most questionable."

Later this week, I'll post my thoughts about this particular film and the current scholarship on Leo Frank. I encourage other contributors (especially Art Remillard) to join in the discussion on why this cold case has such popularity still and what Frank's lynching says about the religion and intolerance in 1920s America.


Randall said…
Thanks for the note, Kelly. I watched part of it the other night and enjoyed what I saw. Re-enactment is always tough to get right.
Anonymous said…
The definitive web site on the Leo Frank case is www Leo Frank Case dot com