Twilight tours: the murder of Mary Phagan

This is part of my continuing series, discovering the history of Atlanta using the “residents” of Historic Oakland Cemetery, located in Grant Park, near downtown Atlanta. 421179_161357924036332_1247656934_n

If you’ve never been on a tour of Atlanta’s most historic cemetery, Oakland, go to one of the Guided Overview Tours at 10a, 2p and 4p on Saturdays or Sundays. Or take a Self Guided tour.

8353c403ce78a5f8b934b142e043cd67But if you’re looking for a more in depth experience, attend one of the Special Topic Twilight Tours. No reservations required, just show up at the Visitors Center any  Saturday or Sunday from, March 16 through October 13, Tours start at 6:30 and last roughly an hour. Or longer if you keep asking questions.

A Special Topic Tour coming up June 23 is Fear and Accusation: The Leo Frank Story – In 1913 Atlanta was a city in transition socially, culturally, and politically. The Old South had crumbled less than fifty years before and the memory of the Civil War still hung heavy in the air. In fact, the Leo Frank story began that year on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26. Thirteen year old Mary Phagan planned to enjoy the festivities but her life came to a sudden, violent end that day at the National Pencil Factory. Thus began a series of events that rank with the most tragic and indelible in the history of the city. Although much of the evidence collected was questionable at best, factory superintendent, Leo Frank, was soon accused, tried, and convicted of the heinous crime. Numerous Oakland residents played key roles in the event. Lives of both the rich and the poor were forever changed. Learn the stories behind the story in this thoughtful and thought provoking tour.

The lynching of Leo Frank occurred right outside of Marietta, GA. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The lynching of Leo Frank occurred right outside of Marietta, GA. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Details behind the murder and trial

Here’s more background on that murder and the trial of Leo Frank, which I researched at the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Midtown Atlanta.

My favorite part of this museum is in the permanent collection showing Jewish life in Atlanta from 1845 to the present. Of special interest to me is the video about the murder of Leo Frank. It’s impossible to talk about the Jewish experience in the south without discussing this case, which caused half the Jews in Georgia to flee the state. Frank was convicted in 1913 of the death of Mary Phagan, a young worker at the National Pencil Factory, where Frank was an engineer and superintendent. The trial and evidence was flawed and the jury prejudiced against him since he was both a Jew and a northerner. The prosecution portrayed him as a rich Yankee Jew lording it over vulnerable working women. Governor John M. Slaton eventually commuted the sentence to life imprisonment as he was leaving office, since it was effectively political suicide. A few weeks later, a group of armed men took Frank from the Milledgeville Penitentiary, carried him to the Marietta area and lynched him. No one was ever charged with Frank’s murder, though the ringleaders were prominent men of the community. Several photographs were taken of the lynching, which were sold as postcards, along with pieces of the rope and Frank’s nightshirt.

Leo Frank
Leo Frank

It is now widely believed by historians that Jim Conley, the factory’s janitor and the main witness for the prosecution, is the real murderer of Mary Phagan. In 1986, the state of Georgia pardoned Leo Frank. It is a sad chapter in Georgia’s history. This video is not the one at the museum, but it is very informative and includes several photos taken at the time.

Currently at the Breman, Project Mah Jongg.

Another tour that should be particularly interesting is the Jewish Grounds of Oakland – Dates: Sundays: 6/30, 7/28, 8/18.