Europa’s Children

Why Should I Hang? Leo Frank and the Murder of Mary Phagan (pt. 9)

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In a quiet, unobtrusive manner to bring influence to bear

emanuelharpers1868
Temple Emanu-El, 5th Ave & 43rd St. (1868-1927)

At their November 8, 1913 meeting in New York’s ornate Temple Emanu-El, American Jewish Committee leaders took up the question of Leo Frank. There was unanimous assent as to Frank’s innocence, but disagreement as to how the AJC should respond.  Several members had received letters from Georgia Jews. AJC President Louis Marshall had heard from an Atlanta correspondent that “The feeling against the D—— Jew is so bitter that the jury was intimidated and feared for their own lives, which undoubtedly would have been in danger had any other verdict been rendered”: Semitic scholar and AJC founding member Cyrus Adler was warned of “violent anti-Jewish sentiment in Atlanta.”  But much as the AJC wanted to help, they were also leery of making matters worse.  Only a few weeks earlier the New York Sun had claimed in an October 12 article entitled “Jews Fight to Save Leo Frank:

Since Frank’s conviction much has been said to make it appear that he was the victim of race prejudice and that he was convicted because he was a Jew… At first there was absolutely no prejudice against Frank because of his race. Atlanta has probably been freer of the Juden-hetze spirit than any city in the South. Jews have been repeatedly elected to office and none was ever opposed because he was a Jew.  Four Jews were on the grand jury that indicted Frank and they can hardly be accused of racial prejudice…

Prejudice did develop against Frank and against the Jews, but Frank’s friends were responsible for the anti-Semitic spirit. After Frank was indicted many Jews began to assert publicly that Frank was not guilty, that being a Jew he couldn’t be guilty and that even if he were guilty the Jews would spend thousands to prevent his conviction. Some Jews were credited with saying that even if Frank did kill Mary Phagan she was nothing but a factory girl…

The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.  That is the truth about Frank being the victim of Juden-hetze.

The minutes of the AJC’s November 8 meeting noted that the case was on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court and “RESOLVED, That the Committee take no action with respect to the Frank case.” But though they refrained from public comment American Jewish Committee members began privately rallying support for Leo Frank. Already Frank’s legal bills had surpassed $50,000 (around $1.2 million in 2018 currency). Moses Frank, Leo’s uncle and NPC’s primary shareholder, had paid the lion’s share but his funds were not unlimited.  AJC leaders wrote sizable checks toward a fund authorized to pay for Frank’s defense and encouraged their friends to help out as well.  AJC President Louis Marshall observed:

[T]here is only way of dealing with this matter and that is, in a quiet and unobtrusive manner, to bring influence to bear on the Southern press [and create] a wholesome public opinion which will free this unfortunate young man from the terrible judgment that rests against him”

Marshall soon found a powerful ally toward that end in Chicago advertising tycoon Albert Lasker.  picture3-0Born in Galveston, Texas, Lasker had arrived at Lord & Taylor in 1898. Fearful his 18 year-old son might become a soldier (or worse still, a journalist) Morris Lasker arranged a three-month internship with the Chicago ad agency.  Young Albert proved to have a knack for the trade: by 1903 he was a full partner in Lord & Taylor and in 1906, at the age of 26, sole owner of America’s second largest advertising firm.  Lasker’s 1908 “drink an orange” campaign introduced America to orange juice and saved the California growers’ collective he renamed Sunkist: later he helped the California grape industry with a marketing campaign for Sun Maid raisins. By 1912 Lord & Thomas was billing over $6 million ($145 million in today’s funds) and the youthful Lasker was one of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen and philanthropists.

Lasker contributed $1,000 to Frank’s defense: he also reached out to Adolf Ochs, owner of the New York Times. At first Ochs was hesitant about involving the Times in the Frank affair.  Like the AJC leaders, Ochs feared making the Frank case a “Jewish cause” and stirring up anti-Semitism rather than quelling it.  But like Lasker Ochs had southern roots: the newspaper baron was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee.  After speaking with the ad magnate and with David Marx, Leo Frank’s rabbi, Ochs was convinced of Frank’s innocence.  Still, like the AJC, the Times chose to stand in abeyance until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled upon Frank’s appeal.

On December 15, 1913 defense attorneys Luther Rosser and Reuben Arnold argued their case before the Georgia Supreme Court.  They restated the complaints they raised in their Motion for a New Trial: they also noted Judge Roan’s uncertainty regarding Frank’s guilt. After two months of deliberation, the Court ruled that “The evidence supports the verdict, and there was no abuse of discretion in refusing a new trial.”  While Justices Beck and Fish had misgivings about much of the testimony concerning Frank’s “perversion,” they did not feel the issues rose to a level such that a new trial would be warranted: accordingly, the court moved unanimously that Leo Frank’s motion for a new trial be denied.

Frank took the news calmly, saying  “The truth will finally out.. It can’t be pinned down forever. It will take time — maybe an age, but it will eventually come, and then I will be an exonerated man.”  His supporters outside were less patient.  While Rosser and Arnold examined the various options remaining open to their client, Lasker and Ochs prepared for a public relations campaign that would make Leo Frank a worldwide celebrity and a probe that would spare no expense in proving his innocence.

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