It was pandemonium.
— Steve Oney
In April 1913, Atlanta was “giddy with excitement,” reports William Smith (Jayson Warner Smith). The New York Metropolitan Opera had arrived, a sign at last that the city was coming out from under its destruction and degradation during the Civil War, and emerging as a cultural center, as well as the “industrial gateway of what we called the New South.”
But, as Smith recalls early moment in The People v. Leo Frank — airing 2 November on PBS — this excitement was short-lived. On 27 April, the body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was discovered in the basement of the National Pencil Factory. Bloodied, strangled, and possibly raped, the corpse was surrounded by evidence, including a bloody handprint and “murder notes,” written as if from the victim’s perspective, referring to her attacker as a “long tall black nigra.” The local police “were crawling all over the basement,” recounts the narrator, “mesmerized and sickened by the brutality of the crime.”
Smith’s recollection is tinged with regret. For the purposes of Ben Loeterman’s documentary — which combines reenactments with interviews with experts on the case as well as descendents of Atlanta residents — Smith’s is a voice of reason. He’s looking back as the film begins, on his work as the attorney for the factory janitor Jim Conley (Seth Gilliam), early on named a suspect when he’s spotted “washing red stains from a shirt.” (The shirt is never “chemically examined by the police.”) As it turns out, Conley’s (shifting) testimony helps to convict Leo Frank (Will Janowitz), superintendent at the factory and the last person to admit seeing Mary Phagan alive. “The more I reviewed the case,” Smith says, “the more I began to question whether I had made a terrible mistake.”
His mistake, along with those of many others, leads pretty directly to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank. After his trial is the occasion for courtroom posturing, public hysteria, tabloid journalism, and an especially heinous mix of anti-Semitism and racism, his sentence is commuted and a mob drags him from his cell, then drives him to a tree in Marietta, Georgia, “across from the house” where Mary Phagan grew up. Deeming themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, the killers reportedly — according to a former local sheriff, conduct the lynching “with solemnity and respect, if you can believe that,” even agreeing to deliver Frank’s wedding ring back to his wife. The aftermath is less “civil”: along with a dissolvey reenactment to designate the gathering crowds around the hanging body, the film shows photos of the actual body and reports that the rope was cut into pieces and sold. Its commercial success — not to mention the support it garnered from inside Atlanta’s fearful white community — the lynching of this middle class Jewish man leads directly to a revitalization of the Klan. In 1915, the targets are various “others,” from blacks to Jews to Catholics. The film submits that the lynch mob is a function of Atlanta — that “gateway to the New South” — supported by institutions ranging from police to courts to newspapers. It’s a miserable history, related here in images alternately cheesy and striking.
Framed by Smith’s narrated misgivings, the film recounts the careless work by detectives, who first focus on the black factory worker who finds the body, Newt Lee (Gordon Danniels), “sweating” him in “repeated interrogations, even firing a gun next to his head.” They consider several other suspects as well, including Conley, who “produces four affidavits,” eventually landing on the story that saves him, that Frank had him write the “murder notes” in order to cover up his (Frank’s) crime. The film emphasizes the policemen’s own bigotry in close-ups of their reactions to Conley and then Frank, whose “high-strung nature,” says Steve Oney, author of The Dead Shall Rise, “offends” them. The film reenacts their arrival at Frank’s front door, where his wife Lucille (Katie Kneeland) behaves nervously, then Frank himself appears “foreign… an alien.” The film cuts from a shot of Frank protesting to the cops exchanging skeptical glances.
Such heavy-handed dramatization connotes the abuses heaped on Frank. The film underscores the preposterousness of the developing case against him by pointing to the multiple pathologies and prejudices that drive it. As historian Leonard Dinnerstein reports, the police regard Conley as a “dumb nigger,” but this only makes his version of events more credible, because “If the two white men, who are smart, can’t break his story, then he must be telling the truth.” When, in the courtroom, Conley adds that he’s seen Frank with other girl employees in his office, the headlines overtake any ostensibly rational legal proceedings. “The Ebony Chevalier of Crime is Darktown’s Own Hero,” proclaims one, as Dinnerstein notes that he becomes “the most famous black man in Atlanta.” As the film shows (in another reenactment), Conley’s lawyer comes to doubt him too late, after the Frank lynching. Still, Smith’s own investigation — of Conley’s speech and handwriting patterns, key to the case — produces what Smith’s grandson calls here “a credible linguistic fingerprint.”
The film indicts not only the shoddy police work and lawyering, but also the public hysteria advanced by local newspapers, including The Georgian, recently purchased by William Randolph Hearst and running doctored photos of the girl’s body along with breathless daily updates on the investigation. (The Georgian, by the way, has hired William Smith, known to defend black clients and believe in “equal justice for blacks,” to look out for Jim Conley.) This sort of storytelling expands when Arthur Ochs’ New York Times steps in to decry to anti-Semitism that frames the conviction, and Tom Watson’s Jeffersonian huts back with fearful, angry insinuations concerning Jewish ownership of businesses and newspapers. In the context of such class and race tensions, the story of child laborer Mary Phagan is all but lost.