THE ANTI-PILATE: GOVERNOR JOHN M. SLATON
I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation ... but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience which would remind me that I, as governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right . . . It means that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than to feel that I had that blood on my hands. - Governor John Slaton, 1915
In 1955, Profiles in Courage was published under the name of then-Senator John F. Kennedy. This book, famously remembered by title but little read today, describes several politicians, most United States Senators, who risked their careers and reputations for standing up for what was right rather than what was popular at the time.
Now, the men he honored in this book were, no doubt, politically courageous in their own ways. But whatever these men may have risked, they never truly lost anything for their political beliefs.
But one man in their number above all showed himself to be one of the Remnant, risking, and losing, all in order to save an innocent man from the noose–a man who died in spite of his order to save him.
LEO FRANK AND THE MURDER OF MARY PHAGAN
On April 26, 1913, a thirteen year old girl named Mary Phagan, who worked in an Atlanta, Georgia pencil factory, went to work to get her paycheck. The hours at the factory had been temporarily cut due to a shortage of supplies, so her pay for the week was only $1.20. It was a holiday, Confederate Memorial Day, and most of the factory was empty. Her employer, a Jewish engineer from New York City named Leo Frank, gave her pay to her. She left his office and was never seen alive again.
The next morning, her body was found in the basement of the factory. She had been strangled, probably raped, and robbed.
Evidence in the case was compromised from the beginning. Near her body were two notes, not in her handwriting, but purporting to be notes that the girl left, blaming "a negro" for having killed her.
Suspicion fell to two people: one was the factory owner, Leo Frank, a highly educated and cultured engineer. He had graduated from Cornell University, and had apprenticed at a number of factories to study the business of pencil manufacture. He and his wife had only recently moved to Atlanta, where he was active in opera, tennis and other cultural pursuits. He was also president of the local chapter of B’Nai Brith.
The second suspect was an uneducated black man: one Jim Conley. He had a criminal record and a drinking problem, and admitted his involvement in the crime almost from the first. However, he claimed that his involvement was strictly that of accomplice: for, although he gave many differing versions of what occurred, they all revolved around two basic facts that remained unchanged through all his different versions of the truth. First, he had helped cover up the crime. Second, the person responsible for the crime was Leo Frank.
Looking back, the convoluted tale remains a bit difficult to unravel at a distance of almost a century. But two things are clear through this story: Leo Frank consistently maintained his innocence in the matter. And Jim Conley kept changing his story.
Two local newspapers, recently acquired by the Hearst chain, began a campaign of classic yellow journalism to hype the circumstances of the crime. Passions were raised, and many subterranean cultural hatreds began to bubble to the surface, including a hitherto-hidden cultural hatred of Jews, who were seen as bearers of Yankee capitalism among the purer people of the South.
Georgia was undergoing its first major demographic changes since the end of the Civil War. Northerners and immigrants were moving to the state in significant numbers; Jews and Catholics, hitherto largely unknown there, were viewed by Georgians of the time as being an alien, invading force.
Furthermore, the case was corrupted by old-style Southern racism involved here as well: but in this case, it worked against Frank, as Conley, being a black man, was viewed as being too lacking in intelligence to attempt to cover up a crime he himself would have committed; he "must have been told what to do." (This was, in fact, the first case in Georgia history where the testimony of a black man was held over that of a white. Unfortunately, it appears to have been perjured.)
Leo Frank put on trial for his life only three months after the murder. It being held in the middle of Southern summer heat, the windows of the courtroom were opened, revealing to all–particularly the jury–that hundreds of people were outside the courtroom listening to the proceedings.
There was no doubt what their mood was: they wanted Frank convicted.
The trial proceeded for 24 days. Frank, himself, was well defended; no less than eight attorneys and expert witnesses stood with him as he fought for his life. Furthermore, Georgia law of the time allowed Frank himself to make an unsworn statement on his own behalf without being cross-examined; he gave a lengthy analysis of his work that day, which he stated left no time for him to have committed the murder.
As to the charges that he was "nervous" when the police had come for him, he replied:
Gentlemen, I was nervous. I was completely unstrung. Imagine yourself called from sound slumber in the early hours of the morning ... To see that little girl on the dawn of womanhood so cruelly murdered — it was a scene that would have melted stone.It should also be said that, in attempting to lay blame on Conley, Mr. Frank’s own attorneys engaged in racial slander in their own right.
Lead defense attorney Luther Rosser, said to the jury: "Who is Conley? He is a dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying, n----r." Leo Frank himself had issued a widely publicized statement questioning how the "perjured vaporizings of a black brute" could be accepted in testimony against him.
All was for nought. Frank was found guilty of the murder of Mary Phagan. He was not present in the courtroom when the verdict was read, as the judge feared "violence" if the verdict was not guilty.
Leo Frank continued to fight the case all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. In 1915, the Supreme Court found against him 7-2.
Leo Frank's guilt seemed to be well established. His date with the hangman was all but certain.
But, while Frank's guilt was passionately held by many–even today–it is clear that while he may have been found guilty by a jury, there was still much room for reasonable doubt. The unfairness of the trial, the anti-Semitic bigotry of many commentators, and the whiff of Judge Lynch just outside the boundaries of the courtroom corrupted the process profoundly, indeed, irredeemably.
It is entirely possible that Frank was innocent of the crime. It is also entirely possible that he was as guilty as all hell. Who can know, now, a hundred years later?
Throughout the trial and the appeal process, public pressure through the press grew on those with the powers to decide Frank's fate. The jurors and judge heard the clamoring mob just outside the courtroom; in the halls of power, the howls of the press, particularly those of populist politician Tom Watson, for Leo Frank's blood.
It was at this point that Leo Frank sought clemency from the governor.
ENTER JOHN SLATON
In the summer of 1915, two years after the murder of Mary Phagan, John M. Slaton was approaching the end of his term of office. He looked ahead to his prospects. He had had been appointed governor of Georgia once, and then later ran, and won, a race for governor in his own right. He was a protegee of Tom Watson, a prominent Georgia politician–Watson had once run for Vice President under the Populist ticket–and now was a major player in Georgia state politics. Watson had many political opportunities within his gift: one he now offered Slaton. If Slaton would simply stay the course and not rock the boat, he, Watson, would see to it that Slaton's long dream of service in the United States Senate would one day soon be fulfilled.
Watson's politics had taken a turn for the dark side in the days since his national prominence. He who had once been a national name was now a festering, blistering advocate of anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti black bigotry, everywhere seeing the decline of Western civilization in demographic change that he barely understood and could not abide.
And Tom Watson wanted to see Leo Frank hang.
Slaton had a terrible choice to make. First, there was the issue of conflict of interest: for he himself was a law partner of the firm that had defended Frank. On the other hand, had he chosen to keep clean hands and decided to recuse himself, he saw a tremendous potential for injustice: an innocent man might be hanged by the State of Georgia.
Third, and perhaps most profoundly, Slaton was a Christian in a Christian society, and the story of the New Testament haunted him. He heard the echoes of another trial, two thousand years earlier, involving a certain other accused Jew, a reluctant governor, and a howling mob. And he could not bring himself to repeat the mistake of Pontius Pilate.
Two thousand years ago, another Governor washed his hands and turned over a Jew to a mob. For two thousand years that governor’s name has been accursed. If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice.Slaton, after reviewing the 10,000 pages of evidence associated with the case, came to decide that it was very likely that Leo Frank had not committed the murder. Although he first decided to pardon him outright, he was convinced by his aides instead to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, to give the system another opportunity to review the evidence.
Nobody was prepared for the reaction to the decision. A huge mob of thousands of outraged Georgians flooded the street in front of the governor's mansion. The state guard, together with a band of Slaton's friends who were hastily deputized to keep order, managed to keep the mob at bay. Slaton was forced to flee the state.
Less than a month later, a mob, led by Tom Watson and a committee that called itself "The Knights of Mary Phagan", invaded the prison where Leo Frank was held. They drove him over 250 miles back to Marietta, Georgia, and hanged him from a tree.
Leo Frank was the only Jew known to have been lynched in the history of Southern mob violence. But one was enough: half of the Jewish population of Georgia fled the state in the aftermath.
Tom Watson went on to a brilliant career. He used the aftermath of the Frank lynching to help to relaunch the second Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. Himself eventually elected Governor, he spent the last two years of his life in the United States Senate, dying in Washington at the age of 66 of a brain aneurysm. A statue stands today on the grounds of the Georgia State House. Its plinth holds a placard that reads: "A champion of right who never faltered in the cause."
John Slaton never again held public office, and was forever after vilified for having attempted to grant life to Leo Frank. He never achieved his dream of serving in the U.S. Senate. He spent the next two decades serving on the committee of the state bar that reviewed candidates for legal licensing. And when he died in 1956, they buried him in a mausoleum to prevent his grave from being desecrated. Even forty years later, there would those who never forgave him for pardoning "the murderous Jew."
But he was not forgotten. Some remembered him, including Senator John F. Kennedy, who memorialized him that year in Profiles in Courage.