A Closer Look
Posted Nov 1, 2009 9:30 PM CST
By Mark Hansen
Long before Leopold and Loeb, long before O.J. and long before Michael, there was Leo Frank.
In 1913, Frank’s trial for the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan captivated the nation. And a new PBS documentary is certain to add more fuel to the widespread belief that Frank’s arrest, trial and subsequent killing was a shameful miscarriage of justice.
The story, set against the backdrop of an American South struggling to shed a legacy of bigotry and xenophobia, is both a first-rate murder mystery and a thought-provoking look at racial, religious and class prejudices in the early 20th century.
Frank, a Jewish New Yorker working as a supervisor in an Atlanta pencil factory, was sentenced to death after his conviction in a Georgia court. Evidence later surfaced that cast doubt on Frank’s guilt, resulting in the commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment. An angry mob, incited by a newspaper columnist, kidnapped Frank from a Georgia prison and lynched him.
The documentary reveals that the mob responsible for Frank’s lynching included an ex-governor, a former county sheriff, a prosecutor, a state legislator and a judge.
It explains how a pile of human excrement deposited at the bottom of the pencil factory’s elevator shaft served as a crucial piece of evidence.
The film also shows how the case both revived the Ku Klux Klan and galvanized the recently formed Anti-Defamation League.
“It’s not based on a true story,” says filmmaker Ben Loeterman. “It is a true story.”
The People v. Leo Frank airs nationwide on Nov. 2 on PBS stations.
Web extra: See a trailer for The People v. Leo Frank: