This year, as I’m hardly the first blogger to point out, has seen the centenary of the Leo Frank Affair. For anyone unfamiliar with that grim episode in American history, let’s have a brief recap of events. Leo Frank was the Texas-born (1884) Brooklyn-raised son of German Jewish parents. A graduate of Cornell University, he lived in Georgia from 1908 and married a girl from a prominent Atlanta Jewish family. He was president of the local B’nai B’rith branch.
By occupation, Frank was superintendent of his uncle’s pencil-manufacturing factory, where on 26 April 1915 a fourteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, was found strangled in the basement. Many recent attacks on females in Atlanta, including eighteen murders, sat unresolved in police files, and with this latest outrage there was mounting pressure on police to make an early arrest. The black nightwatchman who found Mary’s body having been cleared of suspicion, attention then turned to Frank, whose manner at the best of times was inclined to be tense and shifty and whose conduct under questioning gave the impression of guilt. He had been one of the few people in the factory on that fatal Saturday when Mary had come to collect her wages, and was unable to supply a convincing alibi for himself in relation to the surmised time of her death.
Standing trial amid a climate of mob hostility, he was found guilty in August 1915 on the unsafe, well-rehearsed evidence of the man who was almost certainly the actual killer – a black sweeper at the factory who was a convicted thief – and sentenced to hang. A lengthy appeals procedure ensued, and although Leonard Roan, the judge in the case, rejected a request for a new trial Georgia’s governor, convinced that there had been serious overlooked discrepancies in the prosecution testimony, signed a commutation order for the death sentence. For this the governor was widely reviled. An angry crowd that attacked his residence had to be repelled by state troopers. And not long afterwards, on 17 August 1915, vigilantes abducted Leo Frank from gaol and hanged him from a tree near Mary’s home.
Very early on in the case Atlanta Jews requested the president of the American Jewish Committee, distinguished constitutional lawyer Louis B. Marshall, to intervene in the ‘American “Dreyfus” case’ that had emerged in their city. Other Jewish leaders in the North were similarly approached. All moved cautiously, reluctant to be thought to support the cause of Jews convicted of felonies. And when, during the appeals procedure, they did get involved and a fund to meet Frank’s legal costs were involved, many Georgians furiously assumed that wealthy northern Jews were attempting to buy a guilty man’s acquittal. Nevertheless, Judge Leonard Roan’s denial of a fresh trial prompted tens – indeed hundreds – of thousands of people in and outside Georgia to sign petitions pleading for the death sentence to be commuted. Among the local petitioners were members of the prosecution’s legal team, as well as noted legal authorities in Georgia uneasy about the evidence on which Frank was convicted, some bluntly stating their belief in his innocence. A New York petition garnered 800, 000 signatures; a Chicago one 600,000. Among the many celebrated and public figures across America demanding a retrial was, curiously, Henry Ford, later to be infamous for propagating antisemitism in his Dearborn Independent. Pleas for Frank’s life rang out from newspaper editorials, correspondence columns, professional associations, women’s groups, and Christian pulpits, as well as from eleven state governors to their Georgian counterpart. At a number of public rallies non-Jewish speakers claimed antisemitism as a factor in Frank’s conviction: “The outcries of the mob … were not against Frank – it was a cry against the Jew” thundered one ever-reliable philosemitic crusader, Madison Peters.
While it was extraordinary for a court in the South to convict a white person, Jew or non-Jew, on the testimony of a black person, the role of antisemitism in the Affair should probably not be exaggerated – at any rate in the early stages. Jews had been long-established in Georgia; five Jews sat on the grand jury that indicted Frank; although there were rumblings about East European immigration to Atlanta and its impact on blue collar workers’ wages, the rumblings were not specifically about Jews. Frank’s status as an employer and industrialist from the North, and as a perceived exploiter of cheap female labour, seems to have been a more significant element in prejudice about him than his Jewishness. True, “damned Jew” was a term bandied around during the case, but had he been Italian the term “damned Guinney” would, as one observer noted, probably have substituted. Yet the Leo Frank Affair occurred at a time of heightened social antisemitism in the United States – indeed, at a time when, as with the Dreyfus (1899-1907) and Beilis (1913) Affairs, Social Darwinist assumptions about the inequality of races had gained ground, even in the United States, as evidenced by Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) – and aroused a great deal of fear among American Jews.
Defending Leo Frank, the socialist New York Call explained: ‘It is not because this man is a Jew … that we interest ourselves in his behalf, but because of the dubious character of the “justice” meted out to him’. Socialists were likely to hold ambivalent feelings towards Jews, all too often exhibiting what has been dubbed, by one historian, “rich Jew antisemitism” with their depiction of Jews as plutocrats or their perception of all Jews as rich. I strongly suspect that this attitude is alive and well in some of today’s Corbynistas in Britain. Indeed, even at best, leftist support for Jews seems predicated on the proviso that Jews must be victims to merit sympathy rather than to be admired for any traits in their ethos and culture which may be deemed worthy. I will return to, and enlarge upon, this theme in a subsequent post on the typology of philosemitism and won’t discuss it further here, except to say that it’s reflected in a description that the British nineteenth-century Liberal statesman William Ewart Gladstone wrote in 1896 about himself, declaring that he was “strongly anti-anti-Semitism”.
Alas, these days, we are apt to find that some elements seem not even that. Witness the reluctance of leftist elements within the British Labour Party unequivocally to distance themselves from Israel’s existential enemies and from Holocaust Deniers. Witness the current decision of New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione not to prosecute for racist vilification under the terms of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act Ismail al-Wahwah, head of the Caliphate-seeking Hizb ut Tahrir Australia, who on videos offered in evidence reportedly described the Jew as “the most evil creature of Allah” and declared “Moral corruption is linked to the Jews… the ember of Jihad against the Jews will continue to burn. Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews … tomorrow you Jews will see what will become of you – an eye for an eye, blood for blood, destruction for destruction. There is only one solution for this cancerous tumour: it must be uprooted and thrown back to where it came from.” (Apparently – despite the phrasing! – the speaker claims he was speaking only of the State of Israel, and Scipione believes that there is insufficient evidence to mount a case against him!).