The Strange Silence of the Past: A History of Jewish Lynchings – Part 1
On a hot August day in 1915 a slight man was dragged from a car, a month old slash across his throat raw, red, and rebloodied. He was wearing a nightshirt and an undershirt with a piece of brown canvas tied around his waist like a skirt. His hands were handcuffed before him and his ankles were tied. A brand new manila rope was placed around his neck and tied in such a way as to force his head back. The rope was thrown over a tree branch and he was hauled up and hung in the fresh light of a day that was still new. A crowd of men, women and children, by some estimates 6000 strong, arrived on cars, on horses, and on foot to gawk at the unnatural art of the 28 men who had commenced its creation: a man whose head now tilted upwards sharply as though he were imploring heaven. The man was so small in stature he seems almost childlike next to the grim but smug faces of his murderers who peer from the photographs back through time, daring us to judge them.
The man who died by lynching was Leo Max Frank, a wealthy Jewish factory superintendent, convicted of assaulting and strangling a young girl, Mary Phagan, who had worked at the factory he managed. He was almost certainly innocent, and I won’t rehash the details of her murder here. I will mention that some of the men who lynched him included former governors, mayors, sheriffs, police, a superior court judge, business owners, lawyers, a banker, and even a doctor. Not the hoi poi one would usually think of as a lynch mob.
Many sources (CNN, Dallas News, article by a law professor, even a Jewish History website) claim he was the only Jewish man lynched on American soil, but not only was he not the only Jewish victim of lynching, he wasn’t even the first that year. That horrific honor went to a Jewish journalist named Albert Bettelheim, who was convicted of murder and lynched just two days before Leo Frank, on August 15th, also in Georgia. This is, coincidentally, the same day in 1868 when another Jewish man, S.A. Bierfield, an owner of a dry goods store in Tennessee, and his black employee, Lawrence Bowman, were also lynched by the KKK. Apparently, S.A. Bierfield was a supporter of Reconstruction and had the audacity to sell to both black and white customers. I’ve seen references to two other Jews lynched in the 1890s but details are hard to come by.
I never intended to become an accidental lay authority on Jewish lynchings in America. I came about the information regarding Leo Frank unintentionally in my quest to understand my past. And what I found had profound implications on the lives of my great-grandmother, Jessie, (whom I’m named for) her husband, Jacob, and my grandfather, Edward.
It started several years ago as a Christmas gift to my father (my mother is Catholic and the tradition has stuck) who was very close with his grandmother. He laughingly told me on more than one occasion that Jessie was the only adult in his life that never hit him. He spoke of her in gentle terms and it was clear his deep affection for her remained unchanged from his boyhood. Her death when he was nine meant he never really knew her history or who she was as a real person. He had some vague tales of his grandfather living in Atlanta, Georgia until the age of eight, and then coming back to Kings County, Brooklyn for unknown reasons.
It was a mystery.
I love mysteries.
I was hooked.
The idea of learning more about my namesake was exciting. The Internet and sites like ancestry.com make it ridiculously easy these days, compared to having to go to actual locations and sift through a morass of old paperwork yourself. If you even know where to look. If you’re lucky enough to have full names that are correct.
The idea of a Jewish family living in Atlanta in the early 1900s seemed like a bizarre tale where half of the facts must be wrong. Both Jessie and Jacob were foreign born, most likely from Russia, but there’s some indication that Jessie may have come from the Republic of Georgia originally. They arrived before 1900 during an enormous influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing Russian persecution. Between 1848 and 1904 the number of Jews in New York went from around 15,000 to close to 700,000.
In a city swimming with other Jews it’s unlikely that Jessie and Jacob knew Leo Frank personally, although they were all around the same age and only lived about a mile and a half apart. In an area like Kings County one mile might as well have been a hundred. Jessie and Jacob appear to have met at a cigar factory. Jessie’s sister, Rebecca, had married Morris Chigorinsky, a Russian Jew and the founder of American Leaf Tobacco and so they may have both been working for him. They married in Brooklyn, NY in 1903. Jacob was 23 and Jessie, 21. Four years later my grandfather was born and in 1911 they moved from Kings County, Brooklyn to Atlanta, Georgia and opened up a grocery.
It seemed strange to me that they would leave their familiar community of New York and head south, but it turns out that Atlanta was initially very welcoming to the Jewish community. Some of the seeds of the anti-Semitism that flourished in the wake of the Leo Frank trial can be found as early at 1845 when Jews made up just 1% of Atlanta’s 2572 residents, but owned 10% of the real estate.
Starting around 1881 a large influx of Russian Jews relocated from the North and started small businesses. The Russian Jews were somewhat at odds with the German Jews who had been in Atlanta longer and were more established and less conspicuous. One of these German born Jews was the uncle of Leo Max Frank who invited him to interview for a position at his business, the National Pencil Company, in 1907. After training in Germany for nine months he relocated to Atlanta in 1908, becoming the superintendent of the factory and eventually buying enough shares to become co-owner.
Considering the separation of German and Russian Jews in Atlanta at that time and the fact that my great-grandparents were ardent atheists it is unlikely the Shookoffs and the Franks intermingled. But they probably knew of each other. After all, Frank’s sister married a German cigar maker who was also based in New York, similar to Jessie’s sister. Atlanta’s Jewish population at that time was around 4200 to 4500, far smaller than that of New York, making it more likely that they might frequent the same stores or restaurants.
The Jewish community rallied around Leo Max Frank following his arrest and conviction in 1913 and suffered the consequences. Many of their stores were boycotted, threatening their livelihoods. What other specific consequences they suffered is unknown, because I’ve been unable to locate any sources on the Internet that specify the exact atmosphere of Atlanta at that time. Was there more than boycotting? Was there violence? Atlanta’s crime rate at the time was quite high, so it stands to reason that there may have been incidents of hate crimes. If there were I can’t find any references to them on the web. Suffice to say, the tensions and the fear must have been overwhelming for the Jewish community.
On the other hand it’s not hard to see why so many Southerners were incensed by the case, which had so much to do with North vs. South and rich vs. poor, not just Baptist vs. Jew. The anti-Semitism seems to have been an expression of the deep resentment regarding the exploitation of Southern women in the factories that were springing up in Atlanta, many of which had sweatshop conditions. The National Pencil Company was no exception. And yes, Leo Frank himself, and his lawyers, were quite racist, viciously so during his trial. An apologist might argue that with his life at stake he couldn’t afford to quibble over niceties. I myself wonder what the value of such a life is when bought with that kind of currency . . .