The Strange Silence of the Past: A History of Jewish Lynchings – Part 2
When my father was about 4 or 5 he sat on his grandmother’s lap while she read to him from a book of political cartoons. She halted in shock when she came to a particular cartoon and shut the book in a display of emotion that my father had never seen before or since and simply said, “Oh, nobody should ever show this to children.” The incident was unusual enough to remain vivid in my father’s memory for the past seventy years. He later showed me the cartoon: a crayon and ink sketch by Reginald Marsh of a young girl being held up by her grandmother who proudly says to another woman “This is her first lynching.” My great-grandmother never read to my father from that book again.
On June 21, 1915, after Leo Frank had exhausted his appeals, the Governor of Georgia commuted his death sentence to life, and a fury erupted in its wake. An attempt was made on Frank’s life by another prisoner from which he nearly died; his throat was slashed by a butcher knife, severing his jugular. He was still recovering from his near death experience when he was expertly kidnapped in a scenario that reads like a spy novel of men recruited for their specific skills: an electrician to cut the prison wires, car mechanics to keep the cars running, a locksmith, a telephone man, a medic, a hangman, and a lay preacher. While some members of the lynch gang kidnapped Frank, others handcuffed the warden, and still others emptied the prison automobiles of gas. It was extremely well orchestrated.
They then spent the next seven hours driving 175 miles to Marietta, the home county of Mary Phagan. Around 7:00am Leo Max Frank had the noose placed around his neck and was forced up on a table while the rope was thrown over an oak branch. He was able to convince one of the men to remove his wedding ring and promise to return it to his wife. His last words were, “I think more of my wife and my mother than I do of my own life.” Then the table was kicked out from under him and he lingered several long moments as he slowly choked to death.
Leo Frank’s lynching was not only a tragedy for him, his family, and his friends, but we’re led to believe for the Atlanta Jewish Community as well. While sites like Wikipedia report that half of Georgia’s 3000 Jews left after Frank’s murder, I find these numbers highly suspect. While reviewing statistics complied by the Jewish American Yearbook, a reliable and primary source, I found that the total number of Jews estimated to be living in Atlanta in 1910 was 4200, and for Georgia it was estimated that the Jewish population was around 9300 (for 1907). Ten years later (the next time such statistics are available) the estimated number of Jews in Atlanta was about 10,000 and for the state around 22,000. These estimates were compiled for 1917, only two short years after Leo Frank’s lynching.
Was the influx of Jews to Atlanta prior to Frank’s murder so great that the 1917 numbers represent a loss that we can’t see because we don’t have estimates for 1915? Perhaps, but I feel that this may not be the case. There is a mystery here that is not easily solvable. Combing through these records is time consuming and something that will take me quite awhile, so I won’t be able to come to any conclusions in the near future.
What I do know, is that in 1915 my great-grandparents left Atlanta and arrived in New York in time to be counted in that year’s state census, which began on June 1. My assumption is that prior to 1915 they had been doing quite well in Atlanta. While they initially lived above their own store in 1911, the very next year they listed a separate residence. And in 1914 they moved their store to a separate location with a residence listed right next to it. They were making their own little mark in the world. Then they abruptly left. When they arrived back in Kings County they were essentially destitute. They had lost everything.
What happened to cause such a dramatic reduction in circumstances? Was it merely the boycotting? Was it the rioting following the commutation of Leo Frank’s sentence? Was it something else? I may never be able to find out. What I do know is that there is this strange silence that surrounds the lynching of Jewish men here in America. The efforts to extract information are bewilderingly difficult for a people that have quite the reputation for documentation and remembrance. I do know that my grandfather and my father never knew of the Leo Max Frank trial and lynching. It was an inexplicable event that shaped the course of their lives, and ultimately, mine.
I suspect what may have happened in Georgia and other Southern states is that a number of Jews decided to “pass”, that is, they changed their last names, perhaps their first as well. Maybe they even joined a church as a pretense, lighting candles on Friday evenings in secret. Sometimes survival is more important than the truth.
The events in Atlanta went on to be the catalyst for a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, an organization committed to combating anti-Semitism. Interestingly, when one looks at the number of Jewish immigrants allowed into the United States there is an abrupt drop off beginning around 1915. From a high of around 140,000 Jewish immigrants in 1914 to about 26,500 the following year. By 1919 it had dropped to just over 3000. Then there was a startling rebound in 1921 to around 120,000 which then precipitously dropped, and by 1932 was now under 3000. This was probably due to the Immigration Act of 1924, which was inspired, in part, by the anti-Semitism stirred up by the Leo Frank case.
Time passed, the world changed. When I was in my early twenties I traveled with a friend to Austria. My father cautioned me not to let anyone know I was half-Jewish. I laughed at him and said, “Dad, it’s the 21st Century. No one thinks like that anymore.”
Then, a couple of days ago, I came across an article from the New York Times published in 2000 titled “Georgia Town is Still Divided Over the 1915 Lynching of a Jew”:
“Still, there are echoes of the past. When Philip M. Goldstein, a major property owner in town and longtime City Council member, proposed selling a parcel of land on the town’s antebellum square for a 12-story mixed-use building, reaction was hostile. [R]esidents at a public hearing responded not just with shouts and foot-stomping, but with anti-Semitic slurs. One elderly man approached Mr. Goldstein’s sister and spat out, ”Remember what happened to Leo Frank.”
Mr. Goldstein . . . persuaded all but one local reporter not to publish the ugly remark. He also refused to discuss a swastika that was painted on a retaining wall at the disputed property . . . Mr. Goldstein demurred when asked about bigotry here. ”Questions of anti-Semitism, I generally don’t talk about them,” he said.
Rabbi Lebow is saddened by Mr. Goldstein’s studied silence. He said Jews in the South, even these days, have a ”natural propensity to adopt a protective coloration to blend in” and are ”unwilling to stand up and say anything” when faced with the occasional act of anti-Semitism. He blames this fearful silence on the Frank case, which he calls ”the original sin of Cobb County.”
In recent days, the rabbi said, he has received many phone calls from Jews begging him to keep silent about the issues . . .”
There are some places in this country where there is no 21st Century; there is only a litany of wounds that stretches back into the dust and sweat of the land. Where the hush of secrets is heavy in an air unstirred by the wind and the trees whisper amongst themselves the things that they have seen in a language the past has already forgotten.