Thursday, April 25, 2013

April 26: Murder Prompts KKK to Organize

On this date in History .... 1913:

Mary Phagan, 13 yrs old

13-yr old Mary Phagan is murdered in a pencil factory in Atlanta Georgia, and the events of the murder are described as “one of the most disgraceful episodes of bigotry, injustice, and mob violence in American history” and prompted the formation of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. 

When African-American janitor Jim Conley was arrested he shifted the blame to Jewish factory owner Leo Frank. Even though Conley’s attorney told the judge a number of times that Conley had confessed to the murder, the trial went forward and Frank was convicted.  

The prosecutor, described as “a notorious bigot” was told by his close friend Tom Watson, a local politician who had run for President in 1904 and 1908, "Hell, we can lynch a n****** anytime in Georgia, but when do we get the chance to hang a Yankee Jew?"

The governor investigated the conviction and in finding Frank totally innocent, commuted his sentence three weeks before the end of his term in office.   Watson, however, wouldn’t let it go and he mobilized his followers to form The Knights of Mary Phagan. The police refused to stop this lynch mob and thousands of Jewish residents were forced to run from the city.

On August 16, 1915, this mob managed to take over the prison where Frank was being held, where they took Frank out of prison and brought him back to Mary’s hometown of Marietta where they hung Frank from a tree, then gathered around to have pictures taken. Thousands watched the lynching and the police, again, did nothing to stop it.  While the entire country was horrified at these actions, Watson remained a popular politician and was even elected to the Senate a few years later in 1920.

A few months later, November 1915, William Simmons capitalized on the event by calling together many of the men who had hung Frank and some of the Knights of Mary Phagan.  They burned a large cross on top of Stone Mountain, with Simmons declaring the founding of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Leo Frank received a posthumous pardon in 1986.

Sources for this story include:

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