restricted access "The Night Witch Did It": Villainy and Narrative in the Leo Frank Case
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American Literary History 12.1&2 (2000) 113-129

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"The Night Witch Did It":
Villainy and Narrative in the Leo Frank Case

Jeffrey Melnick

This essay uses the example of the Leo Frank case to get at the central question of black-Jewish relations: how have African Americans and Jews (frequently through their diverse reified images as "blackness" and "Jewishness") been paired--as partners or competitors or some blend thereof--within the controlling American racial system of black and white? With its pitting of a Jewish factory manager (Leo Frank) against the factory's African-American janitor (Jim Conley) in a contest to decide who was responsible for the murder of young Mary Phagan in a factory managed by Frank in 1913, the case is a perfect emblem for the erratic and dense history of Jews and African Americans, a history that might be condensed in the image of a long and sturdy rope--some tie strong bonds with it; others get hanged.

My investigation of the Frank case is meant to call into question the obsessive narrativizing of black-Jewish relations; a new look at this matter will destabilize those narratives of a shared black-Jewish history that are organized around an untenable concept of a rational unfolding of a sequence of clearly defined events. Rather than the utopian possibilities so often presented by accounts of black-Jewish relations, the Frank case promoted the provocative notion that this specialized interracial association functioned mostly to advance illicit (or at least unhealthy) social behaviors. 1 For instance, at Frank's trial and in the media coverage and folklore surrounding it, it was argued that Frank had been committing perverse acts in the National Pencil Company factory he managed while Conley served as his lookout. The perversion charges made against Frank (with Conley as his accomplice) show clearly how an insistence upon a relationship between an African American and a Jew--even one that might have been imaginary--could be used to marginalize [End Page 113] both groups, even as its most direct effect was to criminalize the Jewish man.

A few days after Phagan was murdered in the National Pencil Company factory in the spring of 1913, it became clear to Atlanta's police force that night watchman Newt Lee, who was being held in solitary confinement, was definitely not responsible for the killing. Further, the police were starting to feel the pressure of a public clamoring for an appropriate villain to pay penance for this crime, one who would be a more satisfying target than an African American with limited social power: much was made of the fact that Phagan was a poor young woman in her early teens who had been laid off from her job at the factory just days before her murder. Local newspapers, involved in a war for readership at the time of the crime, played up Phagan's youthful purity as they pushed Atlanta police to devise an appropriate end to this drama. 2

Very quickly, if we are to believe contemporary commentators, a special sort of blood lust developed: "little" Mary Phagan was a special victim (pure, innocent, one of "ours"), whose lost life demanded an outlandish miscreant as recompense. Many students of the case have argued that an overwhelming public outcry put pressure on the law to come up with a suitable demon. Frank was convicted at a raucous trial in 1913 and sentenced to die; after numerous appeals (all the way to the Supreme Court) and a commutation of his death sentence by Georgia governor John Slaton, Frank was kidnapped from jail and lynched in August of 1915.

Once Lee was cleared of any connection with Phagan's death, Frank loomed as the most likely suspect. Complaints about his lascivious behavior were "discovered"; Frank was an employer of exploited and underpaid workers and a Jew; worst of all, he had no supportable alibi for his actions at the time of the murder. Frank was also--by his own admission--the last person to see Phagan alive...