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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 325-339

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The Slaton Memorandum: A Governor Looks Back At His Decision to Commute the Death Sentence of Leo Frank

Stephen J. Goldfarb

Very near the end of his long life (he lived to see his 88th birthday), John Marshall Slaton (1866-1955) wrote a short, not quite 2400-word, memorandum explaining why some 40 years earlier he had commuted the death sentence of Leo M. Frank to life-in-prison. At the time of the commutation in June 1915, Slaton issued a statement explaining his reasons for the commutation; that statement dealt almost exclusively with the facts of the crime. 1 This memorandum, published here for the first time, further expands on what Slaton knew and thought at the time he commuted Frank's death sentence and contains information that he could not have made public at the time of the commutation.

Slaton 2 was born on Christmas Day 1866 and spent his earliest years on a farm in Meriwether County; in 1875 his family moved to Atlanta where his father assumed the position of superintendent of the public schools. Slaton graduated Boys' High School in 1880 with highest honors, the University of Georgia in 1886 also with highest honors, passed the Georgia bar in 1887 and opened his law practice in Atlanta. In 1898 he married Sally Francis Grant, a member of a prominent Atlanta family; the Slatons had no children.

Active in the affairs of the local Democratic party, Slaton was first elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 1896 and was reelected for the next five elections and served as speaker from 1905 to 1908. In 1908, he ran successfully for the Georgia state senate and was elected its president in 1909. In 1911 Slaton served as acting governor of Georgia when the then Governor Hoke Smith was elected to the United States Senate to fill the seat of a recently-deceased senator. The unexpired term of governor Hoke Smith was filled by Smith's political rival Joseph [End Page 325] Mackey Brown (son of the Civil War and Reconstruction era governor Joseph Emerson Brown). But when the younger Brown chose not to seek a full term as governor, the field was wide open. In the ensuing election held in late 1912, Slaton easily defeated several opponents, garnering nearly three-fourths of the vote. Though considered a conservative at the time, Slaton promoted several progressive measures which were enacted into law during his administration: tax equalization, inheritance tax, several consumer protection acts, establishment of a home for wayward girls, and a voter-registration bill.

Early in 1914 United States Senator Augustus O. Bacon died, and Governor Slaton appointed William S. West to serve until a special election could be held. When West chose not to run for the remainder of the senatorial term, Slaton and two of Hoke Smith's political associates, Congressman Thomas Hardwick and Attorney-General Thomas Felder, along with two others competed for the office. In the ensuing bitterly-fought election, Slaton won a plurality of both the popular vote and the more important county-unit votes, 3 but because there were no runoffs in the primaries at that time, the election was decided by the convention of the state Democratic party. At the tumultuous party convention, held in Macon in early September, Hardwick was nominated on the 14th ballot. 4 Given the weakness of the Republican party in Georgia at that time, nomination by the Democratic party was tantamount to being elected. After being defeated, Slaton vowed that he would again run for the United States senate.

On April 26, 1913, only a few months after Slaton's inauguration as governor, the brutal murder of Mary Phagan occurred on the premises of the National Pencil Factory in downtown Atlanta. 5 After several weeks of investigation Leo Frank, a Jew and the manager of the pencil factory, was indicted for the crime. In his trial for murder, which lasted almost a month and took place...


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