Monday, May 6, 2013

Georgia Governor John Slaton and Innocent Jewish Factory Manager Leo Frank: A Profile In Courage

Georgia Governor John Slaton

In 1915, Slaton commuted the sentence for Leo Frank from death to life imprisonment. "I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation," Slaton said, "but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience which would remind me that I, as governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right.... It means that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than to feel that I had that blood on my hands."

When I was a kid, I went to a nursery school on Frey's Gin Road in Marietta, Georgia. I remember that there was a big tree in our playground. One morning when we drove by my former school I noticed that there was a bouquet of flowers at the foot of this tree.  I was only 10 at that time, but I remember asking my Mom about the flowers. And she told me the story of Leo Frank and that he had been lynched on that tree. About how Leo had been the manager of the National Pencil Company and that a little girl from Marietta named Mary Phagan had been murdered at the factory. During the investigation of the murder the police incorrectly came to the conclusion that Leo Frank had done it.
My Mom explained that he was killed by people who hated Jews. I had a courtesy Aunt Rose and Uncle Norman Brilliant, who were Jewish, so the story of injustice was deeply personal to me.
My grandfather ran a grocery store on Belle Isle Drive in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I remember him talking about how Georgia Governor Slaton would come in and shop with his wife. Governor Slaton was an open, gregarious man who my reticent Pop-pop truly liked and respected.  My Grandfather said that if Governor Slaton said he had doubts about Leo's guilt, then something must have been wrong with the case against Leo. Governor Slaton reviewed Leo Frank's Case and commuted the sentence from death to life because of irregularities in the prosecution and evidence.

Governor Slaton hung in effigy as "King of the Jews"

A crowd of 5,000 marched on the Governor's Mansion calling for the lynching of the Governor.  President John F. Kennedy told the story of his courage in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Profiles in Courage".
A crowd of vigilantes were so enraged by the commutation that they went down to Milledgeville and grabbed Leo Frank out of the prison cell and then took him back to Marietta and lynched him.


Mary's family and in crowd in front of the mortuary

Confederate Veterans erect a monument over Mary's grave 1914


The cross-examination of 16-year-old Philip Chambers(left), Leo Frank's office boy and messenger, was used by DA Hugh Dorsey to smear Leo Frank during his testimony at the trial.
Years later, Alonzo Mann(right), another office boy at the National Pencil Factory, said that he had seen the building janitor, Jim Conley, carrying Mary's body, alone(which contradicted Conley's trial testimony, which said that Leo Frank and Jim Conley had carried her body together).  Jim Conley threatened to murder the 14-year-old if he said anything about what he had seen. Alonzo was terrified, Jim was known as a man not to be messed with and a dangerous drunk, which was his normal state.

Jim Conley's testimony was the only direct evidence against Leo Frank. As noted by famed historian C. Vann Woodward, the trial evidence was “overwhelmingly more incriminating [of Conley] than any produced against Frank.” 

Leo Frank

Mary Phagan

It was Tom Watson's personal vendetta through his newspaper which called for Leo's conviction and execution. Later he championed Leo Frank's lynching and hailed the lynch mob as heroes.

Gathering of lynch mob supporters in the Marietta Square

Leo and his wife, Lucille Selig Frank

The murder occurred on Confederate Memorial Day when the factory was practically deserted. Mary had come for her weekly pay of $1.20 and see the parade which included the widow of General "Stonewall" Jackson.  The only evidence against Leo Frank was the testimony of Jim Conley.

District Attorney Hugh Dorsey smearing a defense witness, Philip Chambers, who testified to Leo Frank's good character.   Dorsey inflamed the anti-Semitism which was running rampant because of men such as future Georgia Senator Tom Watson(Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel by C. Van Woodward). The reason that Philip and Alonzo's character testimony was so important was that they were white southerners(Leo's family home was from Brooklyn, New York and he went to college at Cornell) and saw him every day. Both boys genuinely liked him.

Cross-examination by Hugh Dorsey:
Dorsey:  "You and Mr. Frank were pretty friendly, weren't you?"
Chambers:  "Just like a boss should be." 
Dorsey:  "Did you ever complain to J.M. Gantt that Frank had made improper advances to you?"
Chambers:  "No, sir."
Dorsey:  "You didn't tell Gantt that Frank had threatened to discharge you if you did not comply with his wishes?"
Chambers:  “No.”
 [Arnold objected that this line of questioning had no support and was designed solely to damage the reputation of the defendant.  Arnold complained:  "It's the most unfair thing I've ever heard of in a court proceeding. It's the vilest slander that can be cast upon a man. If Courts were run this way it could be brought against any member of the community-you, me or the jury. No man can get a fair showing against such vile insinuations. If this comes up again, I will be tempted to move for a new trial." Judge Roan ordered the evidence concerning Frank's sexual interest in Chambers struck from the record.]   

After Governor Slaton commuted Leo's sentence to life, he was both lionized and vilified:

For twelve days Slaton wrestled with the materials. On the last day he worked well into the night, and at 2:00 A.M., on June 21, 1915, he went up to his bedroom to inform his wife. “Have you reached a decision?” she asked.
“Yes.” he replied, ”…it may mean my death or worse, but I have ordered the sentence commuted.”
Mrs. Slaton then kissed her husband and confessed, “I would rather be the widow of a brave and honorable man than the wife of a coward.”

The Rio Olympics A Legacy of Terror

One of the saddest movies that I've ever seen was Pixote (1981). It told the story of a poor kid who gets into horrific trouble and is sent to Juvenile Hall where his life becomes a living hell.
Burt Lancaster was being interview on TV and he recommended it strongly, so I went to see it. It was one of the most powerful emotional, depressing experiences of my life, but it also leaves you heartbroken, because you know it is true. There are a lot of Pixotes in the world.  It is a movie you probably only want to see once.

Pixote became a huge international success, even being nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, although it only achieved moderate success in its native country of Brazil. It is estimated that the film was screened for 2.5 million viewers in 20 countries.
Roger Ebert described the film in the Chicago Sun-Times as "a rough, unblinking look at lives no human being should be required to lead. And the eyes of Fernando Ramos da Silva, Director Babenco's doomed young actor, regard us from the screen not in hurt, not in accusation, not in regret -- but simply in acceptance of a desolate daily reality."
The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote, "Pixote's performances are almost too good to be true, but Mr. Da Silva and Miss Pera are splendid. Pixote is not for the weak of stomach. A lot of the details are tough to take, but it is neither exploitative nor pretentious. Mr. Babenco shows us rock-bottom, and because he is an artist, he makes us believe it as well all of the possibilities that have been lost." Wikipedia

The star was a boy named Fernando Ramos da Silva. His Dad had just died, leaving his wife and 10 children in poverty in the slums of Sao Paulo, Brazil. They lived on his Dad's $10 a month pension and whatever money his mom could earn.
Fernando heard that they were looking for a 10-year-old boy from the slums of Sao Paulo to star in a movie, Pixote. Fernando won the audition, beating out 2,000 other boys. He was paid $75 for a movie which made $50,000,000.00  

When he tried to get work in TV and Movies after Pixote, Fernando was turned down every time. As soon they discovered that he didn't know how to read or write. In Brazil the rich and powerful waste no money on things like education for the poor.

Fernando got married at 18 and had a little girl name Jacqueline. Out of work, things so desperate that he stole a black and white TV to get enough money to feed his family. A police right-wing death squad caught him and shot him 7 times in the back, killing him. The TV was worth about $75.

The right-wing has overthrown the elected government of Brazil in a coup. They and their death squads will be in full force at the 2016 Olympics. Though they have to get through stealing all the money first.

Pixote, depressing, emotional and not for the weak of heart, recommended by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel of PBS At the Movies:

Pixote with English subtitles is available on Youtube, but be warned it is very strong and sad, especially considering Fernando's death and very strong R Rating. 


Fernando Ramos da Silva was a Brazilian actor who became renowned for his role as the eleven-year-old title character in Hector Babenco's 1981 film Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco, a documentary-style account of the street children of Brazil. Wikipedia

Born: November 29, 1967, São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Died: August 25, 1987, São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Spouse: Cida Venâncio Silva (m. ?–1987)
Movies: Pixote, They Don't Wear Black Tie
Parents: Josefa Carvalho da Silva, João Alves da Silva

Near the end of his short acting career, Ramos da Silva pleaded with the author whose book inspired "Pixote" to write a sequel.
"If you write 'The Return of Pixote' I will be even better," he told Jose Louzeiro. Louzeiro, recalling Ramos da Silva's words in a local magazine article this week, said the boy remained obsessed with being Pixote.
"I tried to pull him out of this absurd dream, to wake him up for other projects, but he didn't seem to believe," Louzeiro wrote. LA TIMES

One of his few other jobs, Fernando Ramos da Silva appeared on Brazilian television screens promoting Christmas card sales for the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF. "If everyone helps, one day there will be Pixotes only in the movies," he said. LA TIMES


Anonymous said...

Do you have any thoughts on the Leo Frank Research Library and the American Mercury, which both have several dozen articles about the Murder of Mary Phagan.

Brian Keith O'Hara said...

My Grandfather knew Governor John Slaton. He said that he was an honest man and that it took courage and character to stand up for Leo Frank. I know it did.
The problem with all of those who think that Leo was guilty is that they underestimate the cunning of Jim Conley.
The story told by office boy Alonzo Mann is simple. The cross-examination of office boy Philip Chambers should bother any parent. Hugh Dorsey was willing to do anything to win.
Yes, great resources, but only if you keep everything in perspective.

Unknown said...

I also attended the nursery school on Freys Gin Rd. In Marietta, Ga. I was,a happy kid and never met a stranger but during my short stay at that nursery school I was never happy. There was an aura of danger hanging in the school and outside in the play yard. I had no idea this was where the lynching of Leo Frank had occurred until I was in high school when one of my relatives who was there shared the story with us. Another of my class mates family lived in a house not too far from there. The same dark feeling was apparant in her house. I'll never forget it.