In 1913, a sequence of disturbing crimes occurred in the Atlanta area, beginning with the shocking murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee at the National Pencil Factory who was found strangled in the basement of her workplace. The factory's Jewish superintendent, Leo Frank, was convicted of her murder and subjected to vigilante justice when he was kidnapped from prison and lynched in 1915. His lynching drew national attention and became the focus of social concerns, especially regarding antisemitism.
The case around Leo Frank embodied the area’s growing tensions and fears brought about by the New South’s urbanization, industrialization, and changing economy. Many Southern white families resented Northern industrialists like Frank, whom they blamed for the destruction of traditional family values as women and children entered the workforce. At the turn of the century, antisemetic views were also on the rise as an influx of Jewish people from eastern and southern Europe immigrated to the South. Southern newspapers at times sensationalized stories that inflamed these local prejudices and bigotry.
This was the backdrop against which the murder trial of Leo Frank, a well-educated, Northern industrialist Jew, took place in 1913.
Despite the lack of any credible evidence against Leo Frank, he was quickly fingered as Mary Phagan’s killer. Less than four months after her body was discovered in the factory, Frank was tried and convicted of the murder. He was sentenced to death by hanging.