The Untold Story of Leo Franks Tumultuous New York Burial

Posted By on April 8, 2023

Image by Forward Photo

By Paul BergerAugust 20, 2015

Its a simple gravestone, a small, ground-level marker identical to the four stones beside it. Nothing about the inscription, Semper Idem Always the same hints at the significance of this 31-year-old mans untimely death.

But here, at the edge of Mount Carmel Cemetery, in New York City, 100 feet from traffic streaming by on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, lies Leo Max Frank.

Franks conviction in Atlanta in 1913 on charges of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl are well known. So, too, is the lynching of Frank, on August 17, 1915, after his death sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Less well known is the journey Franks body took after it was cut down from an oak tree in Marietta, Georgia, and transported to New York City, where, on August 20, 1915, as the Forverts reported, softly in a soundless dawn his body was lowered in a wooden coffin, into the deep grave.

It was to be a tumultuous journey. Franks corpse was displayed and celebrated like a trophy by the thousands who reveled in his murder. In New York City, thousands more turned out to mourn or to catch a glimpse of Franks casket, his bereaved parents or his widow.

Franks final hours alive began on August 16, when a group of armed men woke him up in the middle of the night. The men dragged Frank, who was wearing only a nightshirt, from his jail cell in Milledgeville, southeast of Atlanta, and bundled him into one of seven waiting cars.

As his car bumped along country roads, heading more than 100 miles northwest through the night, toward the town of Marietta, Franks captors gave him one final opportunity to admit raping and murdering Mary Phagan. Frank, who had professed his innocence for more than two years, remained silent, according to Steve Oneys painstakingly researched book about the Frank case, And the Dead Shall Rise.

Lucille Frank, Leo Frank's widow, is led down the steps of the family's Brooklyn brownstone. Image by Forward Photo

Shortly after daybreak, the car stopped at the edge of a wood close to the homestead where Phagan had grown up. The men walked Frank to an oak tree, helped him onto a table and looped a noose around his neck.

At around 7 a.m., Frank was asked if he had any final words. I think now more about my wife and mother than about my own life, he is reported to have said before the table was kicked away and Frank, his arms and legs bound, swung in the air.

As the minutes and then the hours passed, thousands came from the surrounding towns and countryside. They cheered, and posed for photographs. They cut away pieces of the rope that bound Frank and ripped off swatches of his clothing.

A local judge, Newt Morris, waded into the crowd, imploring the men and women to allow Franks body to be taken away. The Forverts, which had covered Franks case relentlessly since 1913, reported that Morris begged, Whatever sin the living Frank committed, he has a mother and father have mercy on them.

But no sooner had Frank been cut down than the mob swarmed the body. Among that mob was Robert E. Lee Howell who, according to the Atlanta Journal, stomped repeatedly with a crunching sound on Franks face. Later that day, at an undertakers in Atlanta, a doctor noted the well-defined markings of the sole of a shoe on Franks nose and close to his left eye.

Even in Atlanta, Franks body was not left in peace. As The New York Sun reported, crowds swarmed the undertakers garage threatening to break down the doors if they were not allowed to see Frank. The mob smashed a pane of glass, prompting the police to escort Franks body to the undertakers chapel, where, over the space of five hours, about 15,000 people filed in to view Franks body.

That evening, Franks casket was placed on a train and, along with his widow, Lucille Frank, a few of her relatives and Rabbi David Marx, spiritual leader of the Franks synagogue in Atlanta, The Temple, the party departed for New York City.

Over the days that followed, newspapers across the country reported Franks kidnapping and lynching. Early on, they noted that though it was well known that the lynch party was organized by civic leaders of Marietta and Cobb County, including lawyers, businesspeople and politicians, no one had been arrested. Indeed, many in Georgia supported the lynching. The mayor of Atlanta, J.G. Woodward, announced that when it comes to womans honor there is no limit to which we will not go to avenge and to protect it.

Much of the rest of the country was horrified. Former president William Howard Taft called the lynching a damnable outrage. The Jews of New York City, who had been so concerned about murderous anti-Semitism in the Old Country, were forced to confront a similar crime committed in their new home. On the Lower East Side, they gathered outside the offices of the Yiddish papers like the Forverts, according to Oneys book, while on street corners solitary mourners wept.

It was into this atmosphere of shock and mourning that the train carrying Franks casket arrived in New York City at dawn on August 19.

Franks father, Rudolph Frank, and Franks sister and brother-in-law, Marian and Otto Stern, were on the platform at Penn Station to greet the train. According to Oneys book, Lucille Frank broke down when she saw the trio, saying: Its over. Its all over now.

Franks casket was transferred to a hearse and, with his relatives following behind in taxicabs, a police motorcade led the group to Brooklyn through Manhattan. Franks body was taken to a mortuary, while the mourners continued to Franks parents home, a modest, three-story brownstone at 152 Underhill Avenue close to Prospect Park.

Over at the Frank home the early morning sun had shown the face of an elderly woman pressed from time to time against an upper window, waiting for her son to come home, the Sun reported. She had been up all night.

The report continued: When the party which had journeyed from Atlanta arrived she hastened downstairs and ran out on the steps to meet her sons widow and embrace her. Then the taxicabs were dismissed and after the last persons had passed inside the house the shades were drawn and from all outward appearances it might have been deserted.

Image by Library of Congress

As word spread that Franks widow had returned, a crowd began to form outside the house, swelling to between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Franks mother, Ray Frank, invited some reporters into the parlor, where, as the Sun reported, she sat with Franks uncle Mr. Jacobs, a mass of telegrams before her, which she handled nervously as she talked.

Ray Frank proclaimed her sons innocence as well as her trust that God would deal in His own way with those who have done this thing. She added: We shall never forget these kind friends, both gentile and Jew, who have been with us in our sorrow.

Reporters were still camped outside the Frank home when the undertaker arrived around midnight to deliver Franks body, now lying inside a new black coffin. The Forverts reported that as Franks parents, sister and widow waited at the top of the stoop for the coffin to be delivered, in the dark of night, a choking sob could be heard coming from the doorway of the house.

Franks coffin was brought inside, where, the Forverts continued, the gas lamp flickered on the walls and his parents tears were laced with the pain of the bit of flesh and bones that remained of their unfortunate son.

Frank was buried early the next morning, August 20. As Lucille Frank descended the steps of her in-laws home, shrouded in black, she stumbled. Two men standing nearby caught hold of her arms and helped her into one of the waiting carriages. It took about 20 minutes for the cortege of four carriages, plus the hearse, to wend its way 8 miles to Mount Carmel Cemetery, in Queens.

Mount Carmel was one of the most important Jewish cemeteries of its day.

The year after Franks funeral, it would become the final resting place of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Twenty years after that, Mendel Beilis, who, like Frank, was a Jewish factory superintendent accused of murdering a Christian teen at a time of heightened anti-Semitism, was buried there. Fortunately for Beilis, he was acquitted in his hometown of Kiev, Ukraine, and died of natural causes in New York.

Carmel is also the burial place of Abraham Cahan, founding editor of the Forverts. Cahan took Franks case personally, throwing all the Forvertss resources into covering his trial and imprisonment, and even visiting him in jail in 1914. His newspaper treated the aftermath of Franks lynching just as personally.

Franks family requested that the funeral be a private, family affair. According to the Forverts, there were just 18 mourners at the service, where Rabbi Alexander Lyons of Congregation Beth Elohim, in Brooklyn, said a prayer in English and Marx of Atlanta said a prayer in Hebrew.

As Franks coffin was lowered into the grave, the Forverts reported that a distressful sob tore out of his mothers heart [and] a distraught cry could be heard from the young widow and she fainted on her husbands grave.

Those close by her revived the widow and the coffin sank deeper and deeper, the metal spades swiftly at work, fresh earth thrown on the deceased, and in no time a small hill grows a little mound covering up and finalizing the last scene of a historic tragedy.

Contact Paul Berger at [emailprotected] or on Twitter, @pdberger

Paul Berger was a staff writer at the Forward from 2011-2016, covering crime and healthcare issues, such as sex abuse, circumcision, and fraud. He is a fluent Russian speaker and has reported from Russia and Ukraine. He also likes digging into historical mysteries.

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