Chris Evans

Governor of Georgia who bravely pardons Leo Frank. Distinguished and principled.

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“Pretty Music”

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I have to say that I’m rather disappointed by how little emphasis is placed on Governor John Marshall Slaton’s courage in our show. Yes, his part of the story is the narrative of a large portion of Act Two but it is mainly about his information gathering and absolutely nothing about the momentous, life-destroying decision he made.

Governor Slaton reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents, visited the pencil factory, and examined new evidence, including studies comparing Conley’s speech patterns to the language of the murder notes. Slaton told reporters: “some of the most powerful evidence in Frank’s behalf was not presented to the jury which found him guilty.”

On June 21, five days before Slaton’s term as governor ended and one day before Frank was scheduled to hang, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison.

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…. Feeling as I do about this case I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang. It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field for the rest of my life than to feel that I had that blood on my hands.

Yet the Georgian public was outraged by the decision. Spured on by Tom Watson, a mob threatened to attack the governor at his home. A detachment of the Georgia National Guard, along with county policemen and a group of Slaton’s friends who were sworn in as deputies, dispersed the mob.

Slaton later said …

 The state cannot always control the mob but God help us if the mob controls the state.

Slaton had been a popular governor, but he and his wife, Sally, left Georgia immediately thereafter, never to return.

He became a political outcast from his native state, though he continued to practice law. When he died in 1955, the Atlanta Constitution tried to redress the scorn heaped on him with these words: “. . .it was one of destiny’s mocking ironies his giant integrity should have cost him his political life .

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Effigy of John M. Slaton – “The King of Jews”

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In 1964, John Slaton was singled out for one of the twenty-six individuals to be feted in the American television documentary series Profiles in Courage which celebrated politicians and private citizens who in the public arena displayed moral courage and extraordinary integrity. He was played by Walter Matthau.

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