(WARNING! Please do not read below if you are easily shocked. It contains graphic images and information that you may not want to know.)

The kidnapping and lynching of Leo Frank is a subject that many prominent people in Marietta still avoid talking about today. Many of the men named in the lynch mob, the Knights of Mary Phagan, are their ancestors. Many of the ‘founding fathers’ of Marietta were part of the lynching party.

The intent had been to hang him over Mary Phagan’s grave, but they had been travelling by car all night and the sun was coming up and so they decided to do it right where they were … so Leo Frank was lynched in a small grove of trees at Frey’s Gin at 7:05am on August 17th 1915.

A lynching is not like a judicial hanging. You don’t die immediately and humanely from a snapped vertebra. Leo Frank slowly suffocated, struggling so ferociously that he ripped open his neck wound. As the newspapers pointed out “He undoubtedly flayed in the air”.

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When the first witnesses arrived at the scene around 8am, they found Leo Frank’s body, still hanging, head snapped back, still warm and blood oozing down his shirtfront.

They swarmed the road from both directions. The automobiles came careening, recklessly disregarding life and limb of occupants. Horse-drawn vehicles came at the gallop. Pedestrians came running.

As the vehicles would stop at the grove, their occupants would jump out and run into the grove, bending forward, panting, wild-eyed.

Women came. Children came. Even babes in arms.

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By 8:30am, over one thousand people had gathered, and scores more were arriving each minute.

A horrible sight met the eyes of the people who were first to arrive at the grove, and a still more horrible sight met the eyes of the later arrivals, who found not only the body swaying but surging around it a closely packed mass of people whose excitement was something fearful.

The general consensus was “they did a good job”. One woman said “I couldn’t bear to look at another human being hanging like that but this – this is different. It is all right. It is – the justice of God!”

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The throng finally approached 3000!

Already, the bolder lads had started cutting off the dead man’s shirtsleeves for souvenirs. Some approved while others called it “Apache-like barbarities”.

Such was the atmosphere when the self-named Robert E. Lee Howell – a tiny, hard-drinking redneck firebrand who has been excluded from the lynching party due to his “lawlessness and violent nature” – announced his arrival by discharging the contents of his pistol in the air.

Bareheaded, coatless, his eyes blazing, Howell was in a frenzy and pushed his way through the crowd shouting “Now we’ve got you! You won’t murder any more little innocent white girls! We’ve got you now!! We’ve got you now!!!”

He ranted hysterically and gesticulated wildly at the body for a while, the crowd answering in high-pitched rebel yells. “They won’t put any monument over you! They are not going to get you! They are not going to get a piece of you bigger than a cigar!” He withdrew his large Bowie knife …

At this moment Judge Newt Morris returned to Frey’s Gin. I say “returned” because it has now been established the “honourable” judge was the leader of the lynch mob, the Knights of Mary Phagan, the previous night!

The Judge appealed to the crowd and got them to agree, despite Howell, that Leo’s body should be taken to the morgue unmolested.

What occurred next was hideous and confusing. Someone, probably Howell, cut the lynch rope and Frank’s body tumbled to the earth with a thud. On impact the throng rushed forward, assaulting and kicking the body in enraged hate. “Bring on the body, men” shouted Morris, “quick, for God’s sake!” The two Negroes who worked for a local undertaker pushed into the crowd and tried, with the judge’s help, to get the body into a wicker basket. They had only managed a couple of steps toward the wagon waiting in the grove before Howell reached out and struck at the basket, upending it and spilling Frank’s remains once again onto the hard red clay.

The whole of Georgia then spoke through Howell as he raised a boot high above Leo’s corpse.

Again and again, as a man grinds the head of a snake under his heel, did the man drive his heel into the face of Leo M. Frank, grinding the black hair into the dirt and dead black leaves until the crowd, stricken silent and motionless, could hear the man’s heel as it made a crunching sound.

“Stop him, for God’s sake, stop him!” Morris cried and held Howell back long enough for the two Negroes to recapture the body and stagger to the wagon and pull away. “Drive like Hell to Atlanta!” shouted Morris after them.

A madcap, almost comic, chase then ensued – many vehicles of all shapes and sizes trying to overtake the body wagon.

The wagon with the body in it gave the cars with the sightseers just enough room for the end of the basket to miss a collision, and the cars with the sightseers gave equally as little room for the car with the dead man.

Eventually, they arrived at Atlanta and for five hours in the swelteringly hot August afternoon, Leo Frank’s battered corpse, the cheeks crushed from the impact of Howell’s boot heel, lay on a makeshift bier in the Greenberg & Bond Funeral Home front hall. By dusk, more than 15,000 men, women and children has filed past the corpse and borne witness to their lynching brethren’s work.

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Leo Frank’s coffin on its way to New York

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For years later, postcards of the scene were sold in drugstores and on street corners.

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The site is now built over but is still commemorated.

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