The Ku Klux Klan and the Leo Frank Case

Postcard commemorating the founding of the<br/> second Ku Klux Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915.

Postcard commemorating the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in Stone
Mountain, Georgia in 1915.

The Ku Klux Klan, a violent anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and antisemitic fraternal organzation, experienced a powerful revival in the 1910s and 1920s, particularly in the Midwest, the South, and large industrial cities. The first Klan was a vigilante group that was founded during Reconstruction by Confederate veterans to disenfranchise newly freed slaves. Although the Klan was eventually suppressed as a terrorist group, many people, particularly in the South, romanticized the Klan as a group of modern day-knights that were fighting against an unjust order. The second version of the Klan was established in 1915 in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Klansmen believed that American citizenship should be reserved for white, native-born, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants. According to Klan ideology, Jews were a dishonest, alien group that exerted an unnatural level of influence on American (white Protestant) life.

The Ballad of Mary Phagan, which was composed by local balladeer Fiddlin’ John Carson, depicted Leo Frank as a murderer and pervert. It became quite popular and was recorded by well-known country singers during the early twentieth century.

The Ballad of Mary Phagan
, which was composed by
local balladeer Fiddlin’ John Carson, depicted Leo Frank
as a murderer and pervert. It became quite popular and
was recorded by well-known
country singers during the
early twentieth century.

One of the catalysts for the re-emergence of the Klan was the 1913 Leo Frank case. Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the National Pencil Company, was arrested, tried, and convicted for the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen year old employee of his factory. Frank was convicted on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to death. When the governor of Georgia commuted his sentence to life in prison, the citizens of Atlanta were enraged. The governor was forced to call out the National Guard for his own protection, the only time in American history that this occurred.

A copy of Tom Watson's newspaper, The Jeffersonian, which incited the lynch mob that murdered Leo Frank.

A copy of Tom Watson's newspaper, The Jeffersonian, which incited the lynch mob that murdered Leo Frank.

Angry mobs were incited by the writings of local politician Tom Watson who wrote weekly editorials demonizing Frank in his newspaper The Jeffersonian. Watson called for Frank’s lynching. The call was answered on August 27, 1915 when a group of armed men from Marietta (known as "The Knights of Mary Phagan"), the birth place of Mary Phagan, drove to the state prison in Milledgeville, removed Frank from his cell, drove him back to Marietta, Georgia and hanged him from an oak tree. Two years after Frank's lynching, many of the original members of The Knights of Mary Phagan were present at the founding of the second Klan.

The hysteria surrounding the Frank case illustrates many of the common fears and stereotypes that would be rehashed by groups like the Klan and the Nazi Party; Jews as greedy industrialists, Jews as sexual degenerates, and Jews as exploiters of women and children. Although Klan membership declined in the 1930s, due to internal dissent and a number of lurid scandals, the belief that Jews were somehow "un-American" lingered in the minds of many Americans.