“Leo may have been killed, but she served a life sentence…”

Leo n Lucille
Lucille and Leo Frank in happier times at Grant Park in Atlanta before he was accused of murder. Photo courtesy Tumbler.com

A sad anniversary has come and passed. August 17, 2015 was the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta, GA. Regardless of other opinions about the Frank case, one thing is certain–any lynching is cruel, barbaric, and unjustifiable by any standard.

Leo Frank was convicted of murdering Mary Fagan, a thirteen year-old of employee of Frank at an Atlanta pencil factory in 1913. The trial had lasted for twenty-nine days, the longest trial in Georgia history up to that point, and then entered into a twenty month period of appeals that went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

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Leo Frank at his trial in 1913 with his wife Lucille seated behind him. Photo courtesy of the Georgia State University Library

The prosecution prevailed, and Leo Frank was condemned to die by hanging. Georgia Governor John M. Slayton, however, commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment, a decision that was unacceptable to extremest groups in Georgia.

050811 MARIETTA, GA (cobb): In a Thursday 8/11/05 photo taken at the site of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank we see a small plaque on the side of a building that is now at this location near the intersection of Frey's Gin Court and Roswell Road. This plaque was placed here by members of the Cobb County Jewish community in 1995. Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth will join other rabbis here next Wednesday morning in a ceremony to mark the 90th anniversary of that lynching. Lebow hopes a more prominent historical marker will eventually be placed here and plans to send an application to the Georgia Historical Society this fall. Frank was convicted of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan. When his death sentence was commuted a group of men from Marietta kidnapped him from prison in Milledgeville and lynched him on this site. PHOTO BY ANDY SHARP/STAFF.
Plaque defending Leo Frank on display at the site of his lynching. – R. Keen 2015

A gang of men from Marietta Georgia, intent on vigilante justice, managed to remove Frank from his prison cell in Milledgeville, GA, (too easily, it has been judged in hindsight), and drive him back to Marietta, where they brutally lynched him.

No one was ever prosecuted for Frank’s death, even though members of the gang who lynched him were known in the Marietta community. Luther Hames, a retired superior court judge said “Seven members of the lynch party were on the Grand Jury [investigating the Frank lynching.]1

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Lucille Frank portrait 1
Lucille Frank – Photo courtesy of Evening Blues

Although some background is necessary, this article is not about Leo Frank or his sensational trial and lynching. It is about Lucille Frank, Leo’s loyal wife, and in particular her final resting place in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.

Lucille Frank made just one public statement about her husband’s lynching to the Augusta Chronicle on October 1, 1915, six weeks after the lynching:

I am a Georgia girl, born and reared in this state, and educated in her schools. I am a Jewess; some will throw that in my face, I know, but I have no apologies to make for my religion. I am also a Georgian, and American, and I do not apologize for that, either…I only pray that those who destroyed Leo’s life will realize the truth before they meet their God–they perhaps are not entirely to blame, fed as they were on lies unspeakable, their passion aroused by designing persons. Some of them, I am sure, did not realize the horror of their act. But those who inspired these men to do this unlawful act, what of them? Will not their consciences make for them a hell on Earth, and will not their associates, in their hearts, despise them?2

Here, twice, Lucille Frank identifies herself as a Georgian, a southerner. She was also native to Atlanta. Atlanta had a long history of good relations with its Jewish communities and citizens until the hatred sparked by the Leo Frank affair, and Lucille was comfortable with her southern heritage. Prejudices at that time, it’s sad to say, were focused primarily on the African-American community.

Unfortunately, hate-mongers stirred base emotions among the southern populace in the wake of the Leo Frank trial with far reaching effect, including the reemergence of the Klu Klux Klan as a powerful regional influence.

Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan inducts a new member. Note the men in the background turning their faces away from the camera. Photo courtesy of Pinterest.com

In time, Lucille Frank stopped speaking about Leo and became withdrawn. She was only twenty-seven when Leo died, but she never remarried and supported herself working as a sales clerk in various retail stores. she signed her name “Mrs. Leo Frank.” Her friends believed that she never stopped mourning for her husband.3

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Lucille Frank in 1950. – Georgia State University Library

For counseling, Lucille turned to her medical doctor, Dr. James Kauffman, an internist. He said, “She somatized her complaints. She had chest pains, headaches. When I think of her I think of depression. Leo might have been killed, but she served a life sentence (emphasis added.)”4

In the 1940’s a story broke that there may be new evidence of Leo Frank’s innocence. The Atlanta Constitution sent Celestine Sibley, a young reporter at the time to see Lucille. “When I told her what I wanted she just started crying,” Sibley recalled fifty years later.5

Lucille died on April 23, 1957 from heart disease, forty-two years after Leo’s murder. Her funeral was held at Atlanta’s Patterson Funeral Home. As she requested, her body was cremated. She asked that her ashes be scattered in a public park in Atlanta, but this was prohibited by local regulations so her ashes remained at Patterson’s on a back shelf, all but forgotten.

In 1958 the Jewish reform Temple on Peachtree Street in Atlanta was bombed. It was known to be a terrorist act by racial extremists. No one was hurt in the bombing but the building was badly damaged. Arrests were made but there were no convictions–resembling too much the aftermath of Leo Frank’s murder. It was a tense time then when Jewish citizens became cautious about their actions and appearances.

It was in this atmosphere that Patterson Funeral Home asked the relatives of Lucille Frank to retrieve her ashes and deal with them as they saw fit. Lucille’s relatives were concerned that a public ceremony might invite vandalism or some other form of disrespect, so again, they postponed action. Alan Marcus, Lucille’s nephew put her ashes in the front trunk of his red Corvair Manza and simply went about his business. “I rode those ashes around in the car for six months,” he recalled.6

Finally, in the early light of daybreak in mid-1964, Alan Marcus and his brother drove to Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, and with garden tools buried Lucille’s ashes between the headstones of her parents, Emil Selig and Josephine Cohen Selig. The small grave was unmarked at the time.

Gravesites of Josephine Cohen Selig and Emil Selig in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, GA. – R. Keen 2016

In the fifty plus years that Lucille’s ashes have been buried at Oakland, various symbols have marked the location of her small grave. For a while, someone placed a statue of a small angel about ten inches tall on her grave. In recent years, however, this plaque has appeared on the site:

Lucille Frank memorial plaque. R. Keen – 2016

The stones are left there by visitors as symbols of respect and remembrance. In the lower right is the dim inscription, “Lucille S. Frank, 1888 – 1957.”

We look back and feel deep sorrow for Lucille Frank. She was a victim of terrible events that were beyond her control. Her husband, home and family were taken from her. What was she to think? How could she reconcile the tragedy that overwhelmed her with any hope that must have seemed so futile? May she rest in peace and inspire us to resist and cruelty and hatred in our world today.

If you wish to pay your respects to Lucille Frank, her grave is easy to find in the small Jewish Hill area of Oakland Cemetery. Here is a map of Oakland. The Jewish Hill section is at the bottom to the right of center. When there, just look for the two matching headstones of her parents, the Seligs.

“And the Dead Shall Rise” by Steve Oney, Pantheon Books, 2003, p. 589
“The Historic Oakland Cemetery of Atlanta” by Cathy Kaemmerlen, The History Press, 2007. p. 83
3 Ibid
4 Ibid
“And the Dead Shall Rise” by Steve Oney, Pantheon Books, 2003, p. 627
6 Ibid, p. 628