February 5, 2004
Q & A With Steve Oney
Los Angeles writer Steve Oney's book, "And the Dead Shall Rise" (Pantheon Books, 2003), details two infamous, unsolved crimes: the 1913 murder of non-Jewish preteen Mary Phagan in an Atlanta factory and the arrest, trial, conviction, death sentence commutation and 1915 abduction and lynching by a 25-man mob of Leo Frank, the factory's Jewish, 29-year-old Northern-born supervisor. In 1995, on the 80th yahrtzeit of Frank's death, Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Ga., helped place a plaque on the building built on the spot where the tree used to lynch him grew. Oney, a 49-year-old former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, whose wife is Jewish, spent 17 years researching the 742-page book.
Jewish Journal: This book genuinely seems to have taken a chunk out of you as a writer and as a person.
Steve Oney: If somebody had told me I was going to spend 17 years on this book when I got started, I would have quit -- immediately. The deeper I got into it, the more entranced I was by the subject; this double-murder mystery, two unsolved killings, the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank. So, yeah, it was a chunk of my life. But I don't know how I could have spent it better.
JJ: Were you trying to give this case, journalistically speaking, a proper, dignified burial?
SO: I took it as a point of pride to get the truth of who lynched Leo Frank. He was the most celebrated convict in America; he was in the state prison, and he was abducted from the state prison without a shot being fired. And then after abducting Frank, these 25 [lynch-mob members] drove by circuitous routes over 150 miles on unpaved roads in Model Ts and lynched Frank the next day at dawn. Not a one of them was arrested or even inconvenienced.
JJ: There's a body of Leo Frank literature and writing that most people don't know about; why is there so much of it?
SO: Well, the material is so inherently dramatic. A little girl, Mary Phagan, beautiful, busty, murdered on Confederate Memorial Day, 1913, in a society that is in transition from the old South to the new South. Her boss, a Northern Jew named Leo Frank, convicted of her murder and then lynched -- and out of that lynching rose ... the modern Ku Klux Klan, and it galvanizes the Anti-Defamation League.
JJ: Do you think it was romanticized?
SO: In many of the previous accounts of this case, there's the inevitable section where the writer will say, "Outside the courthouse where Leo Frank was tried, people yelled, 'Hang the Jew or we'll hang you!'" In my book I say it didn't happen. It was something that someone wrote a couple years after the crime, and then it got stuck into subsequent recountings of the story.
JJ: I was specifically fascinated by your use of the term, "Negro." You use it not in quotes and not in italics, but as a common term in parts of the book. What made you choose that term?
SO: I agonized over that choice. Frank was convicted largely on the testimony of a black, self-confessed accomplice named Jim Conley. For one of the first times ever in a capital murder case in America, especially in the South, an all-white jury accepted a black man's word over a white man's word. I thought I could never express how stunning a fact that was if I used polite terminology of today. I had to situate you back in the South of 1913 to make you feel what the racial tension was like and to make you see through the use of the word, Negro, how all white people would view a black man at that moment. Even with that rationale, I agonized over it. I can't impose the polite parlance of contemporary usage on the time. So that's why I decided to use the word, Negro.
JJ: Many of the Atlanta Jews, in the fallout of the entire tragedy, leave Atlanta, but they stay in the South, as opposed to some of the [non-Jewish] characters who move north. Didn't that strike you as odd?
SO: Southern Jews are Southerners and Jews second, or they're both simultaneously. But they are as wed to the land and to the Southern way of life as any Southern [non-Jew]. The Jews of Atlanta in particular, the German Jews into which Leo Frank married, they fought for the Confederacy or their forebearers did. They were very much Southern patriots and that was, on the one hand, why they stayed, on the other hand, why Frank's lynching was such a shock to them. They stayed, but they nursed very quietly this grievous wound.
On Feb. 22, Oney will give a talk from 10 a.m.-noon at a private Westside home. For more information, call Judi Book at (310) 470-8986.