An innocent Jew hung unjustly from a tree to the great delight of an onlooking crowd. Only a handful of quietly spoken words crossed his lips before he died. His accusers craved his death long before it occurred. He wasn’t given a fair trial. An actual murderer went free. And history will forever grieve the tragedy. Although the details are similar in many ways, I’m not referring to Jesus Christ. Instead, I’m referencing the undeserved lynching of Leo Frank.
The Tragic Death of Mary Phagan
For the sake of time, I can only give the highlights of a story that sparked national attention in the Atlanta area in 1913. “Little Mary Phagan,” as she became known, left home on the morning of April 26 to pick up her wages at the pencil factory in Marietta and view Atlanta’s Confederate Day parade. She never returned home.
The next day, the factory night watchman found her bloody, sawdust-covered body in the factory basement. When the police asked Leo Frank to view her body, Frank became agitated. He confirmed personally paying Mary her wages but could not say where she went next. Frank, the last to admit seeing Mary alive, became the prime suspect. Sadly for Frank, he was a Northern-born, college-educated, wealthy Jewish man, making him the easy target of intense bias and hatred.
A Sham Trial
Cobb county prosecutor Hugh Dorsey painted Leo Frank as a pervert who was both a homosexual and also preyed on young girls. What he did not tell the grand jury was that a janitor at the factory, Jim Conley, had been arrested two days after Frank when he was seen washing blood off his shirt. Conley then admitted writing two notes found by Mary Phagan’s body. The police correctly assumed at the time that, as the author of those notes, Conley was the murderer, but Conley claimed, after coaching from Dorsey, that Leo Frank had confessed to murdering Mary in the tool room and then paid Conley to write the notes and help him move Mary’s body to the basement.
Even after Frank’s housekeeper placed him at home, having lunch at the time of the murder, and despite gross inconsistencies in Conley’s story, both the grand and trial jury chose to believe Conley. In August 1913, the jury found Frank guilty in less than four hours. Crowds outside the courthouse shouted, “Hang the Jew.”
Historian Leonard Dinnerstein reports that one juror had been overheard saying before his selection for the jury, “I am glad they indicted the… Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him. And if I get on that jury, I’ll hang that Jew for sure.”
Facing intimidation and mob rule, the trial judge sentenced Frank to death. He barred Frank from the courtroom because, had he been acquitted, Frank might have been lynched by the crowd outside.
A Brave Man Tries
Georgia’s higher courts rejected Frank’s appeals despite these breaches of due process, and shockingly the U. S. Supreme Court voted, 7-2, against reopening the case. Frank’s survival depended on then Georgia Governor Frank Slaton. After a 12-day review of the evidence, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. He hoped to allow Leo Frank time to clear his name and for further evidence to come forward as tempers abated. Governor Slaton told his wife on the day he decided to commute Leo Frank’s sentence, “My conscience is forcing me to commute Leo Frank’s sentence, but that means I can’t possibly run for a second term as governor, my life will be in constant danger, and our reputations will be ruined in this state.” Without hesitation, she responded, “I’d rather be married to a dead hero than a living coward.”
That night, state police kept a protesting crowd of 5,000 from the governor’s mansion. Wary Jewish families fled Atlanta. Slaton held firm. “Two thousand years ago,” he wrote a few days later, “another Governor washed his hands and turned over a Jew to a mob. For two thousand years, that governor’s name has been accursed. If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice.”
A Midnight Lynching
On August 17, 1915, 28 men — described by peers as “sober, intelligent, of established good name and character”— stormed the Milledgeville, GA prison hospital where Leo Frank was recovering from having his throat slashed by a fellow inmate. They kidnapped Frank, drove him more than 100 miles to Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and hanged him from a tree at the stroke of midnight. The Cobb county’s mayor and sheriff and former Georgia governor Joseph Brown were among the 28 vigilantes.
Frank conducted himself with dignity, calmly proclaiming his innocence.
Townsfolk were proudly photographed beneath Frank’s swinging corpse, pictures you can find with a quick online Google search today. When his term expired a year later, Slaton did not run for reelection, and the dishonest prosecutor, Dorsey, easily won the election to the governor’s office. None of the vigilantes were ever arrested or convicted of any crime. This story has gone down in the pages of history as Georgia’s Great Shame.
The Deadly Silence of a Good Man
In 1982, a death bed confession by a former office boy at National Pencil, along with hosts of other pieces of evidence, confirmed what many suspected. Alonzo Mann, 83 at the time he came forward, said he witnessed Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the factory’s basement on the day of her death. He kept silent, he said, because Conley threatened to kill him and his family.
Fascinatingly, from all the accounts I’ve read, the men who hanged Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan did not go about it with a spirit of lawlessness or vindictiveness. They felt a duty to their state and commonwealth and a responsibility to the memory of Mary Phagan. In other words, they really thought they were correcting a breach of justice and doing the right thing. Now. Did their biased prejudice blind them to their own inconsistencies? Absolutely. Did they have their own sins and hypocrisies to deal with? Yes. Those men, who were otherwise upstanding citizens, committed a horrific act of unspeakable evil. They committed an atrocity while wearing self-aggrandizing badges of righteousness. They even called themselves the Nights of Mary Phagan. They died believing they’d done the right thing, and because they paid no earthly consequences, it seemed like a confirmation of righteousness.
The people who screamed for the crucifixion of Jesus were the Old Testament equivalents of good church folks. They went to Temple services, paid their tithes, offered their sacrifices, and dressed right. The religious elites stirred them up, but the average saint got caught in the current of opinion and outrage. They believed in half-truths, complete falsehoods, and total misnomers. Folks otherwise considered “good” people released a murderer and killed their savior. This odd ability to consider ourselves good while being thoroughly evil is a product of The Fall. And therein lies the lesson within the lesson from the events leading to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Within each of us, “good” people reside carefully masked malevolence, unrealized potential for evil, and thinly veiled hypocrisy.
The Lie of Innate Goodness
The Western preoccupation with people’s (especially our own) relative goodness is astonishing and spiritually toxic. It’s harmful because when we think of ourselves as relatively “good” or “descent,” we compare ourselves to other sinful human beings. Thus, creating a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable sins based on our feelings, current culture, upbringing, socioeconomics, and personality. Historically, Christianity has endeavored to walk the fine line between radically affirming the value of all human life because it is created in the image of God while concurrently rejecting the humanistic philosophy which presupposes people are innately good. Muddying the waters, even more, is the fact that even if we accept that people are not inherently good, we easily exempt ourselves (and our loved ones) from that incriminatory viewpoint and reckon that we are good deep down. We hear of horrible things individuals did in the distant past and, with the delightful advantage of hindsight, assume we would never have participated in such a terrible thing. But truthfully, we don’t really know that to be a fact.
Why Do You Call Me Good?
In Mark 10:17-23, a wealthy young ruler came running to Jesus and offered a greeting he never intended to be controversial. He asked, “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As usual, Jesus responded to a question with another question, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, and that is God?” The man called Jesus “good.” The Greek word the young man used is agathos, meaning “intrinsically good.” This word was not used lightly nor for every good thing. Had the man made the leap that Jesus was indeed God, who was intrinsically good? Was he prepared to accept the full weight of his pronouncements?
It became clear as the conversation continued that the young man considered himself quite good based on his actions. Maybe even intrinsically good. But Jesus zeroed in on the man’s secret sins: pride, love of money, and lack of generosity. And because he loved his money more than Jesus, he missed the opportunity to become a disciple. Or perhaps, we might assume the young man missed the broader point Jesus was inferring, which was that He was God manifest in the flesh and that alone made Him intrinsically good.
Capable of Good & Evil
To summarize a weighty biblical theme from this little interaction: Human beings are capable of both good and evil at any given time. Because we are capable of evil and often do bad things, we are not primarily good deep down. In fact, the deeper we go, the more malevolence we find within the human heart. To view ourselves and others as mostly good is to deny the reality and the seriousness of sin. Only God is good all the time. Only God is utterly incapable of evil. To think anything less of God is heresy. If humanity is essentially good, the cross was unnecessary, and the Bible is a colossal waste of time. Most Christians know this to be true but live as if it is not. We accept the grace and mercy of God and slowly begin to lean on our own goodness. And that’s the trap because once humans believe they’ve become thoroughly good, they do awful things without a hint of conviction or remorse. That is the very definition of self-righteousness.
How Can It Be So Wrong When I’m So Good?
Furthermore, most unsaved people believe their perceived goodness will buy them a ticket to Heaven. “After all,” they think to themselves, “only terrible people need saving, but I’m a decent person.” Meanwhile, they point fingers at other people’s splinters while ignoring the log poking out of their eyes. Self-justification says, “If I’m doing it, it can’t be so dreadfully wrong because I’m so good.” It’s sort of like the parent who criticizes everyone else’s kids but winks when their kids do the same things. How can that be? Well, their kids are innately better than your kids in their eyes.
A Flawed Pentecostal Preacher
I think it’s so interesting that God chose Peter to preach the first Gospel sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Of all the disciples, Peter was far from the most exemplary. By my hasty count, Peter failed twelve times before preaching that sermon. Of course, some of those failures were more severe than others. But some of them were pretty significant. Even outright sinful. To name a few, Peter, filled with selfish ambition, argued with the other disciples about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. He rebuked Jesus for talking about His soon-to-be crucifixion and had to be severely corrected. He failed to stay alert in prayer during Jesus’ greatest hour of need. He denied Jesus with “oaths” and “curses” in the public arena. And after being completely overwhelmed by his sins and the self-discovery of his weaknesses, he abandoned the Apostolic Team and returned to his former life as a fisherman.
Yet, Peter was still allowed to preach the first apostolic declaration of the Gospel. I don’t think that was coincidental. In God’s grand design, a man thoroughly acquainted with his internal badness faithfully preached the convicting of sins to a self-righteous crowd. Peter didn’t waver when he declared (and I’m paraphrasing), “You have taken Jesus with wicked hands and have crucified Him and slain Him (Acts 2:23).” He didn’t stop there, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made the same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).” Only a man fully convinced of his own capacity for badness could preach with such convicting fervor. Because Peter had faced his personal heart trouble, he could see the disease in others who couldn’t see it for themselves.
Convicts Always Recognize Convicts
An individual who’d spent a great deal of time in prison once told me he could always spot someone who had served jail time in any setting. And they could spot him too. I witnessed that very thing several times while with him. It was intriguing to watch. You might assume it was because of tattoos, stern expressions, or something obvious. But it wasn’t. Two perfectly normal-looking people could walk past each other and instantly know they’d served time somewhere. Besides, tattoos are so common now that you’d hardly assume they’re prison-related.
When Peter called otherwise normal-looking people sinful cold-blooded murderers, it was a convict recognizing convicts. Because he acknowledged his sin, he could see there’s too. Peter’s conviction gave him the anointing to preach conviction. Notice the crowd’s response in Acts 2:37, “…When they heard this, they were pricked in their heart and said… ‘what shall we do?’” Peter didn’t convict them; they were already convicted and pronounced guilty by God. They just didn’t realize it until Peter made it clear. Thankfully, the burden of guilt doesn’t have to end with the punishment we deserve if we’ll obey the way of escape Peter preached. He said with God-given authority:
…Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).
Reaching the Religious
Nearly everyone Peter preached to that day was religious. They didn’t consider themselves bad or lost. Every preacher knows the most challenging crowd to reach is a group of smugly religious people. People who can lynch an innocent man in cold blood in the name of God. People who’ve tasted the loaves and fishes yet still shouted: “crucify him.” Or people who once were blind but now see after one touch from Jesus who now use those healed eyes to find fault in the one who gave them sight. Or folks who had no voice until Jesus touched them, and now their voices are lifted in gossip and slander. Somehow, Peter had to reach these people and show them their spiritual blindness. That’s still the mission of the Church today. However, we won’t fulfill that mandate until we attend to our sin and then call others to do the same.
You Can’t Skip the Grave
We love to tell the story of the resurrection. And that’s a good thing, but we can’t skip over the grave to get to it. There’s no resurrection without a painful death and a dark grave. We modern Christians are far more comfortable with the celebration than with the necessary conviction that must precede that celebration. We don’t like to think about it, but we’re no better than the crowds that shouted for Jesus’ death. Our sin put him on the cross just as their sin did. We’re full of corruption too. Evil is always crouched at the door, waiting to pounce on us. We might even be the modern equivalent of a Sadducee or Pharisee. We might have been photographed standing under Leo Frank’s swinging body with smug grins in a different time and place.
Most folks want to skip right past the painful death-to-self repentance brings. But the apostle Paul, another flawed sinner turned preacher, called that death-to-self a daily process. Calvary brings graphic clarity to a twofold revelation: First, humanity is desperately sinful and deserves punishment. Second, God loves us so much that He took that punishment on our behalf and now offers pardon for our depravity. We aren’t good. Not even close. But He’s good—more good than we know. His blood can cleanse us from all unrighteousness, but first, we must face the ugly truth about ourselves. Letting the old you die hurts. It hurts a lot. But the resurrection that follows is worth it.