Culture Shock: Henry Alexander, Leo Frank, and the New South

Discover how the trial of Leo Frank revealed the intersections of regionalism, antisemitism, and the legacy of the Confederacy in the Atlanta of the New South.

Henry Alexander Sr. and Hugh Dorsey (1894)William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander Sr.

Aaron Alexander, Henry Alexander's grandfather, was the first Jew of American birth to settle in Atlanta. Henry Alexander was born in Atlanta, Georgia on October 10, 1874, the son of Julius Mortimer Alexander and Rebecca Ella Solomons Alexander.

Demosthenian Ribbon (1891) by Demosthenian SocietyWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

UGA: A southern club

Henry Alexander was given this ribbon for membership of the Demosthenian club, which he joined while at the University of Georgia in the early 1890s. Alexander’s family had lived in the south for decades and his grandfather had fought for the Confederacy. This regional lineage defined Alexander as part of the “in-group” of Southerners while he attended UGA. Later, the regional and status ties from UGA allowed Alexander privileged positions in Atlanta’s upper class, including filing the articles of incorporation for the Atlanta Art Association, now the High Museum of Art.

Henry Alexander Sr. and Hugh Dorsey (1894)William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander and Hugh Dorsey

This picture shows Henry Alexander (right) with Hugh Dorsey (left). The two became friends while they were both studying at the University of Georgia in the 1890s. Twenty years, later, this friendship faced a significant challenge when Alexander joined the appeals of the Leo Frank case as part of the defense, while Dorsey led the prosecution. The case (which was defined by Dorsey’s antisemitism in court) led to a lifelong rift between the men.

Pencil (1913) by National Pencil CompanyWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Overview of the Leo Frank Case

This section provides a look at the pivotal moments of the trial, appeals, commutation, and Leo Frank's time in the state penitentiary.

National Pencil Company factory (1913) by National Pencil CompanyWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

The pencil factory

Pencils, including this one, were produced by the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia in the early twentieth century. In 1913 the factory became national news when a worker, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, was found murdered there. The manager, Leo Frank, a young Jewish man from New York, was accused. Frank was convicted on August 25, 1913, based mainly on evidence from Jim Conley, the African American sweeper at the factory. Atlanta native Henry Alexander then joined Frank’s defense to work on appealing the conviction.

Gov Slaton's Courageous Act by NewspaperWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Leo Frank's Commutation

This article describes Governor of Georgia, John Slaton’s, decision to commute Leo Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Frank’s lawyers, including Henry Alexander, appealed the ruling several times. The defense team claimed a mistrial since Frank and his council has not been present during the reading of the verdict. The appeals went all the way to the Supreme Court and were denied. At that point, the defense teamed turned to the last option: a governor’s pardon.

The Lynching of Leo Frank (1915) by New York Evening SunWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Leo Frank's murder

The New York Evening Sun published this piece on Leo Frank’s death at the hands of a lynch mob. Frank died on August 17, 1915, only months after his communication and weeks after a knife attack by another inmate. Northern newspapers had reported on the entirety of the Frank case, as northern Jewish communities tried to raise awareness of Frank’s plight. Unfortunately, these articles were seen as ‘interference’ or as proof that Frank was backed by northern Jewish industrialists looking to exploit Southern labor and values. The coverage and often condemnation of Georgia only served to inflame tensions.

M'Elreath, Brown and Westmorland winners (1911) by NewspaperWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander's term in legislature

This article details Henry Alexander’s failure to gain a second term in the state legislature for 1911-1912. The article holds that Alexander lost despite being personally popular in the county, meaning he was popular enough to have been elected the first time. Alexander’s election to the legislature represents that he was viewed by the white majority of Atlanta to part of the ‘in’ group of true Southerners despite that definition traditionally including Protestant heritage.

Henry Alexander in WWI uniform (1917) by Henry Aaron AlexanderWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander: The soldier 

In 1918, after serving as a Captain during the war, Henry Alexander was awarded a WWI Cross of Military Service by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The UDC defined what it meant to be Southern from their inception and they presented these crosses to WWI veterans descended from Confederate veterans. Through this action, they used family ties to define “Southerness,” confirming to Alexander and those around him he belonged in this identity. 

Pro-segregation Note by Henry Alexander Sr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Pro-segregation note

This note, written either as personal correspondence or for recording thoughts by Henry Alexander reveals that he participated in Southern discrimination. Alexander was born and raised in the South, surrounded by the rhetoric that African Americans were inferior, which lead to stances like the anti-integration position he took. Alexander displayed this discrimination that often bled into racism during the Leo Frank trial when he claimed that an educated white man like Frank could never speak in the African American dialect key pieces of evidence were written in. Racism like this was, unfortunately, a hallmark of Southern identity at the time.

Georgia State Security Questionnaire (1954-04) by Henry Alexander Sr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Regional Pride

This Georgia state security questionnaire was filled out by Henry Alexander in 1954. In answer to Question 27, Alexander lists himself as part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Alexander was not just a local Atlantan, he was a generational Southerner. Alexander’s family had been present as residents of the South for generations, his grandfather fought for the Confederates. The different public responses to Alexander and Leo Frank are partly explained by this regionalism, Alexander was southern and Leo Frank northern.

Some Facts about The Murder Notes in the Phagan Case - Part One by Henry Alexander Sr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander and Leo Frank's case

This section explores some of the highlights of Henry Alexander’s work on Leo Frank’s case after joining the defense for the appeal.

Frank May Be Saved by Telltale Notes by The New York TimesWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

New tactic for Frank's defense

This article describes Henry Alexander’s theory that the infamous murder notes of the Leo Frank case were written in the basement of the factory. After joining the case, Alexander became focused on notes found near the body of Mary Phagan. They describe a tall African American man and claim he committed the crime. In the first trial, Jim Conley, the African American sweeper, testified that Frank had dictated the notes to him in Frank’s office. The article presents as fact Alexander’s conclusions that the notes were never in Frank’s office, on evidence that they matched a previous employee’s notepads, all of which were stored in the basement.

Some Facts about The Murder Notes in the Phagan Case - Part 3 by Henry Alexander Sr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander and the Murder Notes 

"Some Facts about the Murder Notes in the Phagan Case" was published by Henry Alexander to present his theories about the murder notes. His two main points were that the handwriting did not match Leo Frank’s, and that everyone had misinterpreted the phrase “night witch” to mean “night watchman.” Alexander argues that the writer had spelled everything else phonetically and points to a supposed African American superstition, ‘unknown’ to white people to prove that the writer meant night witch. Alexander states that it is inconceivable for a white man to have thought to use this phrase. The assertation that African Americans and whites cannot think alike was endemic to the discrimination shown by the prosecution and defense during the trial.

Some Facts about The Murder Notes in the Phagan Case - Part 4 by Henry Alexander Sr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Pages six and seven of the Murder Note pamphlet, which discuss the second note.

Some Facts about The Murder Notes in the Phagan Case - Part 5 by Henry Alexander Sr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Page eight, the last page of the Murder Note pamphlet, displaying a copy of Jim Conley's handwriting.

Letter to Leo Frank from Henry Alexander Sr. (1915-07-14) by Henry Alexander Sr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

A correspondence

This letter, written by Henry Alexander to Leo Frank a month after Frank’s commutation and a month before his death, strikes a hopeful tone. Alexander reports to Frank on public opinion surrounding the case and says that he has sent the supplies Frank requested. Alexander was acting as a lawyer keeping his client informed about the public opinion of his case. However, Alexander also wrote the letter in a familiar manner, mentioning that his mother donated some of the supplies sent to Frank, and apologizing for keeping visitors away. Alexander was deeply involved in the case as work, while Frank’s situation became personal.

KKK postcard (1915-11-25) by Ku Klux KlanWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Antisemitism in Atlanta

This section explores how the use of media during Leo Frank’s trial led to sustained anger and an increase in antisemitism.

Letter Samuel Adams to Rebecca Alexander (1915-09-14) by Samuel AdamsWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Letter to Rebecca Alexander from Samuel Adams

In this letter, local journalist Tom Watson is mentioned as an agent of antisemitism and an object of deep concern. Watson’s popular assertion that wealthy northern Jewish migrants brought industrialism to southern cities spoke to the frustration Georgians felt at the confusion of a changing economy and the loss of traditional values and gender roles. Through Watson Georgians had a cause for their economic anxiety: Northern Jewish industrialists. The fear this hatred caused in the Jewish community, which had been well-established, lasted for decades, and led to many families moving.

Facing Facts in Georgia by NewspaperWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Response to Leo Frank's lynching

This newspaper article, written after the death of Leo Frank, discusses the “mob rule” that led to his lynching and condemns the authorities for failing to bring the lynch mob to justice. Phrases like mob “rule” or “spirit” and the name Tom Watson points to the antisemitism Atlanta experienced, from crowds demanding a guilty conviction outside the courthouse to newspapers spreading inflammatory lies and stereotypes. Watson, owner of The Jeffersonian magazine, kept mob outrage high by repeatedly using the image of Mary Phagan as a brutalized victim. 

KKK postcard (1915-11-25) by Ku Klux KlanWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Klu Klux Klan Postcard

This postcard depicts the ‘rebirth’ of the Klu Klux Klan on top of Stone Mountain outside Atlanta on November 25, 1915. The men who had lynched Leo Frank three months before participated in the revival. Antisemitism was a main tenant of the revived Klan which was supported by the lingering Antisemitism revealed during the trial. This postcard illustrates Atlanta’s struggle with the idea of the “new South” and the violence people were willing to enact to define and perpetuate it.

Hebrew Group Gets New Name, Charter (1938-01-13) by The Atlanta GeorgianWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Effects on Atlanta's Jewish Community

This section documents how the trauma of Leo Frank’s trial and the increasing antisemitism affected the Jewish community in Atlanta.

ADL Warning (1958-03-18) by Arthur J. LevinWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL)

This letter was sent by the ADL to a local rabbi in 1958. The ADL was formed by attorney Sigmund Livingston in 1913 as the Leo Frank trial was becoming national news. It was the antisemitism prominent throughout Frank’s trial that illustrated to the Jewish community and Livingston why an organization like the ADL was so necessary. Their goals, to foster equality for those who fall outside the “American norm” and to eradicate discrimination were a response, in part, to the trauma of the Frank case.

Hebrew Group Gets New Name, Charter (1938-01-13) by The Atlanta GeorgianWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

response to antisemitism

This article details the new name and charter of a Hebrew Organization first formed in 1914. The year 1914 sits in the middle of the Leo Frank case, after the trial and conviction, before the commutation and Frank’s death. During 1914, the Frank case was appealed, keeping public attention on Frank. It also kept people like Tom Watson in the spotlight, who spread antisemitic conspiracy theories and hysteria from his magazine The Jeffersonian. The founding of a Hebrew organization at this time points to an urge for a closer community when that community is under attack and serves as a bold statement of visibility.

Letter Lucille Frank to Rebecca Alexander (1915-09-15) by Lucille FrankWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Letter to Rebecca Alexander from Lucille Frank

 It is no surprise that the murder of Leo Frank affected those who loved him the most. In this letter, dated a month after Leo’s death, his wife Lucille thanks Rebecca Alexander, lawyer Henry Alexander’s mother, for her kindness. Lucille’s letter is full of sadness but also hope that her husband’s name will be cleared, echoing Leo’s final assertions of innocence. She also seems to be, as others were at the time, surrounding herself with the Jewish community in Atlanta, putting her hope in those who loved Leo Frank.

A Yellow Streak by NewspaperWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Reflections on Leo Frank

The short article "A Yellow Streak" reflects a search for answers in the aftermath of Leo Frank’s murder. The article asks Georgia to realize its mistake and condemn the murders but recognizes that such action is not a guarantee. For the Jewish community in Atlanta, and throughout the state, there were questions that could not be answered. No one knew how they would be treated and while many likely did hope their fellow citizens would realize the injustice of what had happened, they were left with uncertainty.

U.S. Military Camp Completion Certificate (1916-05-30) by Fort OglethorpeWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Military Certificate of Completion

In the year after Leo Frank’s murder, Henry Alexander enlisted in the military to fight in WWI. Only he knew why he enlisted, he could have wanted to continue the family legacy of service, perhaps he responded to the call for patriotism like so many other American men. Perhaps it was the feeling of fear, or frustration, that so many in Atlanta’s Jewish community were feeling that led Alexander to sign up. His service was proof not only of his loyalty, but of his right to continue inhabiting his place as a “true” Southern man.

Miss Klienette To Wed Mr. Alexander by NewspaperWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander's social standing after the case

The Leo Frank case was a traumatic experience for the Jewish community of Atlanta. As an integral part of both the Jewish community and Atlanta general community, Alexander was able to navigate between these groups even after the lynching.

A "best known" Southern family

article announces the engagement of Henry Alexander, after WWI, to his wife,
Marian Alexander, nee Kleinette. The pair were married in 1921, six years after
Alexander defended Leo Frank. Given the strong emotions the case produced
against Frank, the warm language used to describe Alexander as part of an
“oldest” and “best known” Southern family is perhaps surprising. However, it
seems that these “aristocratic” family ties allowed Alexander to remain in the
minds of most Atlantans, ‘one of us,’ part of the in-group of the South.

New State Group Hopes to Put History on Map in Georgia (1951-02-27) by NewspaperWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander as a leader

This article describes Henry Alexander’s involvement with bringing historical markers to Georgia, but it also outlines his status as a popular community figure in Atlanta. Alexander had served as a president of the Atlanta Historical Society, was chairman of the Georgia Educational Exchange’s historical committee, was still a prominent lawyer, and had drafted the legislation creating the Georgia Historical Commission. If anyone had held ill-will towards him for his involvement in the Leo Frank case, he had surmounted it.

Fifty Club Votes For Committee On Segregation (1954-06-03) by NewspaperWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander's defense of segregation

This article describes the forming of a Commission on Segregation by the Fifty Club (a male-only civic club founded in 1932). Henry Alexander was a member and proposed the committee, to assist Georgia in defending segregation to the Supreme Court. He was also chosen to sit on the board. This is an interesting dichotomy, that Alexander was chosen to defend a tenant of Southern life despite once representing Leo Frank, who had been seen by some people as the antithesis to Southern values (from the North and an ‘industrialist’). 

H. A. Alexander Dies; Noted Historian, Communal Leader (1967-03-24) by The Southern IsraeliteWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Henry Alexander remembered

This obituary, published in The Southern Israelite, gives a brief overview of Henry Alexander’s life, naming him a “pioneer Atlanta communal leader.” The obituary lists his many accomplishments, Alexander is noted as a native of Atlanta, and the Leo Frank case is related as a "sensational murder." Alexander is represented as both a leader in the Jewish community and the overall community of Atlanta. 

Credits: Story

This online exhibit was created by Katie Stockdale, Intern at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.

Documents and Pictures featured in this exhibit come from:

Mss 24, Henry Alexander Sr. Family Papers, the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Records, the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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