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Lynchings were a common crime in early 20th century
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Much is being made of the 100th anniversary of the Leo Frank/Mary Phagan case this month.

Phagan was a 13-year-old Atlanta murder victim. Frank was the 29-year-old Jewish pencil factory manager convicted of killing Phagan, a recent employee.

The case was sensational on its own, but it became a bigger story when a lynch mob took Frank from a Milledgeville prison and hanged him near Marietta. The mob was incensed that Gov. John Slaton had commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison.

There was a Gainesville angle to the case because a former local reporter was first to break the story about the murder. Britt Craig was the son of W.H. Craig, owner of the Gainesville Eagle, predecessor to The Times. Britt had worked for his father on the weekly.

It was in April 1913, when Britt Craig, then an Atlanta reporter, was hanging out in a police station and heard a night watchman’s call about a body being found in the pencil factory. Craig was on top of the story so fast he beat policemen down a ladder to the factory’s basement where Mary Phagan’s body lay.

After serving as a pilot in World War I, Britt Craig returned to Georgia and worked for the Atlanta Constitution. His work on the Atlanta paper earned him a position on the New York Sun in 1919, but only two months into the job he died of pneumonia at age 25. His funeral was in Grace Episcopal Church, and he is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery.

• • •

The years after the Civil War and well into the 20th century, lynchings were almost common. Most of the time the victims were black people accused of crimes, the majority of which were supposedly against white people. If white renegades didn’t think courts punished the criminals severely enough, they would take the law into their own hands, oftentimes stringing up the victims from a tree.

Lynchings, not necessarily hangings, occurred even into the turbulent 1960s when civil rights workers were killed by marauding Southern whites. Some of today’s murders could be classified as lynchings.

Some of the lynchings remain unsolved to this day. Nobody in the Leo Frank lynching was ever convicted. The 1946 Moore’s Ford case in Walton County where two black couples were murdered remains unsolved despite recent re-investigations.

In 1899, Sy Smith was accused of murdering W.B. Bell, prominent White County citizen and father of Tom Bell, who would become longtime 9th District congressman. Smith was transferred from the Habersham County Jail to Hall County for safekeeping.

However, in the summer of that year, a gang entered the jail under false pretenses and shot him. Several, including some Bell brothers, were charged in the case, but none was convicted. All those involved in the case, including the victim, were white.

• • •

Most newspapers in those early days decried lynchings or anybody taking the law into their own hands. They called for anti-lynching laws, better protection of prisoners being held in jails and more severe penalties for those convicted of such crimes.

An exception was the Atlanta Georgian, which practically endorsed lynchings or even more drastic measures against blacks committing crimes against whites.

It supported proposals to mutilate those suspected of crimes, especially of blacks raping white women. It would brand the forehead of the offender with the letter “R,” forever marking him as a rapist. Or, suggested the Georgian, apply some new and mysterious form of punishment “wrapped in darkness which will appeal to the terror and superstition of the criminal Negro.”

Apparently oblivious to the treatment of blacks in that time, the newspaper wrote “... we have utterly lost patience with those pacifist preachments which cry out for law and order on the part of the white man while they spend no time nor breath nor effort in thundering to their own people the earnest and passionate denunciation of these criminals who make the chief tension and deadly friction between the races.”

Such writings probably encouraged groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which over the years was active in terrorizing blacks in various ways, whether suspected of crimes or not.

New Georgia Encyclopedia estimated 3,000 victims of lynchings in the South between 1882 and 1930. Of those, 450 were in Georgia.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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