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How a UNG student unlocked a piece of history to the Leo Frank murder case
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Brittany Rhodes, a University of North Georgia student, recently discovered the keys she found 17 years ago are connected to the 1913 Leo Frank murder case. - photo by Courtesy University of North Georgia

Brittany Rhodes, a University of North Georgia student, found a set of keys 17 years ago that unlock a piece of Georgia’s history. 

She didn’t learn the significance of her find until a year or two ago while doing research in a Georgia history class for her post-baccalaureate teacher certification in middle grades. 

In December, she shared her findings with an assistant professor at UNG, and the keys are now on display at an Atlanta museum.

Rhodes, now 30, first found the keys as she was disposing of leftovers from an estate sale. A tag on the keys read, “If found return to Warden J.E. Smith, Milledgeville, GA. State Prison Farm.”

Since no one wanted the keys, she decided to keep them because she had family in Milledgeville.

It wasn’t until she returned to UNG, that she discovered the connection to the case of Leo Frank, a man convicted in 1913 of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan.

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison with the assumption the man’s innocence would eventually be established. 

But Frank was abducted from the prison farm in Milledgeville and lynched Aug. 17, 1915, in Marietta. He was pardoned in 1986 by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles for the state’s failure to protect him and allow continued legal appeals of his conviction. 

Lauren Bradshaw, an assistant professor at UNG, recently designed an escape room focused on the Leo Frank case. When Rhodes approached Bradshaw about the piece of history she owned, “she told me, ‘Here are the keys that opened Leo Frank’s cell,’' Bradshaw recounted. “I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ I was flabbergasted.”

Rhodes decided to look for a home for the keys, choosing The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta. Frank was Jewish. The keys are on loan for five years there and on display in the main atrium of the museum.

Jeremy Katz, the museum’s senior director of archives, said he was shocked when Rhodes contacted him about the keys. 

“We have one of the largest Leo Frank collections in the country, specifically object based,” Katz said. “We made the argument that this is the best place for the keys because we are Atlanta’s Jewish Museum.”

Because of the keys’ age, style and tag, Katz said they were easy to authenticate.

Coincidentally, The Breman also has the door to Frank’s Milledgeville infirmary, which was once opened by the keys Rhodes found at the estate sale. Frank had been held in the infirmary after a fellow prisoner cut Frank’s throat with a knife.

Rhodes said by the time the door arrived at the museum, the lock mechanism had been removed, so they couldn’t test out the keys.

“It was gone because the building was condemned,” she said. “It was a little anticlimactic, but history is kind of like that. Sometimes you have that bit of mystery.”

In Bradshaw’s social studies methods course, students learn that history is not about simply memorizing facts. Bradshaw said she trains them to analyze historical context and create their own interpretations.

“Leo Frank is a case that reflects many issues that are still going on in Georgia today, like mob mentality and the failure of the justice system,” she said. “These keys teach us a lot about how to use artifacts to teach history.”

Through her discovery of the keys and dive into Frank’s past, Rhodes has developed her own narrative of the historical case.

“It was a terrible event,” Rhodes said. “I’m a strong advocate for his innocence. I think we have to remember our past. It’s an important legal case in Georgia history.”

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