And The Dead Shall Rise: A Review

My copy. The book also contains multiple images of the time, and lynching.

Steve Oney’s And The Dead Shall Rise has been on my radar for a decade, and related to me my entire life. The book recounts the murder of Mary Phagan, the investigation that followed, the trials of Leo Frank, his lynching, and the media circus that surrounded the entire affair. It represents excellent scholarship and research into events that no one wanted researched. It is a preservation of an important and painful piece of history. As important as it is, it is also a task on the nerves and soul.

I say it has been on my radar, because I first purchased the book about ten years ago, and have struggled to catch enough momentum to carry through with it. I say it’s related to my life in that I am from Marietta, Georgia. The same town in which Mary Phagan was from, and where Leo Frank was lynched. I feel, as I felt when first attracted to the book, that this was a book that provided to me a unique experience. I have some specific impressions from growing up there and actually being from there, but before I approach those, let me first approach what took me so long.

This book is dense. My hardcover copy was some 649 pages. It is not exactly a portable read. I have recently ordered a paper back version to give as a gift, I will attempt to report back about the size of that. Not only is the book dense physically, it is also dense in terms of construction. Oney is thorough with descriptions and information, but he fails to establish much empathy on behalf of the reader for anyone in the course of events. There is exceedingly little humor. Some pages are entire walls of text with no paragraphs. That sounds like an excessive criticism, but with as dark and sometimes technical as the material is, it is important to be able to stop and pick back up.

The material is dark. Exceedingly so. A young girl working as a child laborer in a pencil factory is found murdered, likely sodomized. Her body is found in a basement with filth all about. The investigation initially shows an interest on pinning the crime on whatever convenient black man should appear, but that is quickly abandoned for assigning the guilt on the factory superintendent himself, new comer to Atlanta and Jew Leo Frank. So convinced do the investigators become with pursuing Frank, that they ignore evidence and leads that indicate the contrary. The investigators even turn stereotypical prejudices on their heads, trusting the word of an alcoholic, philandering, criminal black man over that of a Northern Jew.

The entire affair is driven to a frenzy by newspapers, and influence from outside the state. Locally owned papers went to war with William Randolph Hearst and Alfred Ochs. The American people were riveted. The American Jews were horrified. The Average Georgian was scandalized, and the Mariettan was livid. The frenzy created by reckless journalism and greed eventually backfires on each side, leading to the mortal conclusion.

I suppose I am supposed to feel empathy for the Franks. I struggle to find that though. The Franks were connected, comparatively wealthy, and repeatedly are presented as aloof or unaffected to the point of tone-deafness. Evidence damaging to the character of Frank is never contested by the defense, Oney asserts that the reason behind that was to limit the testimony’s exposure to air. But 100 years later, hearing a rebuttal to that evidence is important to the juror of today. The Jews of Atlanta are portrayed by Oney as benevolent from ivory towers of class and power. There is no portrayal or mention of impoverished Jewry in the Atlanta area. The Franks themselves are portrayed with almost no mention of any kind of personality. There’s nothing to make you feel anything for them.

Mary Phagan is worthy of empathy. She is dispatched in the first few pages of the book, but the vast majority of the work is spent dissecting the circumstances around her death in a search for justice. What ends up happening is that the proceedings extract so much humanity from the circumstances through the theatrics of the courts, papers, and others that what the modern witness is left beaten and tired, incapable of feeling anything except jaded.

William Smith is an attorney that you end up having a great turn in pace with. You start to feel some empathy for him after a spell. But his life intersects with the Frank case in such a way that although interesting, it does not carry the case or story. He is an interesting man, from an interesting family and I would like to learn more about him, but to adequately describe his involvement in the Frank case would likely require an equally voluminous book.

The lack of empathy, length, dryness, and joyless nature of the story contributes to an overall exhaustion that the book renders within the first 50 pages, and the fluctuates through out. Oney makes these things bearable by occasionally including trivia or extraneous information. He hooks the reader though, by his faithfulness to portraying the import of the case and doing so evenhandedly. He assumes no guilt or innocence, and as witnesses recant and then recant their recantations, the reader is left switching sides multiple times throughout the book. It really is a well written and executed book. It just requires the reader to respect the topic and do the work.

As a Mariettan, specifically an Old Mariettan, I found the book personally interesting. I have familial relations to a number of the people involved in the lynching, as does everyone else who had any relations in Marietta at that time. I knew people, growing up, who had intimate knowledge of the events. The Frank lynching was a pivot point of sorts for the people of Marietta. The town at that time was certainly not OK with being considered a suburb of Atlanta, and the populace is documented for their fiercely independent nature. One of their daughters was murdered, and they’d be damned if Jews, or Atlantans, or rich folks, or yankees were going to involve themselves in their world.

Marietta was not a poor town. It was not a backwater. It was its own, self sufficient city with its own bourgeoisie and systems. These people were not ill educated. These people were not hillbillies. The fact that foreign papers should impose such deleterious images of them to the nation nearly forced the hand of the lynch mob in a sort of unintended reverse psychology. The fact that Marietta is now been more or less completely taken over by yankees who treat it as a suburb of Atlanta, and that the nature and identity of the area has been greatly wall-papered over by corporatism and indifference is not only a study of historical irony, but also of tragedy.

No body wins in this. There is no “good guy” or “bad guy” portrayed here, though Oney could have allowed himself to impose that archetype. Oney though, chose honesty. The truth of these sort of matters is one of tragedy and frankly, nihilism. Was justice ever meted out? I, like Oney, will leave that for you to determine. Compared with our present times, it is cold comfort to see that the state of journalism has always been complicit, mendacious, dishonest, and ultimately malignant to justice. Further, the state of law is just as haphazard, inaccessible, and unjust as it was then. Such a book has as much value in the perspectives it may create regarding the future as it does those of the past. In that estimation of value, it is more than worth the effort to read.

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