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Bringing out the dead

Long-awaited book gives an exhaustive account of the Leo Frank case

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Two years passed between the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank, an infamous chapter in Atlanta history that folks still talk about with hushed tones and oblique division. Another 71 years would pass before Frank's long-debated pardon in 1986. That same year, Steve Oney started working on his book on the subject.

Now, 17 years later, at last arrives Oney's And the Dead Shall Rise (Pantheon), a nonfiction backbreaker researched in such detail that it's nigh impossible to imagine a more definitive report of the appalling affair. For the uninitiated, 13-year-old Mary was raped and killed on April 26, 1913, which led to the arrest of her supervisor at the National Pencil Co., a northern-born Jew named Leo Frank. Though evidence implicated factory janitor Jim Conley, Frank was eventually convicted of the crime. After Frank's death sentence was commuted to life, a mob from Marietta pulled him from the state prison and hung him.

The 742-page book begins -- no joke -- with an account of what Mary ate for breakfast the day she died (cabbage and wheat biscuits, in case you were wondering). The inclusion of such insanely minute details gives the book an unshakable air of accuracy -- but also makes it a sometimes laborious read.

Oney, a former writer for the now defunct AJC Sunday Magazine and a contributor to Esquire, Playboy and the New York Times Magazine, admits that when he got the original book deal he had no idea it would take him the greater part of two decades to deliver a finished product.

"It just became an all-consuming thing for me to find out what happened," says the author, who spent his formative years in Atlanta but now lives in L.A. When people asked what he was working on, he'd tell them he was writing a social history and double murder mystery: Who killed Mary Phagan, who lynched Leo Frank and how did these two mysteries illuminate the times?

"Another way I'd put it to people is I'd say it's a nonfiction Southern Ragtime, a chance to bring this post-Victorian, almost modern world to life," he says.

Indeed, And the Dead Shall Rise succeeds in creating a vivid postcard of Atlanta circa 1915, a gritty city of mill workers, racial problems and child labor. It was also an era of tremendous growth for a town even then "deeply mulched in hyperbole," when men got rich off real estate deals and a rising bourgeois class developed a taste for opera. Oney's well-stacked explanation of the societal forces that came in play at the time of the Phagan murder makes the sheer shock and horror of Frank's ultimate fate markedly easier to understand. It's as if Frank became the unknowing sacrifice to an angry deity of societal unrest, whose subterranean rumblings were bound to explode one way or another.

Though his tone remains notably detached, Oney builds a convincing case for Frank's 1986 pardon. He approached the case as if he'd awakened on the morning of April 26, 1913, and read about the Phagan murder in the newspaper.

"I tried to keep a very open mind during the writing of it," he says. "Almost everything else written on the case assumes Frank's innocence. And I think Frank probably was innocent. But I don't think that was very profitable for me as a writer to just retread previous assumptions."

Other books on the subject begin with Frank's lynching, but events unfold chronologically in Oney's book. During his research, he interviewed eyewitnesses to the events -- including three people who were present at the lynch site -- and uncovered a sea of written documentation on the case.

"You think the past is beyond your reach. And it might be beyond your direct reach, but there are ways to get back to it," he says.

Paper trail or not, Oney encountered resistance from some sources. The sons and daughters of old-money Marietta weren't always willing to discuss the sins of their grandfathers. Even less forthcoming was Atlanta's elder Jewish community. Oney says the chilly reception isn't surprising. That Frank, a well-to-do Brooklyn-born Jew, could inspire anti-Semitic mob rule made Atlanta's Jewish establishment question its so-called gains. Oney calls the Frank lynching "a crime of a far different magnitude than usually would ever occur," whose implications we can hardly fathom today.

"Frank was one of the most famous convicts in America -- maybe the most famous," says Oney. "He was a celebrity on the front page of every newspaper in America. He really was an iconic figure. And he was abducted from the state penitentiary in Milledgeville without a shot being fired, and then driven on dirt roads in Model T's with easily punctured tires 150 miles back to Marietta and lynched the next day at dawn. How do you do that? It's not an easy task."

As for Oney, he has a hard time believing that his magnum opus is finished.

He's found it hard to go back to 2003 after living so long in 1915, and has no idea what topic he'll tackle next.

"I feel like I'm a 49-year-old high school graduate who needs to go the guidance counselor's office for advice," he says.

Two words for you, Steve: O.J. Simpson.

tray.butler@creativeloafing.com

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