Jack Lemmon: The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988)

Murder of Mary Phagan poster

The Miniseries and Performance:
In 1913 Georgia, Mary Phagan, a young, 13-year-old factory worker was murdered and her body was found in the cellar of the factory she worked in. She had been strangled and her body found near the factory incinerator. After initial suspects were ruled out, the focus of the investigation shifted to Leo Frank, the factory manager. Despite the fact that Leo Frank had no criminal history, no discernible cuts on his body, his clothes contained no blood stains, an investigation in his home found zero evidence, he still became the investigation’s main suspect. The evidence was overwhelming that Leo Frank was innocent, but due to community resentment of his socio-economic class and his Jewish heritage, Leo Frank was labeled as a guilty man in the eyes of the public almost immediately.

The prosecution’s main witness was Jim Conley, one of the factory janitors whose story of events continually contradicted each other. Conley, who historians believe to be the genuine murderer, told authorities of his involvement. He claimed Leo Frank had murdered Mary Phagan and ordered him to help dispose of the body in the cellar. This was an unfounded claim that lacked any evidence to support it, yet it was enough to convict Leo Frank of murder and to be sentenced to death. The case was denied appeal right up to the Supreme Court, yet public sentiment outside of Georgia shouted that the verdict was unjust, unfair, and without basis. This was especially believed by the nation due to the obvious anti-Semitic rhetoric and sentiment used during the trial, painting Leo Frank as a profiteer, who used child labor to fill his pockets with money.

The national outcry didn’t sit well with Governor John Slaton, whose term as Governor of Georgia was due to conclude four days after Leo Frank was scheduled to be hanged. Even though it was considered to be political suicide that would tarnish his chances of being elected to the Senate, Slaton decided to open a hearing on the Leo Frank case, to which he would personally interview the case witnesses. Slaton additionally visited the crime scene and reviewed over ten thousand pages of documentation, all of this done under tremendous pressure from the public and his own staff to cease his investigation and permit the hanging to proceed. Slaton was not deterred and found himself at a crossroads when he couldn’t trust the testimony of Jim Conley, who he believed to be a liar. Without expressing an opinion of whether Leo Frank was guilty or innocent, Slaton decided there was at least enough sufficient evidence to commute Frank’s sentence from execution to life in prison.

The backlash to Slaton’s decision couldn’t have been anticipated. The Georgia public was outraged, choosing to riot on the streets and even at one point threatened to attack the governor’s mansion. The riots were so extensive that the national guard had to be summoned to disperse the angry mobs. With this public reaction, Slaton recognized his hopes and aspirations for continued political service was forever gone and he would be forced to leave Georgia, to which he wouldn’t return until after a decade. Worse, in the middle of the night an organized group that declared themselves as the “Knights of Mary Phagan” broke into the jail holding Leo Frank and abducted him. They drove Leo Frank to Mary Phagan’s hometown and hanged him in the direction of her childhood home. This was a disgusting instance of mob rule that was never prosecuted nor was anyone ever arrested for the crime. This was primarily because among those who lynched Leo Frank were prominent Georgia politicians, such as former governor Eugene Herbert Clay, former mayor of Marietta (Phagan’s hometown) E.P. Dobbs, and even Marietta’s current mayor Moultrie KcKinney Sessions. Due to their clout and political influence, they ensured that nobody would ever be arrested for their actions, and they weren’t.

The Murder of Mary Phagan miniseries was produced in 1988, two years after Georgia officially issued Leo Frank a posthumous pardon. The effectiveness of the miniseries is how it conveys the message of mob rule versus truth. As indicated by the miniseries, the trial of Leo Frank was sensationalized and the evidence was exaggerated. Jim Conley’s testimony could not be trusted due to its various contradictions and there was no blood evidence to link Leo Frank to the crime. All testimony against Frank’s personality was hearsay and circumstantial at best. What the miniseries helped in understanding why this was able to occur was by establishing the environment and setting of the community to the viewer. The community was still immersed in confederate sentiment, believing the South was stripped away of its honor and heritage by the North during the Civil War. Factories, such as the one Leo Frank managed, were seen and treated as mechanisms of the North that exerted power over the South. This ignited resentment and hatred for such industries. Since many of these industries were run or owned by Jewish men, this evoked Southern anti-Semitic attitudes towards such factory owners. With Leo Frank having a higher socio-economic status, being a manager of a factory, and being Jewish, this fit the public role of what a villain and a ‘traitor’ looked like, Therefore, convicting Leo Frank was more than justice for the murder of Mary Phagan, but was also a supposed ‘strike at the North.’

Peter Gallagher Mary Phagan

Peter Gallagher is spectacular in the miniseries as Leo Frank, who was careful to construct the character as socially awkward, which made it easier for the public, prosecutors, and media to paint him as a murderer. The miniseries was careful and methodical in detailing the process of the trial and its jump-to-conclusion of Leo Frank being the murderer of Mary Phagan despite the obvious reality that he was innocent. The miniseries hinged on Gallagher’s performance considering the film centers around him, leaving him as the sole actor that could elicit sympathy and compassion from TV viewers when watching the character. His performance perfectly captures not only the innocence of Leo Frank, but also the silent suffering he endured as a result of being wrongfully accused.

The miniseries especially excelled in its central message of populist rule versus what is right. Incidentally, this concept is still relevant over one hundred years later with today’s contemporary society. Popular rule has always been a prevalent attribute not only in the United States, but also the world, where large groups of individuals believe they are more informed, therefore attempt to institute their own form of justice. While these groups may often be correct in their judgment, they may also be incorrect in their convictions, as evidenced by the situation involving Leo Frank. This is why Jack Lemmon’s performance as Governor John Slaton was integral to this miniseries, because he was the voice of reason and rationality in a miniseries about public outrage that led to the vigilante murder of an innocent man.

Murder of Mary Phagan

Jack Lemmon’s Governor John Slaton is initially presented in the film as a passive governor, who openly admits he sees himself as a “public service” individual, thereby he complies with what the majority of the public sees as popular. He is a populist governor, which is why he is expected to landslide win a seat in the Senate once his term as governor concludes. However, as the miniseries progresses and Slaton first-hand sees the outcry from factions outside of his community, he is placed at a crossroads of doing ‘what is easy’ versus ‘what is right.’ Lemmon’s performance showcased the enormous political pressure he faced that demanded that he simply ignore the Leo Frank case and conclude his term without making a decision. Merely deciding to have a hearing on the matter was considered political suicide, to which Lemmon displayed tremendous emotional reservations with his performance that conveyed Slaton’s self-realization that his efforts undoubtedly would destroy his political career. However, Jack Lemmon’s performance is grounded in truth and the responsibility that it carries. As a governor, one has the responsibility to protect the individuals, not solely the masses. Even in his investigation, Slaton wasn’t trying to overturn the conviction by determining guilt versus innocence, but rather answer the question of whether Leo Frank was given a fair trial, to which it became increasingly evident that he hadn’t. As Slaton says at one point emphatically, “I just want to know what happened.” Therefore, Jack Lemmon’s performance wasn’t only grounded in truth, but also justice. In that regard, his performance in The Murder of Mary Phagan was a remarkable beacon of rationality in a very hostile environment.

Jack Lemmon Mary Phagan

The Murder of Mary Phagan was a very successful miniseries in 1988, winning the Emmy for Best Miniseries. The miniseries was also nominated for an assortment of Emmys, including Best Lead Actor in a Miniseries for Jack Lemmon. He didn’t win. The miniseries also was nominated for two Golden Globe nominations for Best Miniseries and Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries (Jack Lemmon), but both failed to win.

The Miniseries:

The Performance:

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