Steve Oney is an acquaintance of mine and the author of one of the best true crime books I have ever read: And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.
I once planned to write a full review of the book, but a search of my archives reveals this to be another one of my projects that never got off the ground. I can tell you only that I avidly read it over a vacation 2-3 years ago, after meeting Oney at a Dodger game that Scott Kaufer had invited us to, and spending most of the game transfixed by Oney’s story of writing the book.
With emotions wavering between relief and regret, I remove a battered spiral notebook from a metal file cabinet and place it in an acid-free cardboard box open on my office floor. The notebook contains an interview I conducted in December 1984 at a VA hospital in Johnson City, Tenn., with 85-year-old Alonzo Mann. Some seven decades earlier, he told me, he’d seen a murderer carrying a girl’s body through the lobby of an Atlanta factory, but he was only 14 and too scared to call the police. As a result, an innocent industrialist was convicted of the crime and later lynched.
Mann’s assertion goes to the heart of an enduring debate about a great historical mystery. To me, however, the notebook possesses more than just documentary value. It contains the first research I conducted on a project that consumed nearly half my life.
The intense research that Oney did for the book leaps off the page. But the book is more than a well-researched story of bigotry and injustice. It is a period piece that brings to life Atlanta, Georgia in the years just before World War I. An important part of Oney’s book recounts the amazing story of how Tom Watson helped railroad Mr. Frank, even as Watson advocated the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. I believe that Watson’s statue still stands proudly in a place of prominence in front of the Georgia state capitol building.