An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank
by Elaine Marie Alphin
published by Carolrhoda Books
On April 26, 1913, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan planned to meet friends at a parade in Atlanta, Georgia. But first she stopped at the pencil factory where she worked to pick up her paycheck. Mary never left the building alive.
A black watchman found Mary's body brutally beaten and apparently raped. Police arrested the watchman, but they weren't satisfied that he was the killer. Then they paid a visit to Leo Frank, the factory's superintendent, who was both a Northerner and a Jew. Spurred on by the media frenzy and prejudices of the time, the detectives made Frank their prime suspect, one whose conviction would soothe the city's anger over the death of a young white girl.
The prosecution of Leo Frank was front-page news for two years, and Frank's lynching is still one of the most controversial incidents of the twentieth century. It marks a turning point in the history of racial and religious hatred in America, leading directly to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League and to the rebirth of the modern Ku Klux Klan. Relying on primary source documents and painstaking research, award-winning novelist Elaine Marie Alphin tells the true story of justice undone in America.
Overall, the book looks wonderful, and is a great example of black and white design. The color scheme also fits the sober subject matter. One thing I do find annoying is that the tiny black text on the dark gray title page is hard to read.
I was already familiar with the Frank case because of the '80s-era mini series that Alphin mentions in her author's note, but I never felt bored as I read. I was grabbed immediately, and pulled through very quickly. The story unfolds in chronological order without giving away the ultimate outcome of the case ahead of time, which I think makes it more compelling than if Alphin had divulged Frank's fate early on.
Photographs of the people involved and images from the trial and aftermath appear throughout. Reproductions of newspaper headlines about the case are also integrated into the text. I like that Alphin emphasizes the influence of newspapers on public opinion, as well as the impact they had on the jury.
The timeline at the end is helpful, as is the "further reading" list of teen-friendly materials. I didn't need to reference the list of major figures involved, index, or glossary as everything in the text seemed very straight-forward to me. Some younger readers may find these features helpful, but with Law and Order airing constantly it seems far-fetched that a teen would need to look up words like jury, verdict, or even coroner.
Alphin indicates in her author's note that she did extensive research, and the detailed source notes and selected bibliography are evidence of this. She occasionally makes biased statements, like on page 103 where she claims that Governor Slaton was, "an unusual politician: a man with a conscience." Statements like this are small but jarring mistakes that marr an otherwise excellent book.