November 29, 1997

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The Law is a weapon. It can be used to improve, to punish, to protect or restrict. It can be wielded by governments and can be misused by them. It can be defied. All of these occurred in 1915.

In July, Cornell University German instructor Erich Muenter, who was teaching under the name Frank Holt, took shot at J. P. Morgan, but missed the financier. Taken into custody and questioned he soon admitted exploding a bomb in a reception room of the U. S. Senate the day before. His reasons remain unclear, three days later he killed himself in his jail cell.

It was in that same month that the Supreme Court nullified Jim Crow laws restricting voting rights, by ruling that blacks could not be barred from the voting booth simply because their grandfathers had not voted. That this applied to black men only was understood. 25,000 people would march in New York City in October to protest the lack of female suffrage.

Wyoming passed legislation limiting the use of the death penalty. But the supreme penalty would be paid this year by former New York City police lieutenant Charles Becker, executed for the 1912 murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal. It would be paid by union organizer and Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill, who would gain martyrdom.

The law could also be forgiving. In July a New York State Justice freed Harry K. Thaw, killer of architect Stanford White, from a hospital for the insane. And that same month, in Georgia, governor John M. Slaton commuted the death sentence of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager accused of murdering a young Christian girl, to life in jail. For his pains, an Atlanta mob of 10,000 burned the governor in effigy. Less than a month later another Atlanta mob forcibly wrenched Frank from his jail cell and lynched him. In such a climate it was no surprise, when that November, Colonel William J. Simmons revived the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta.

Leo Frank was not forgotten. In 1982, a witness came forward with new information that exonerated him. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied an application for a pardon. Continued pressure on the board finally resulted in a compromise pardon. The Board would declare it was impossible to determine Frank's absolute innocence, but that it would issue a pardon, in order to repudiate anti-Semitism and mob rule, and to heal the wounds of the past. The law can reverse its decisions. It cannot always reverse its consequences.

OUTRO
For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

 

© 1997 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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