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How Crime Stories Change History

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 27, 2011 08:45 AM

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On April 26, 1913, the body of a thirteen-year-old girl named Mary Phagan was found in the basement of the pencil factory where she worked in Atlanta, Georgia. Police quickly arrested Leo Frank, the factory's manager, and accused him of the murder; the chief witness against him was the factory's janitor, Jim Conley, who claimed that he had helped Frank dispose of the body. Frank was sentenced to death. A few years later, when his sentence was commuted to life in prison, an angry mob calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan broke into the jail, seized Frank, and hanged him. According to Bill James, who revisits the Phagan case in his new book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, "the death of Mary Phagan engaged the passions of the American public to a greater extent than any other crime, ever." Mary's story became a nationwide sensation from ocean to ocean.

What made Mary's story so popular? It tapped into national divisions between rich and poor, North and South. Leo Frank was a transplanted Yankee, and Jewish; Conley was an African-American, and a native Southerner. The evidence overwhelmingly pointed to Conley's guilt, rather than Frank's, but the prosecution had chosen sides quickly and publicly, and ignored it. "Large rallies protested the conviction of Leo Frank in almost every Northern city," James writes. After Frank's death, the Knights of Mary Phagan "applied for a charter from the state of Georgia in the name of a long-dormant Southern organization, the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan"; the chapter of the B'nai B'rith to which Frank had belonged in Atlanta founded the Anti-Defamation League. In fact, James writes, "The Mary Phagan case led very directly to the alliance between Jewish civic leaders and African-American civil rights leaders."

Popular Crime is full of stories like Mary Phagan's -- stories in which sensational crimes are the catalysts of historical change. Popular crime stories (think, in our modern era, of O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, or JonBenet Ramsey) are often, James laments, beneath the notice of "the best people" ("if you go to a party populated by the NPR crowd and you start talking about JonBenet Ramsey, people will look at you as if you've forgotten your pants"). But in fact, James argues, popular crimes matter, even if discussing them seems "vulgar." They crystallize national issues, reveal structural facts about society, and often lead, very directly, to changes in laws and institutions. America's lawbooks are overflowing with laws passed in direct response to popular and sensational crimes, from Megan's Law to the Lindbergh Laws; sensational crime stories have changed the ways in which police departments are organized and newspapers are run.

James is far from a professional historian; in fact, he's most famous for applying statistical analysis to baseball. His book is opinionated and often bizarre -- he devotes whole chapters, for example, to the creation of statistical systems to compare, quantitatively, the value of different kinds of evidence ("in my view, this type of evidence carries very little weight, perhaps a maximum of 20 points"). The book ranges over the whole territory of popular crime, starting in the 18th century, and is omnivorously interested not only in the crimes themselves, but also in the newspaper articles and books written about them, and in the laws passed in response to them. It shows, in short, just how silly it is to uphold a distinction between the sensational and the serious. To ignore popular crime, James writes, is to "abandon the criminal justice system to the lawyers." To attend to it, meanwhile, is to watch as a nation learns about itself, makes choices, and confronts the hard truths it would rather ignore.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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