Jerry Summers: Hugh Dorsey-Georgia Giant?  (1871-1948)

Hugh Manson Dorsey was an Atlanta attorney in one of the most notorious murder cases in the history of the legal system in both Peachtree State and America.

He was the prosecutor in the 1913 Leo Frank case that arose from the murder and rape of a young factory worker at the National Pencil Company, where Frank was the manager. The case of a Jewish Northerner from Brooklyn included sensational testimonies of anti-Semetism and racial prejudice.

Frank was linked to capital murder and sentenced to be hanged, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Governor John Slaton. The defendant was then involuntarily taken from Milledgeville State Penitentiary by vigilantes, taken to Marietta, and publicly lynched, for which no one was ever charged.

As a result of his victory, Dorsey achieved national fame and was elected governor of the state in 1917, serving until 1921 as “the youngest man ever to hold that office”.

In 1921 he ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate against a former ally, Tom Watson, who was a vocal white supremacist.

As his tenure as governor came to an end and following his defeat by Watson, Dorsey made an unusual speech by a white politician.

In it, the soon-to-be ex-governor formulated a long list of “abuses of Georgia whites against African Americans: lynchings, exiles, slavery-like penance and physical cruelty”.

After the speech, he was immediately attacked from all quarters, including his successor Thomas Harwick, who would call it “an infamous slander against the state”.

Historically, Dorsey’s motivations for such a speech at Jim Crow South have been hotly contested and debated.

His followers have responded to his critics by claiming that “he had a sincere desire for reform”.

The critics claimed that his aim in the speech was “to slow down the early stages of the Great Migration in order to improve the perception of Georgia in the eyes of northern capitalists”.

However, his outspoken stance did not seem to affect his position with politicians and the public electorate after he returned to private law practice.

In 1926 he was appointed judge of the civil division of the Superior Court in Atlanta, serving until 1948, when he died in a local hospital.

As reported in two previous articles, (9/20/21) and (11/1/21), the dramatic story of the Franks murder case has been reported many times by groups that advocate his guilt or innocence.

Hugh Dorsey has been portrayed in numerous accounts including the fictionalized version of the case from the 1964 Profiles in Courage 1989 TV miniseries, The Murder of Mary Phagan and The Broadway Musical Parade.

(Attorney Hugh Dorsey is a significant historical figure in the state of Georgia.)

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