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507 Topics: The Leo Franks Trial; on hand versus in hand versus at hand; discrete versus discretion

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 507.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 507. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at ESLPod.com. Become a member of ESL Podcast and download a Learning Guide for this episode.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about the American South during the early part of the twentieth century. In particular, we’re going to focus on another famous murder trial but one that gives us a little different view or at least a little different angle on what was happening in American history during this period of time. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

If you know anything about American history, you probably know something about the American Civil War during the middle part of the nineteenth century and the institution of slavery in the United States – the owning of one human being by another. The history of slavery of African-Americans is not a happy one. It’s a history that has been formed in large part by the effects of prejudice.

“Prejudice” (prejudice) is an opinion you have about someone, often a false view of someone based upon things that you have heard about the particular group to which this person belongs. It might be the race of the person. It might be the religion of the person. It might be where the person is from. There are many different kinds of “prejudices.”

Well, prejudice certainly has had a negative influence on the history of most countries, but particularly here in the United States, since we are a country of “immigrants” – of people who have come from different parts of the world – and when you bring people from different parts of the world into the same environment, one of the unfortunate results is often this kind of prejudice.

Certainly there was prejudice against African Americans in the southern part of the United States, where most of the black population lived during the nineteenth and a better part of the twentieth century. However, the prejudice wasn’t limited just to African Americans; other people also were discriminated against, or treated differently in a negative way, because of their religious affiliations. This included both Catholics and Jews.

Prejudice against someone’s religion was not something that was unique to the American South, neither in this historical period, nor in the present. But we’re going to look at one particular case of this – the case of Leo Frank. Leo Frank was a man of the Jewish faith from New York. But he moved to the American South to work as a superintendent of a company called the “National Pencil Company.”

A “superintendent” (superintendent) is a person who manages an organization. Nowadays, you usually see that word to describe someone who is head of a school organization, of what we call a “school district” – a government organization that takes care of the schools up until the high school level. But back in the early part of the twentieth century, we sometimes use this word “superintendent” to refer to a person who was basically a manager or a boss. That was the case for Leo Frank.

Frank moved from New York City to Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia is located in the American South, or what we sometimes call the “Deep South.” These are the states in the southeastern part of the United States that tried to break away from the United States during our civil war. There were not a lot of Jews living in the American South during this period, but Frank moved there and was successful in his job helping run this pencil company in Atlanta, Georgia.

A few years later, in 1913, on the 26th of August, a terrible discovery was made in the factory where Frank worked. A “factory” (factory) is a place where things are made – physical things such as pencils, things you write with. That’s what they made at the National Pencil Company factory, quite logically. The discovery that was made was not a happy one. Someone had discovered that a young girl, a thirteen-year-old by the name of Mary Phagan, had been murdered. In fact, she had been strangled.

“To strangle” (strangle) someone is to kill them by putting your hands around the person’s neck and squeezing so that the person can’t breathe. Well, this poor girl, only thirteen years old, was killed and her body was found by one of the people who worked there at the company. Now, you might think that it would be unusual to have a thirteen-year-old girl working, but this was not unusual, of course, in the earlier part of the twentieth century or in the nineteenth century. Children often worked in these factories, often under very difficult conditions.

The police first arrested the man who found the girl, and they questioned him for a very long time, but they decided that he wasn’t the one who committed the crime. They did find some notes that had writing on it of someone who didn’t seem very educated. They also found some evidence outside of the office of Leo Frank. When the police brought Frank in and questioned him and started asking him questions, they decided that he was the person who had killed this young girl.

Now, the police also arrested another man, an African-American worker at the factory by the name of Jim Conley. Conley had admitted, after he was taken by the police for questioning, that he had written these notes. Now, you might think the logical conclusion here would be that Conley was the person who had killed the girl. However, the story that Conley told kept changing.

He kept changing his story about what happened, and finally he convinced the police that he didn’t kill the girl; Frank killed the girl and asked him to get rid of the body. “To get rid (rid) of” something is to throw it away, to make sure that nobody else finds it. Conley had said that Frank made him write these notes and that he was asked to get rid of the body by burning it.

One of the things that makes this case interesting, in terms of understanding the history of the American South during this period, is that we have two people here, neither of whom was part of a group that was particularly liked by the majority white population. We have a Jewish businessman from New York, and we have an African-American worker. It was almost a question of who did people hate more.

Well, the lawyers for the government, as well as the lawyer who was defending Jim Conley, the African-American worker who said that Frank had forced him to write these notes, coached Conley in such a way that he would say the right thing when the case was brought to trial – that is, when there was the official legal process for determining if Frank was guilty or innocent. “To coach” (coach) someone means to train that person, to get the person to practice, in this case, what he is going to say at the trial.

I mentioned that there was of course religious prejudice in the American South during this period, in particular against Catholics and Jews. Frank was a Jewish man who had come from the North, and in some ways, there were two problems for Frank with this. First of all, his religion, and second of all, the fact that he was from the North. After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, there were some businesspeople who went into the South in order to try to take over businesses and try to make money.

These people were resented. People didn’t like them. They thought they were coming in just taking the wealth, the money, from the South unfairly. So, to be a businessman from the North coming in to work in the Deep South, even if you were white, was somewhat of a dangerous thing. People often were prejudiced against you because of where you were from, not just because of your race or religion. Frank had, then, two things going against him: his place of birth in the North as well as his religion.

During the trial, the government lawyers brought many people in to say what a terrible person Frank was. Unfortunately, government lawyers – not just then but now as well – sometimes try to paint a picture, sometimes try to make someone into someone who they really aren’t in truth or in reality.

They brought in many people who said that Frank liked to flirt with the young factory girls. “To flirt” (flirt) is to behave as though you are physically attracted to someone and interested in that person. They said, in fact, that Frank at times preyed on some of the young girls. “To prey (prey) on” someone is to take advantage of someone, often to take advantage of someone sexually. Many other women who worked at the factory, however, said this wasn’t true, that Frank wasn’t that kind of person.

In addition, Frank had a pretty good alibi. An “alibi” (alibi) is your reason or your evidence for why you could not have committed the crime. Usually your alibi involves where you were at the time of the crime. If a crime was committed in New York City and you were in Baltimore at the time, well, your alibi is that you weren’t even in the same city. The reason why you could not have committed the crime – that’s your alibi.

As you might guess, Frank lost the trial, and the people on the jury – the group of people who decide whether someone is guilty or innocent – found Frank guilty. Not only that, but he was sentenced to death. “To be sentenced” means to be given a certain punishment by a court, by a legal authority. The death penalty was quite common during this period in the American South.

However, many people realized that Frank was innocent, that something terrible had happened to him, that he was found guilty more because of prejudice on the part of the government than anything else. So Frank decided, as you can, to appeal the decision. “To appeal” (appeal) a decision of a court means to ask a higher-level court to say that the lower-level court made a mistake. Unfortunately, the appeals by Frank were unsuccessful, and it looked like he was going to be executed – killed by the government for this crime.

Now, interestingly enough, the African-American man who said that Frank had paid him to get rid of the body told someone else that he in fact had committed the murder. However, the government had already said in effect that Jim Conley was not the murderer, and so there wasn’t really anything they could do about it because in the American legal system, you can only be tried once for a crime – that is, you can only be brought in front of a court and a jury once, and if the jury makes a decision, that decision, in a sense, is final.

Frank’s lawyers continued to try to get their client, the person who they worked for, free. Finally they decided to go to the governor of the state of Georgia. The “governor” of a state is the leader of a state. We have 50 governors in the United States for the 50 states. The governor is sort of like the president of that state. One of the powers that governors have in most states is to pardon and/or commute a sentence of someone who has been found guilty of a crime.

“To pardon” (pardon) someone in a legal context is to say you are no longer guilty and you no longer have to suffer the consequences of being found guilty. “To commute” (commute) a sentence is to make it shorter than it normally would be. So, if you are sentenced to 10 years in prison for robbery – for stealing something – and the governor commutes your sentence to one year, you don’t have to go to prison for 10 years. You only have to go to prison for one year.

So, these are two different acts. “To pardon” says, basically, “We forgive you. You can go free.” “To commute your sentence” is to make your sentence shorter – not to say you weren’t guilty, but to make the punishment less severe. The governor decided he was going to commute Frank’s sentence. He was going to say, “Well, we’re not going to kill him. We’re not going to execute him.” That was the first part of the process. The governor thought later on he could then pardon Frank after people stopped worrying about the case, after there was less publicity and news reports surrounding the case.

The governor also moved Frank to a different prison, hoping that he would be safer in a prison away from Atlanta – the main city, the city where the crime had been committed. However, the new prison did not keep Frank safe. In fact, a group of men went to the prison and took Frank from the guards and killed Frank. They took a rope and they tied the rope around his neck and they hung him from a tree in an act called “lynching.” “To lynch” (lynch) someone is to kill them by putting a rope around their neck and tying it to a tree.

Lynching, sadly, was common in the American South through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Usually it’s associated with the killing of blacks, of African Americans, but in this case, it was the killing of Frank, a Jewish man from New York. Most people believed that Frank was innocent and that this was another example of prejudice getting in the way of justice – that is, people’s false beliefs about certain groups interfered with the correct application of the law.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Azat (Azat), originally from Russia, now living in New Zealand. The question has to do with three phrases or expressions, “on hand,” “in hand,” and “at hand.” Let’s start with “on hand.”

To say you have something “on hand” means that you have it present. You actually are in possession of it. We often use this expression with the word “money.” “I don’t have any money on hand.” “I don’t actually have any money” is what that means. You could also use it for a person. “The gym didn’t have a professional trainer on hand” – there wasn’t one present there. Or you could say, “The police were on hand in case there was any violence, any trouble.” The police were present. They were there in case they were needed.

“In hand” means having something ready to use if it is required. Usually we use the expression “in hand” when we’re talking about some object that is literally in your hand, that you are holding onto. There’s often a sense of having something readily or easily available to use if it is required. “Camera in hand, Jim went to the park to find some dogs that he could photograph.” He had the camera ready physically – literally in his hand.

Sometimes we use it more abstractly. We can talk about a situation “in hand,” meaning having control of a situation. But I would say it’s used more often in the first sense of physically having something in your hand to use or ready to use.

“At hand” means nearby or close by, easy for you to get. It doesn’t mean it is actually in your hand. It means it’s easy for you to get if you need it, but “at hand” can also refer not just to physical objects, but to concepts such as time and distance. If I say “help was at hand,” I mean the help was there close enough so that we could take advantage of it. “I have my phone at hand in case someone calls me.”

There are obvious similarities between “at hand” and “on hand,” and some of the differences really just depend on the particular expression. There isn’t a logic always that we can use to explain why some expressions use “on hand” and some expressions use “at hand.” “On hand” often refers to things that are available to use if they are needed. “At hand” has a little bit more immediacy about it – things that will probably be needed or are likely to be needed, and need to be available very quickly. But again, those are very broad general rules.

Adel (Adel) in Pakistan wants to know the meaning of “discretion” and “discreet.” “Discretion” (discretion) refers to a quality of being careful about what you do and say so that other people will not be embarrassed or offended, or so that you don’t tell anyone a secret that you shouldn’t. “Discretion” can also refer to your right to choose what should be done in a particular situation. If something is “at someone’s discretion,” it means the person can decide how to use it or when to use a certain thing.

“Discreet” (discreet) means not likely to be seen or noticed by many people. If you are discreet in going in and out of a house, you do so in a way that people can’t see you doing it. Or you could be “discreet” about your plans – you’re not letting other people know about them. Sometimes we use this word “discreet” when the thing that you are doing is perhaps something you don’t want other people to find out about or perhaps is embarrassing for you.

“Discreet” is used to describe someone who keeps things to himself, who doesn’t tell other people things that they don’t need to know, especially things that he should keep secret. In this sense, it’s related to the noun “discretion,” at least one of the definitions we gave about keeping things secret, especially someone else’s secrets.

Finally, we have a question from “Omid” (Omid) in Italy. The question has to do with the expression “to be into” something. What does it mean when someone says, “I’m into a certain kind of music,” or “I’m really into baseball; I’m not into opera”? “To be into” something means to be interested in something – to enjoy doing something, perhaps. “He’s really into old movies.” That means he really enjoys watching old movies or going to a movie theater to see an old movie. “He’s really into sports” – he likes to play them or he likes to watch sporting events.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on ESL Podcast.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

superintendent – a person who manages an organization or activity and oversees work done

* Ms. Davis started her career as a teacher and went on to become the superintendent of the city’s public school system.

to strangle – to squeeze a person’s neck and airways so hard that it may cause death

* Mikki’s necktie was so tight that he felt like it was strangling him.

prejudice – a preconceived (formed before knowing the truth) opinion or belief about something or someone that has no basis in fact

* Many people think that all New Yorkers are rude and pushy, but this is simply prejudice.

factory – a place where products are made for sale, usually in large quantities or numbers

* Once modern machinery was added to the clothing factory, workers were able to produce over 1000 t-shirts each day.

to get rid of – to dispose of something; to throw something away

* As soon as Elin returned from the grocery store, she got rid of the old food in the fridge and replaced it with the new food she had purchased at the store.

to coach – to train a person to do something well

* When her son wanted to play baseball, Yuko put him on a team so that he would be properly coached.

to flirt – to behave as though you are physically attracted to someone by touching or saying certain things to that person

* Antonio was always flirting with Sandra by telling her how lovely she looked and how the color of her dress brought out her eyes.

to prey on – to hunt someone or something for a specific purpose

* Criminals prey on older people who may be forgetful and easily confused.

alibi – evidence that a person was somewhere else when a crime occurred

* Simon can be seen on the office’s security camera, proving his alibi that he was at work at the time of the burglary.

to appeal – to make a request for a higher court to overturn (not enforce) a court ruling based on some mistake made in the first case

* After the man was found not guilty of a crime, the victim’s family decided to appeal with the hopes of getting a new trial.

to commute – to shorten or get rid of a person’s prison sentence for having committed a crime

* When Marcus showed that he had changed while in prison and was now willing to give back to his community, the governor commuted his sentence.

pardon – an act of total forgiveness of a crime or wrongdoing

* After her attorney proved that Andrea was wrongly convicted, the governor issued her a pardon.

on hand – present, especially for a specified purpose

* I don’t have $60 on hand or I would lend it to you.

in hand – ready for use if required; in reserve and prepared for use

* As reporters, we should always have the facts in hand before writing a story.

at hand – within one’s reach; nearby; close by

* Jim didn’t have a pen at hand and couldn’t sign the papers in front of him.

discretion – the quality of being careful about what one does and says so that people will not be embarrassed or offended; the right to choose what should be done in a particular situation

* Mona showed a lot of discretion by not mentioning David’s lateness in getting to work today in front of their supervisor.

discreet – having or showing good judgment in how one behaves, especially in keeping information to oneself; not likely to be seen or noticed by many people

* We don’t mind if LeAnn knows our secret because we know she’s discreet.

to be into (something) – to be interested in something; to enjoy doing something

* Are you into outdoor activities or do you prefer staying indoors?

What Insiders Know
The Song “Strange Fruit”

In 1937, a “little-known” (not famous) high school teacher named Abel Meeropol in New York City wrote and published a “poem” (a piece of writing with short lines and a rhythm) called “Bitter Fruit.” He wrote this poem after seeing a 1930 photograph of a “lynching,” the killing of two African Americans in Indiana who had been taken from a jail by a “mob” (large crowd of people causing trouble) and hung by the neck and killed. In the poem, Meeropol wrote about the “horrors” (terrible, frightening aspects) of lynching.

Meeropol and his wife, Laura Duncan, “set the poem to music” (combined words of the poem with music to create a song) and began performing it around New York as a “protest song” (song to promote social change). They even performed it at New York’s Madison Square Garden, a very large and famous building where performances and sporting events take place.

The famous jazz singer Billie Holiday heard about the song, now called “Strange Fruit.” Holiday, who is herself African American, was at first afraid to sing the song because she feared “retaliation” (people doing something bad to her because of her actions). However, she said the song reminded her of her father and she continued to sing the song as part of her live performances.

Holiday also wanted to record the song, but her “record label” (company recording and producing music) was “fearful” (scared of) the reaction to the song in the southern part of the U.S., where there were many problems because of “race” (skin color). In the end, Holiday recorded the song twice, once in 1939 and again in 1944. The song received a lot of positive reaction and the 1939 recording sold over one million copies. At that time, it was Holiday’s biggest-selling record.