The Murder of Mary Phagan and The Leo Frank Case

In the Leo Frank case, an innocent man was convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan, while the real murderer went free.

The Horrific Discovery: Mary Phagan’s Murder

On April 27th, 1913, the bound and badly beaten body of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan was found in the basement of the Atlanta, Georgia, pencil factory where she was an employee. She was found with a noose around her neck and had been sexually assaulted. Her body had been found by the factory’s night watchman, Newt Lee, who immediately called the police.

Lee almost instantly became the primary suspect and was taken into custody, but despite intensive questioning, including being beaten, Lee insisted on his innocence, and as the police had no evidence against him other than his presence at the factory and the fact that he was black, the police released him. But Lee had unwittingly pointed the police toward another suspect.

During Lee’s questioning, it was revealed that the last time Mary Phagan had been seen alive had been the day before when she had picked up her pay from the factory’s manager, twenty-nine-year-old Leo Frank. Lee had also informed the police that Frank had called Lee at the factory during the night to find out “if anything was going on.” Frank had never called the factory at night before, and when the police went to Franks’s home to inform him of the tragedy, Frank, according to the police, “acted nervous.”

Leo Frank’s Accusation

On this basis and the call, Frank was taken in for questioning. By morning, he had been formally charged with the crime. Also that same night, police had arrested another employee of the factory, a black man named Jim Conley, for drunkenness. Conley would figure heavily in the case against Frank.

Leo Frank

Although born in Texas, Frank had been raised in New York and was, furthermore, Jewish, and the rampant prejudices of the day immediately began fanning the flames higher and hotter against him. Frank’s attempt to explain the incriminating phone call, telling the police that he had fired an employee and was worried that the man might return and cause trouble, was dismissed.

In the press, Frank had already been tried and convicted. Local papers headline stories of the case with the words “The Strangler” or “The Monster.”

If facts could not be found, they were simply made up. Frank was accused, for example, of frequenting a house of prostitution for the purpose of indulging in the “perverted vice” of oral sex, itself a crime punishable by death at that time.

The charges were later refuted, but the damage had been done. Newpaper editor Tom Watson, a “behind-the-scenes” politcal power, convinced of Franks guilt wrote editorials describing Franks “satyr eyes…protuding sensual lips and …animal jaw.”

The case would be prosecuted by district attorney Hugh Dorsey. Dorsey, who had political aspirations (he would later become governor of Georgia), had to deal with the major problem that the available evidence pointed not to Frank but to the State’s “star” witness, Jim Conley. Dorsey was also aware that convicting Conley, a janitor with a criminal past, would not be the political “feather in his cap” that convicting Frank, a “wealthy Yankee Jew,” would be, so evidence was simply suppressed.

The trial began in a packed second-floor courtroom in July 1913. Several spectators, unable to get into the courtroom itself, had crowded on the roof of the building next door, where they could still hear what was going on.

Their shouts of “Kill the Jew” and “Hang him” frequently interrupted the proceedings. Presiding judge Leonard Roan made no effort to quiet these shouts, nor did he give even “pro forma” instructions to the jury to ignore them.

Governor Slaton’s Intervention

On the witness stand, Jim Conley was, unfortunately for Frank, devastating.

According to Conley, Frank had confessed to the murder and had tried to get him (Conley) to burn the body in the factory’s basement furnace. Frank’s lawyers were unable to shake Conley’s story, and Frank himself was hesitant and unconvincing on the stand, and his denial carried little weight.

On September 26th, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death by Judge Roan.

Atlanta celebrated, but the rest of the country was less convinced that justice had been done. Over the next eighteen months, over 100,000 letters of protest arrived, and a petition for a new trial gathered over a million signatures. Frank appealed the verdict, and eventually, his case reached the United States Supreme Court.

The Court ruled that no reversible procedural errors had been made. (Evidence of the defendant’s innocence, oddly enough, was not considered a “reversible error” at that time.) The verdict and sentence were both confirmed. Frank’s fate now lay in the hands of one man, Georgia’s governor, John Slaton.

Unfortunately for those howling for Frank’s blood, Governor Slaton was a brave man and one with a highly developed social conscience. Ignoring advice to simply confirm the verdict and sentence and let Frank go to his death and be done with it, Slaton obtained the trial transcripts and reviewed all the testimony and evidence.

In doing so, Slaton found numerous discrepancies. Mary Phagan had fought hard for her life, yet Frank had absolutely no scratches or marks of any kind on his body, an utter impossibility had he truly been the killer. Conley, on the other hand, had been observed to have several scratches, bite marks, and gouges when he was arrested for drunkenness the night of the crime.

Further, Conley had testified that he had used the factory’s elevator shaft to dispose of Mary’s belongings and had used the bottom of the shaft as a latrine, defecating in it, before following Frank’s orders to take the body to the basement. All of these items, including Conley’s “personal” contribution, were observed by the police and, in the case of Mary Phagan’s belongings, recovered intact. But in recreating the events of that night, anything at the bottom of the shaft was always crushed by the descending elevator.

A letter found at the scene in Conley’s handwriting (Conley claimed the letter was dictated by Frank) made references to a legend well known in the black community but almost unknown among Georgia’s white population and highly unlikely to have been known by a white man raised in New York.

Slaton, knowing he was committing political suicide and quite possibly actual suicide, commuted Franks’s sentence to life imprisonment, saying in a statement that he would rather live in fear for his life than have a guilty conscience. The governor was burned in effigy, received death threats, and was eventually forced to leave the State.

The Truth Emerges

On the night of August 16th, 1915, a group of armed men forced their way into the prison where Leo Frank was being held. They took him to a ridge near Mary Phagan’s home, and there lynched him. A snapshot of his body dangling from the tree was taken and was a popular nickel postcard item in Georgia for years afterward. No one was ever charged with the crime.

Eventually, when it was too late, the truth came out. Conley’s lawyer had told Judge Roan that Conley had confessed to the murder several times, but despite this, Roan had kept silent and sentenced Frank to death. Another man named Alonzo Mann, who was a fourteen-year-old boy who had worked in the factory, told investigators that he had seen Conley commit the crime but had kept silent because of Conley’s threat to kill him if he spoke out.

On March 11th, 1986, Leo Frank was issued a pardon by the State of Georgia.

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