The Murder of Mary Phagan

This is a difficult blog to title.  One has to wonder if the bigger crime was the murder of the young 13 year old girl or the lynching of the probable innocent man two years later.  Once again however, much like the case I blogged of previously, Laura D. Fair, the media and their coverage played a large role in this case.  The difference here is that a likely innocent man lost his life.  Of course the media was not completely at fault.  Much like cases we hear of today, this case was full of speculation, recantations, as well as allegations of police and prosecution corruption and misconduct.

In the early morning of April 27, 1913 the body of young National Pencil Company employee, Mary Phagan was found in the basement of the factory by the nightwatchman, Newt Lee in Atlanta Georgia.  There are a few things that we have to remember about this time. First you have an issue of the "deep" south.  There was a lot of antisemitism going on.  The KKK was dormant but there were many who were pushing for their return to power.  So, there was a lot of prejudice against not only the black community but also of the Jewish community.  Secondly, this murder occurred just a few short years after the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in 1911 where the issue of factory conditions had become a very hot topic and had prompted reform in working pay and treatment by employers.  This story had it all.

First you had this young 13 year old girl who had worked at the factory for a mere 12 cents an hour for 10 hours days.  You had the deep south where Negros  were generally still in meager positions such as cooks, gardeners, janitors...etc. Not only were they in what was considered to be lower standard jobs they were often still treated completely unfair.  Keep in mind this is 50 years before the civil rights movement.  Slavery may have been outlawed but it still existed despite what people said.  Then you have two Negros and a Jewish man at the center of attention and prime suspects of this case.  This was a win-win for the antisemitic community.  It really did not matter who they got for this murder.

After discovering her body, Newt Lee, a Negro contacted the police.  They found the young girl had been strangled and raped.  Leo Frank, the superintendent and part owner of the factory, was Jewish and was quickly thought to be the last person to see Mary Phagan alive.  It was said that she had arrived at the factory around noon the day before to collect her pay.  There was much speculation brought about that Frank at first said he did not recognize her and did not recall her being in his office the morning before.  Personally I find little in this.  He was the boss of a large factory who likely knew very little of the employees and paid even less attention to them.  Newt Lee was taken into custody and although it seems he never seemed to be a prime suspect he was held in custody for several months.  Leo Frank was taken to the police station to be questioned.  Just prior to the interrogation, Frank asked that the pencil factory lawyer be contacted as well as another lawyer.  Once again speculation of his guilt based on this was made.  He was officially charged with murder on April 29th, just two days after Mary's body had been found.

Public opinion was soon fast against Frank.  The case has been compared to the Simpson trial as interest and media coverage for the times.  Per the time the newspapers were very speculative, published unconfirmed rumors as fact and all but convicted Frank prior to trial.  Frank hired the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency to help in the investigation but even they later admitted that due to the public opinion of his guilt they looked very little at anything that could have pointed to Frank's innocence and only to his guilt.  One of the largest speculation that was not corroborated was the fact that Frank was portrayed as a womanizer.  He was accused of having relations with young girls.  One witness later stated that she ran a boarding house and that Frank had called the day of the murder to reserve a room for himself and a young girl.  The witness later recanted saying that the police had coerced her into saying this.  However, these rumors were stated as fact and throughout his trial he was portrayed by the prosecution as a man obsessed with sex.  In fact, it was said that prosecutor, Hugh M. Dorsey, who's ambition to become Governor was later realized due largely to this prosecution, when asking questions of witnesses that denied these rumors attempted to ignore those answers and twist them in a way to which it still seemed his theory was truth.  

The main prosecution witness at Frank's trial was a black man by the name of Jim Conley. He was a janitor at the factory and was questioned several times, each time changing and elaborating his story.  He was held in custody for several months under the pretense of the prosecution as protection and was never available for the defense to interview.  Two notes had been found by the body of Mary.  They were intended to have appeared to have been written by Mary, however, the language was odd to say the least.  They indicated a black man was responsible.  When first interviewed by police Conley had stated he could not read or write.  This was later proven wrong and Conley would then claim that he wrote the letters at the "dictation" of Leo Frank.  At one point in the trial the prosecution talked about how the word "did" instead of the customary "done" spoken by a black man was in the letter and proved that Frank had dictated.  The defense objected and pointed out that Conley himself had used the word "did" in his testimony and even when the court reporter confirmed this Dorsey said she was mistaken.  Conley had a checkered past at best.  He had been jailed several times for theft and disorderly conduct.  While of course this seemed bad for him, I speculate, and almost have to agree that in a general sense this should not be given a lot of weight.  Again, we are talking about a time period in which the black community was often singled out and I am sure prosecuted and blamed for an abundance of crimes they did not commit.  That is not to say by any means that I think Conley was an innocent man, but I will give him a little lead way here.  On the stand Conley elaborated more than he ever had.  His new story was that he and Frank had a "system" when Frank was in pursuit of a young lady and that this system was in place on that day.  He also stated that not only had he written the notes found, dictated by Frank but that he had helped Frank remove Mary's body and place her in the basement.  Many it seems did not completely believe Conley though one has to wonder if it was because his story did not hold weight (which it did not, but defense showed little proof in my opinion) or simply because he was a black man.  One thing that was discussed after the trial that was said to point to Conley's untruthfulness was a statement he had made.  He offhandedly stated that he had defecated at the bottom of the of the elevator shaft and yet apparently that had appeared to be untouched until the police arrived to see the body and yet Conley had stated that he and Frank had used the shaft to move Mary's body. The defense was able to bring in witnesses that disputed Conley's timeline of who was in the building at particular times or where Frank was.  While through his testimony he was assisting Frank move Mary's body, Frank's gardener stated he was home eating lunch. Many found it suspicious that Conley was very clear on things that implicated Frank but could not remember things very well on things that pointed to his innocence.

Another witness against Frank (although possibly just announced to newspapers and not actually at trial) was a woman who was the cook for the Frank household.  She had stated that she overheard Mrs. Frank tell her mother her husband had confessed to a crime.  The woman was held for several hours in police custody, was released after her statement and promptly recanted.

Then there were issues with the local police determined to solve this crime.  There were a few reasons for this.  The biggest likely was that the victim was a young white girl.  Secondly the department had received a lot of criticism in recent times as they had failed to solve several murders of black women over the previous years so when a larger department came in, and then later the Pinkerton Detective Agency, although they all seemed to have the same goal in putting this on Frank, it also seems the local department wanted to be the "winner."

Supposed "professional" or "expert" witnesses testified at the trial that blood and hair was found in a room across the hall from Frank's office belonged to Mary.  Now of course DNA was not available at this time but there was no sort of analysis done and it was said it was just their "professional opinion."  About a year later it apparently was analysed by a biologist and it was said not to be Mary's.  When Dorsey heard this (of course it did not matter, Frank was already convicted although facing appeals) he disputed it and still claimed those from trial were correct.

Frank testified in his own behalf and never seemed to waiver.  It appears that it may have been at this time that the newspapers began to question their previous beliefs of his guilt.  The defense put on 100 witnesses that testified to his reputation and conduct and over 20 against Conley's.  It was said that while they were good witnesses, many of those for Frank were Northerners and of the Jewish faith, two unfavorable things for the area.  

It took the jury less than 4 hours to come to a verdict of guilty.  It was a verdict that was questioned from the beginning.  Some of that came from the fact that while in open court the newspapers had asked the judge to defer from giving the case to the jury so that a verdict would not come in over the weekend, indicating that a not guilty verdict would result in a riot and violence. The judge announced he was deferring sentencing and then in private sentenced Frank to be hung.  This was delayed due to the appeals process.

The first appeal was in February of 1914.  It was pointed out that it was discovered that prior to trial two members of the jury had made antisemitic remarks and had stated they wanted to be on the jury just so they could convict him.  The judge (the same who had presided over the trial) denied the appeal but openly stated that he was uncertain of Frank's guilt but felt obviously the juror was not and he must defer to their verdict.

After all appeals were exhausted the only thing left was to appeal to the Governor for clemency.  It was largely believed nothing would be done and Frank would hang.  This was largely due to the fact one of the people who was the most vocal against Frank was a man by the name of Tom Watson (a once vice-president nominee).  He wrote for an Antisemitic newspaper and was actively pushing for the re-birth of the dormant KKK.  He had promised Governor Slaton an endorsement for Senator if he denied clemency to Frank.  In essence Slaton kept that promise, however he, like many others by this time, was unconvinced that Frank was guilty and commuted his sentence to life in prison on the belief that would give him time to prove his innocence.  Watson in particular was outraged and eventually Slaton was exiled from politics.  He did however live on to become a prominent and respected attorney.  Franks was sent to a prison "farm" to live out his sentence.  Soon after relocating there Frank was attacked and nearly lost his life but survived.  

Then on the night of August 16, 1915 a group of 25 men, many prominent citizens of the area, overpowered guards and the warden and entered the prison farm.  They found Leo Frank and basically kidnapped him.  They drove all night and on the following morning they hung him from an oak tree near Marietta, Georgia.  It was said that before the lynching the mob tried repeatedly to get Frank to confess to the crime to which he staunchly proclaimed his innocence.  Because of this many involved in the mob changed their position and left the scene but those who were "in charge" steadfastly following through with their plan.  It was largely known who was involved, however, there were no charges ever filed against anyone.  In fact, it was not until the 1980's that the names of those involved were officially released.

Dorsey,remember him?  The man who prosecuted Frank was Governor of Georgia from 1916-1921.  After her death a group was formed called the "Knights of Mary Phagan."  They soon allowed Tom Watson's dream be obtained and reformed as the KKK.  Watson died in 1922, two years after obtaining a seat on the U.S. Senate.  The KKK sent one of the largest floral arrangements at his funeral.

In 1919, Jim Conley was shot during a burglary attempt.  He served a mere year of a 20 year sentence, often said because of his cooperation in the Frank trial.  Over the next several years he had a few more run ins with the law that included drunkenness and gambling.  He died in 1962 in his 70's.

In 1982 a man named Alonzo Mann announced that he was 13 years old when Mary Phagan died and worked at the pencil factory.  He stated he visibly saw Jim Conley alone moving Mary Phagan's body to the basement of the factory.  He stated that Conley had threatened to kill him if he ever told what he saw.  Based on this information, as well as other evidence the Georgia Board of Pardons granted a posthumous pardon to Leo Frank on 3-11-1986.

It is the belief of most people that Jim Conley was responsible for Mary Phagan's death.  I admit that he is a very likely suspect and that it is entirely possible that he was responsible, however, I am unsure I can totally agree with this.  For me considering the time period, the way the police in this case worked, and the sentiments towards particular races I would need more to show me Conley was responsible, let alone involved.  Mann's testimony holds weight but then again, why wait so long to tell the story when clearly people already believed Conley to be guilty?  I believe it could have been just as plausible that the police threatened Conley to get the answers they wanted.  This was a time period where Jews and blacks were being prosecuted at the drop of a hat for whatever could be pinned on them.  

The only thing we do know is that there are questions of Leo Frank's guilt.  We also know that justice was not served in his case and that he was murdered by people who decided to take the law in their own hands and got away with it.Diary of a Wimpy Kid Box of Books (1-5) By Kinney, Jeff (Google Affiliate Ad)


  1. I have just finished reading "The Murder of Little Mary Phagan" by her great-niece, Mary Phagan. When I told someone that I was reading it I was asked if the family believed Leo Frank to be guilty. I could not tell at that point as Mary Phagan was going through the issues and had not gotten to the point in which Alonzo Mann in essence changed his testimony nearly 70 years after the crime. Having finished it what I can say is that the family of Mary Phagan are not sure.

    The book was very interesting and while of course it was a bit bias I think the author did an excellent job in that area in attempting to be objective and giving all the facts. She had been raised to believe that Leo Frank was guilty, as that is how the family of Mary Phagan felt. To them it was obvious as they had no other information to go on. It should be said that no member of the Phagan family was involved in the lynching.

    In the end Mary Phagan (the author) was able to clear up a few things for me that I am not sure I understood prior to reading the book. The pardon that was ultimately issued to Leo Frank was not based on his guilt or innocence. In essence it was simply a statement from the state of Georgia saying they had failed to protect Frank after his sentence was changed from death, to life without parole, and because of that failure he was denied his due right to continue to fight for his innocence. They also criticized the fact that the lynching ever took place and that no one was ever charged with that crime.

    The Board of Pardons in 1983, when the first application came, had denied the request as it was based on the issue of Frank's guilt or innocence. They concluded (and I have to agree) that Alonzo Mann's "new" testimony was not really new. Mann was now stating that he had seen Jim Conley carrying the either dead or unconscious body of Mary Phagan down the ladder to the basement in the Pencil Factory where she was ultimately found. As the Board of Pardon's stated all this really proved was that Jim Conley had lied in his testimony. This was not a new revelation. This was known early on as he kept changing his story and even Gov. Slaton had stated as much when he commuted the sentence, stating there was no possible way that he had used the elevator that early morning. Based on Mann's new testimony it also only proved that Conley had moved Mary's body on his own and not with the help of Frank as Conley stated at trial. It did not prove that Leo Frank had not killed her.

    The Phagan family made several points in their belief that a pardon should be denied. One was that pardon's, by law were to be given to living person's. People can disagree with this, but it is the law. Just as it is the law that anyone already convicted of a crime, yet has an appeal in process and dies during that process is forever considered to be innocent. Another point the Phagan family made was that it was unfair to use modern trial structure to determine if Frank received a fair trial in 1913. As they pointed out we have the procedures we do now, because of things of the past and just because we may not feel that it was fair in 1913 does not mean that for the time period it was not fair. By all accounts Frank had some of the best lawyers of the area who apparently did their best with what they had. There was no DNA, there was no conclusive proof of things like we have now.... they had to deal with what they were given. Trials were almost exclusively based on witness testimony in those days. Yes, many witnesses, not just Conley seemed to go back and forth and tell different stories, some even accusing law enforcement of coercing them into testimony, but that's how it was.

    In the end, the author pointed out that too much time has passed to every conclusively know if Leo Frank was guilty or innocent of the murder of Little Mary Phagan.


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