Crimson Trail Leads Crowd to Courtroom Sidewalk

Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.

Atlanta Georgian
July 31st, 1913


The sun’s heat is broiling. No man can stand it without suffering. And still men stand, not one man, but scores of them, on a blistered pavement gazing on a red brick building as unsightly as a gorgon’s head and look at nothing by the hour.

They are led there by a trail of crimson, and they are held there by the carmine charm that—since Cain committed his deed of fratricide—has made murder the deed that the law most severely punishes and has made it the act that most interests man.

Go to Pryor and Hunter streets. You’ll find a study there. Leo Frank is being tried for the murder of Mary Phagan in the courtroom in a building on the northeast corner.

The trial is progressing in a quiet, orderly manner. Sheriff Mangum’s force is attending to that. Few persons not vitally interested in the case are permitted in the courtroom. Outsiders are not even allowed on the same side of the street that abuts on the building housing Atlanta’s most famous criminal trial.

But these regulations fail to dampen the interest Atlanta feels in the case.

Dickens was never wrong in his study of human frailties and human emotions. Do you remember when Mr. Pickwick was arrested for trespassing and when asked as to his identity replied “cold punch?” Do you remember when he was placed in the pound the sage of Gad’s Hill told how the village populace gazed at nothing through the cracks in the fence of that inclosure?

Old Scene Re-enacted.

The same thing that Dickens wrote of a half century ago is being reenacted in Atlanta in this good year of 1913. Hundreds of Atlantans are figuratively looking through the cracks of the pound fence and seeing nothing.

They are standing on that sunburnt pavement gazing on a building just because in the four walls of that structure a man is fighting for his life, just because a gallows threatens a man accused of ending the life of a little girl they never saw, they never heard of, until her dead body was found, and the incarnadined mystery was added to the criminal history of Georgia’s capital.

For hours they gaze. They can not possibly learn more of the progress of the trial there across the street than they could at their homes or their places of business. But there they stand. The intimacy of the location with the tragedy enthralls them.

When this crowd is viewed, the strange fascination of the old Romans for the arena in which men died, the allurement of the present day prize ring in which men suffer, is not so strange. A peculiar kink in nature has made man love to witness the tribulation of his fellows.

Inside the courtroom the crowd is different. Frank is there because suspicion points to him as the slayer.

His wife is there, because it is the wife’s place to be near her husband in his supreme hour of trial. His mother is there because mother love demands that she be a protector, a guardian, a consoler, when others are trying to blacken his character, to have him declared unfit to breathe the air of free and honorable men.

Attorneys and Their Fight.

The attorneys are there to fight a fight they think just. Hugh Dorsey is struggling to establish a record that the county of Fulton will uphold the law though the offender be as wealthy and as powerful as the chieftain of the greatest trust. Luther Rosser and Reub Arnold are there in their panoply of invincibility to maintain their reputations as well as defend the man they declare innocent.

Mary Phagan’s mother and sister are there because the call of the blood tells them that the death of the little factory girl should be avenged.

There are scores of spectators, young lawyers, who wish to witness the struggle between those master minds of their profession engaged in the case. Their interest is as natural as the interest of a stock broker’s clerk in the personality of the heir to the fortune of Morgan.

At a big round table is seated a group of coatless men working at top speed, every energy strained to let the people of Atlanta know the varying issues of the battle.

None of these men is there by choice. They would probably like to be in some other place, where, though dozens of electric fans are blowing constantly, the heat is as oppressive as that of a Turkish bath steamroom.

But outside the railing, in the spectators’ assigned seats, is a crowd as incongruous to the atmosphere as a day laborer at a king’s levee. Every possible class is represented.

There are business men of big interests. They sit through the hearing with their mouths agape, just as the crowd on the pavement stands. There are typical Crackers in the throng. One man wearing the badge of honor of a Confederate Veteran has been in constant attendance during the trial.

Mere Boys Hang on Every Word.

But the large portion of the audience is young, pitifully young, too, when the issue and the result is considered. Boys just in long trousers have obtained admission in some way. They are lustful for every word, every deed. They are not seeking information. They are attending the trial as a result of the same impulse that leads them to spend their spare nickels for a recital of the deeds of derring-do, of “Diamond Dick,” or “Old King Brady.”

One man, hardly a man either, for his face was youthful, has been at every session. He is palpably a drug victim. His pallor stands out in striking relief among the rather robust countenance of the rest of the audience. His hands twitch nervously. His head frequently droops. His physical being is demanding the drug he craves. But his mental desire for the thrill of the trial holds him more firmly than the power of the opiate. His interest in the case might be a study for the most eminent neurologists.

A common link holds all of these people, those inside and those out. It is the rope of hemp that hangs as a possible conclusion to this gripping tragedy that has held a city three months.

No man has ever been seen who says that he enjoys witnessing a hanging. No hanging has ever been seen where there were not more people anxious to see the execution than there was room in the death cell.

The sun on Pryor street may scorch, but the awful charm of the noose and black cap makes the place as pleasant as the veranda of a seashore hotel. The heat of the courtroom may sear the very being of the spectators, but the fascination of the death watch keeps them as firmly fastened in their seats as though there were bars of iron about the chairs.

It’s a morbid thought, but it’s a morbid crowd. Those interested in Frank listen to the case in the hope of developments that will free him of the ordeal of mounting the stairs of steel. Those who wish his conviction are there to see a web of circumstance weaved around him that leads only to that awful end.