Fair Play Alone Can Find Truth in Phagan Puzzle, Declares Old Reporter

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

Atlanta Georgian

Sunday, June 8th, 1913

Average Atlantan Believes Frank is Guilty, but That Little Real Evidence Has Yet Pointed to Him as Slayer.

Stirring Defense by Wife and Attack on Solicitor Dorsey Are Two Striking Features of Week’s Progress in Case.


I have thought a good deal during the past week about a fine young newspaper man I used to know some fifteen years ago, and particularly of the last thing he said to me before he died.

He was a Georgian, too. We had been college mates and fraternity mates, and all that sort of thing.

After we graduated, he plunged into newspaper work, and I studied law. I practiced—to a limited extent—that honorable profession for some four years, but abandoned it eventually for newspaper work, and when I plunged in also, I asked him how about it.

This is what he said: “There is only one thing about it. Work fast, get your facts straight, beat ‘em if you can—but don’t go off half-cocked. Don’t get yourself where you have to take back things—but don’t be afraid to take ‘em back, if necessary—and be fair. The Golden Rule is, ‘BE FAIR!’ Unless you are fair, you will not respect yourself, and nobody else will respect you!”

Phagan Case Shows People Are Fair.

I find that most people ARE fair. I believe there is in the hearts of nine people in every ten one meets a desire to see his fellow-man get “a square deal.” And I believe it more nowadays than I ever believed it before, for the progress of the Phagan investigation has reaffirmed my faith in my fellow-man.

The Atlanta Georgian was the first newspaper to give pause to the riot of passion, misunderstanding, misinformation and rank prejudice primarily set in motion by the slaying of little Mary Phagan.

Before the story had grown to large proportions, The Georgian, with all the emphasis at its command, begged for calm, and poise, and fairness. It invoked the SUPREMACY OF THE LAW—and I think it is entitled to have that said of it.

Governor’s Appeal Cooled Passion.

Quick to appreciate the significance and the timeliness of this, the Governor of Georgia, in a ringing interview given to The Sunday American, approved The Georgian’s attitude of fair play, and added his voice to that of The Georgian in its effort to hold fast to the LAW.

Since then the Phagan investigation has progressed with an ever-growing demand from the public for fair play—fair play for everybody, defense and prosecution.

And yet, to be strictly truthful, I must say that the man in the street believes Leo M. Frank guilty of the murder of Mary Phagan.

All that he has to base this belief upon are statements published in the newspapers, and some of these are worthless upon their face. Many of them are absurd. Many of them could not be introduced in court at all. Many of them are the mere opinions of unimportant people that would have no standing anyway.

The developments in the week just passed, while not distinctly favorable to Frank, were not unfavorable. Various affidavits made by Conley, affidavits and repudiation of affidavits made by Frank’s cook, Minola McKnight, will, I feel reasonably sure, have no weight before a jury, if indeed the court every permits them to go to a jury.

Must Weigh Words of Conley and Cook

And yet, if the statements of Conley and the cook could be corroborated, they would prove strong links in the chain of circumstantial evidence against Frank.

Let me say again, as I have so often said, that I am setting down here my own opinion only. I speak for no one but myself. I do not know the Franks or the Seligs. I do not know of any of the persons whose names are mentioned as investigators or any of the detectives working on the case. I do not know Dorsey; and I know only just what you know, rather—what is published in the newspapers.

I do know, and you know, that the prosecution must prove him guilty of the crime, while the defense does not have to prove him innocent.

Now, I do not say that Frank is innocent. I do not say he is guilty. I do not know. I do not know what evidence Mr. Dorsey has, or to what his witnesses will testify, but I do know that such of it that has appeared in the newspapers would not be convincing legal evidence to me. Nor would I consider it very seriously if I was a member of the jury.

Dorsey May Be Holding Evidence.

Dorsey may have a great deal of important evidence that has not yet been made public. I shall be greatly surprised if he has not. I look for a great many sensations between now and the time of the trial.

It ought not to be difficult for Frank to prove his innocence, if he is innocent, and it will be well to remember that he must be considered innocent until the jury returns a verdict of guilty against him.

Frank will undoubtedly take the stand and make a statement in his own defense. He will be his own best witness. What he says, and how he says it, will have more influence with the jury than anything that many be said against him.

One of the most interesting events of the past week’s developments, to my way of thinking, was the statement in defense of her husband given out by Mrs. Leo Frank.

It is not competent legal evidence of Frank’s innocence, of course, for the wife can testify neither FOR nor AGAINST the husband in Georgia, but it had a powerfully steadying effect upon public opinion, and has served to give it additional poise and calm.

In part, it was a fine utterance in part it was a mistaken utterance, but withal it was an intensely human document, full of appeal for justice and righteous judgment—and, in a way, it cleared the atmosphere considerably.

Mrs. Frank May Have Crossed Lawyers.

Mrs. Frank, of all people, was the one person who COULD say the necessary word at a moment of tenseness and deep significance. To have left it unsaid would have been unwomanly and unwifely—and I have an idea she may have said it not because of her husband’s legal advisers, but largely in spite of them.

They might have been willing for her to have given vent to her already too long repressed feelings, and to have vehemently protested her husband’s innocence and incapability of the crime laid at his door—but they hardly would have permitted her to go the length she did in attacking the Solicitor.

And yet it is the very fact that she DID go so far in that direction that stamps her utterance with the mark of sincerity and genuineness!

It will avail her much to take her stand unfalteringly and in full confidence there beside her husband—it will avail her nothing to complain that the Solicitor is prosecuting the case against her husband with all the resourcefulness at his command.

The one thing she should do—the other thing the Solicitor should do.

It was a tactical mistake to assail Dorsey. He represents all the people. He should be, and I believe he has tried to be, a prosecutor—not a persecutor!

Dorsey, representing all the people, has a perfect right to get his evidence in any way he sees fit.

Dorsey Represents All People in the Case.

Dorsey, I am sure, believes in fair play for the public and fair play for anyone accused of the murder of Mary Phagan!

Mrs. Frank, through weeks of intense trial and suffering has held her peace. She permitted things to be said of her husband that to her must have seemed cruel in the extreme—and she never murmured. Finally, in a passionate outburst, she DID break her silence, and pleaded, for what? For fair play—just for fair play, that’s all! For her statement amounts to only that, stripped of its naturally emotional construction.

Mother Asks Fairness For All Concerned.

There, on the other hand, is Mrs. Coleman—Mary Phagan’s mother. Through weeks of heart-breaking gloom and grief, she has held HER peace. Giving vent early in the case up to her unspeakable sorrow and horrified indignation, she soon recovered her equilibrium—and has asked since, for what? For fair play—just for fair play, that’s all!

Men who are not going to permit women to try this case in the court room, officials who will not have one woman on the jury that tries Leo Frank for his life, nevertheless have been bellowing from the house tops things they knew, things they didn’t know, things they never did, can or will know about the Phagan case—and a pretty nice mess they have made of it so far, too!

Facts, near-facts, nonsense and imagination—it has seemed to be a mater of every fellow talking for himself, and as much as possible, and the devil take the hindmost!

Happily, however, from out the mass of matter that has been printed during the past five weeks, the public has gathered abundant and abiding courage to suspend its judgment—to insist upon it that the Phagan case be settled eventually in COURT, in impartial and legal order.

In every article that I have written I have stated frankly my freedom from bias in discussing the matter. I do not wish to prejudice this case one way or the other—I am interested in it purely as an abstract proposition. What I say is just my own idea of things—it is binding upon nobody—it is not, in any degree, competent evidence in a court of law.

Average Atlantan Thinks Frank Guilty.

And yet the average man believes Frank guilty. It would be easy enough to make out a case proving Frank’s innocence by putting yourself, say, in Frank’s position, and reasoning thus:

“I, Leo Frank, shortly after 1 o’clock in the afternoon of April 26, killed a fifteen-year-old white girl, for some sinister purpose, not quite clear. I did it, notwithstanding my previous good character, my business reputation, my wife at home, my people, and my every sense of decency and humanity. Nevertheless, I did it, craftily and SECRETLY. After I had consummated my crime, I went forth deliberately, searched out an ignorant, drunken negro, acquainted him with many circumstances of my crime, and got him to write some cunning notes tending to turn away from me suspicion that likely never would have been directed toward me positively except for the negro’s knowledge of crime furnished by me.

Secret Deliberately Given To Negro.

“I hired this negro, with money I never gave him, to help me hide the dead body, already as effectively hidden as the immediate necessity of the occasion required, and when he had helped me carry the dead body downstairs that I might just as well have carried myself, I told him good-bye, and said I would see him Monday and fix things up—maybe. After a while, however, I decided that I had not been thoughtful enough in securing only ONE witness against myself, so I concluded, along about 7 o’clock, to get up a few more. It had dawned upon me that perhaps the State MIGHT need seven or eight witnesses in order to accomplish my conviction.

“So between 7 and 10 that night, I called up a notorious woman, by me suspected of being known well to the police, and upon whom I thought I might depend to put the police wise promptly, and I told said notorious woman that I desired, on a matter of life and death, to bring a girl to her house, notwithstanding the fact that I knew said girl was dead, and had been for many hours.

“Of course, my idea was to acquaint the notorious woman with my crime, and maybe a half dozen others who might see me bring in the dead body, including the hackman likely employed to haul us.

Woman’s Refusal Causes Chagrin.

“I tried three times to get this woman’s permission to bring the girl’s dead boy there, and naturally my chagrin was great when she refused. I have noticed with pride that the de-tec-i-tiffs have solemnly, from time to time, pronounced me guilty of doing all the foregoing things, as I hoped they would, and I would now confess the entire crime, except for the fact that I just naturally like to tease de-tec-i-tiffs, and am of a somewhat mean and contrary disposition, anyway. To further establish my devilish ingenuity, however, it seems that I did all the things Conley says I did when I WASN’T EVEN THERE—which is a fact that should not be overlooked!”

Now, if you believe this you must find the murderer of Mary Phagan. Who comes first to your thought? Conley, of course.

Here’s what MIGHT have happened on that fateful Saturday afternoon:

Negro Knew It Was Pay-Day.

The negro Conley was sitting at the foot of the stairs, near the open elevator shaft, when Mary Phagan came in to get her pay. He may have seen her go up the steps, and he did see her come down. He must have known that she had just been paid some amount of money, and probably had it in her little mesh bag, dangling from her wrist. As she came DOWN the steps, and passed toward the front door, her back was turned to the half drunken negro. The passageway was dark, for the gas was not burning and the front doors were closed, because of a holiday. The negro may have seized the girl from behind, choked her noiselessly into insensibility, snatched her purse—robbery probably being his primary impulse—and then chucked her body over into the open elevator shaft and down into the cellar below. He may then have passed down the ladder beside the elevator shaft, for it will be established that the elevator did not run the day Mary Phagan was killed, and into the cellar.

He may have dragged the body back to its last resting place in the factory, loosening the girl’s hat and one of her shoes as he went.

Noticed Shoe; Forgot Parasol.

Noticing the shoe and the hat along the way, he went back and got them, and threw them over on the trash pile by the furnace—but HE DID NOT NOTICE THAT THE GIRL’S PARASOL WAS LEFT AT THE FOOT OF THE ELEVATOR SHAFT, INTO WHICH HE TOPPLED HER FROM ABOVE, and there it subsequently was found. Mary Phagan, hat, shoe and parasol may have been chucked down the elevator shaft. The hat and the shoe might have come down from the second floor above, attached to the dead body, as the negro says, but the parasol could not have come down in the dead girl’s hand.

How, then DID the parasol get to the bottom of the elevator shaft, where it was found? If it didn’t get there when Mary Phagan was first thrown there, how did it get there? It looks as if Conley may have overlooked a telltale bet in the parasol. After the murder had been consummated, the negro may have looked around for a means of escape. He need not hurry, for the factory was practically empty, and he, with his victim alone, was in the cellar.

First: he picked up a piece of cord, of which there was plenty in the cellar, and put that around the dead girl’s throat, then he wrote those stupid, ignorant, negro-like notes, hoping to avert possible suspicion from himself—and, finally, he pulled the staple from the back door, only a few feet away from the dead body, and made his escape from the factory. The girl’s purse never has been found.

Guilty of Conley May Be Defense’s Task.

And thus analyzing and theorizing, my readers will see it would not be a very difficult matter for the Frank defense to take up this line of reasoning. It seems orderly and rational. It may prove to be worthless.

Mrs. Frank and her relatives must remember that they are placed in a very extraordinary position. Whatever the detectives do in trying to unravel the crime, whatever the newspapers do in publishing rumors and gossip and statements about the mystery, would naturally cause them much suffering. I do not believe that Mr. Dorsey or any of the police officials or detectives would add one particles to the terrible burden that Mrs. Frank and her family have to bear.

But I do know the officials would not be doing their duty if they did not do all in their power to solve this terrible mystery. And it must be remembered that poor little Mary Phagan is dead. Somebody killed her! She had a right to her life, just as much as you or I, dear reader, have a right to ours; and the duty of the officials is to find the murderer, and to punish him as the law directs.

Meanwhile, let me say another final word—for fair play and suspension of judgment until the trial of the case.

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Atlanta Georgian, June 8th 1913, “Fair Play Alone Can Find Truth in Phagan Puzzle, Declares Old Reporter,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)