Flashes of Tragedy Pierce Legal Tilts at Frank Trial

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

Atlanta Georgian
July 30th, 1913


The trouble is, plain human emotions won’t stick at concert pitch all the time.

And so the Frank trial, after the first twenty minutes, say, becomes much like any other trial.

Except in the flashes.

You get into the courtroom with some formality. At once you are in the midst of order. It is rather ponderous, made-to-order order. But it is order.

Officials stalk about, walking on the balls of their feet, like pussy cats. But they do not purr. They request you to be seated. You must not stand up; you must sit down. Unfortunately, you must stand up to walk to a place to sit down. And that grieves the officials. They mop their faces. One in particular uses an entirely red bandana handkerchief—sometimes for for his face, sometimes to flag standing spectators, who must sit down.

There is order.

Thrills Get Temporary Check.

Until you are thoroughly sitting down there is no chance for the concert pitch to vibrate. Human emotions are constituted so curiously that a rasping collar has been known to overbalance the dread presence of the King of Terrors. Honest persons have admitted this. And the grim portent of the Frank trial produces no thrills while you are stepping on other people’s feet.

Being seated, the first thing you do is to perspire gently. That of itself is not romantic. Also it interferes with the concert pitch. It is hard to reconcile perspiration and cold prickles back of the ears.

You get the first tingle when you pick out the accused. Your neighbor does not help you do this. One’s neighbor at a trial rarely knows anything about anything connected with it.

You pick out the prisoner because you have seen many pictures of him. He is one of those whose pictures look like them. You are quite certain who it is.

First Chord a Mere Tinkle.

But the opening chord of the concert pitch is disappointing. It is not majestic and soul-stirring. Frankly, it is more of a tinkle.

Here is a slim little man. He is dark. His face is sharply cut and lean. His eyes are well opened, back of thick lenses. * * * That was the first real tingle. * * * Did those eyes glare down upon the huddled figure of Mary Phagan in the echoing loneliness of the pencil factory that Saturday afternoon?

Glared through the thick lenses?

The grotesquery jars oddly.

The thrill passes.

There is Rube Arnold, objecting to something. It is among the duties of counsel for the defense to be constantly injured. Mr. Arnold is good at that. He is not going to fall, if the court please, in his full duty to his client, who sits there. And the particular part of Mr. Arnold’s duty at this moment is to see that his learned brother does not get before the jury from this witness any of his (the witness’) ideas as to how the defendant looked the morning after the tragedy at the pencil factory.

Mr. Arnold Philosophizes.

Mr. Arnold begs to submit that an officer, if it please the court, thinks everybody looks guilty. Mr. Arnold begs to submit further that the human face is the most inscrutable thing in the world. And Mr. Arnold will say—

You discover the defendant’s wife and mother, and lose the thread of Mr. Arnold’s philosophy.

They sit by his side. The mother’s face is of the inscrutable type pictured by Mr. Arnold. The wife’s face * * * That was thrill No. 2 * * * You realize in a flash what the Frank trial means to her. * * *

She watches the witnesses more closely than her husband. She moves her fan nervously at times. She regards the prosecutor and his assistant with a certain contemptuous defiance. * * * The tingle lasts until you realize she is chewing gum.

Mr. Arnold’s philosophic objection has spun itself out. Mr. Dorsey resumes his questioning. Mr. Dorsey has a querulous manner of asking questions. Mr. Arnold’s injured objections may explain that.

The Pathos of a Dress.

The testimony just now is not thrilling. It has to do with a stairway and an office and some very usual-looking cord or heavy twine. The witness has to get up frequently and point out things on a framed plan of the pencil factory that hangs on the wall where the jury can see it.

He uses an umbrella. He may be pointing out the very spot where Mary Phagan * * * But the handle of the umbrella is bent. Is it his own umbrella? It looks like a woman’s. * * * Where did Mr. Dorsey get that twine, anyway?

Oh, the suitcase. There are other things in the suitcase. * * * A little heap of things on the floor of the witness stand—a crumpled dress, a hat. * * *

And that time you wink your eyes very hard, because they sting. What was in that little girl’s mind as she put on that hat for the last time? What painstaking care had she used, to make it her “best” hat—what needle pricks, maybe, in the small fingers? And the lavender dress. * * * And the end of all, in the dust and dirt of the pencil factory basement.

Just for a flash it’s all real. And cold. And grim. And pitiful.

Rosser Soars—Regardless.

Then Mr. Arnold objects again, and there is another dreary wrangle, and the idea gets uppermost in your head that the city detective is a most literal-minded witness.

It is confusing.

Mary Phagan’s sister is there. She wears a black hat and an unaccustomed veil. You look in vain for tributes to emotion. She shows a mild interest in Mr. Rosser’s pomp and circumstance of language. Instead of another thrill, you gain a hazy impression that Mr. Rosser is an orator who loves to soar—who would soar, in fact, when he might get along faster by walking.

You hear the purr of the fans, the shuffle of feet, the clearing of throats. You are sensible that it is very warm and that the judge twice has handled his palm leaf as if it were a gavel. You see a juror yawn luxuriously and once more find proof that yawning is contagious.

Oh, yes—after the first twenty minutes (say), the Frank trial is much like any other, except—

Again a Thrill—Then Reaction.

“A big splotch that looked like blood.”

“Where was it?”

“Well, some of it was over in the corner. * * * It looked as if it had been swept over with something white. * * * The rest——“

“Well, tell the jury where was the rest.”

“Around a nail that stuck out. * * * The top of the nail was covered with blood, and * * *”

You sit back and your hands hurt from squeezing the arms of the seat. They are talking about a stairway again, and the city detective is pointing out something on the map with the bent-handled umbrella.

No use.

Plain human emotions simply won’t stick at concert pitch, even for the terrific romance of murder.

Once in a while, over the whirr of fans and the shuffle of feet and interminable squabbling of counsel, you feel the shadow of a crime—an uglier crime than that which took Eugene Aram out of Lynn, “with gyves upon his wrist.”

But only in the flashes.