Jim Conley, the Ebony Chevalier of Crime, is Darktown’s Own Hero

This shows the Solicitor in an argument at the Frank trial.

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 7th, 1913

By James B. Nevin

Now that James Conley has been dismissed from the Frank trial, now that he has stood safely the fire of Mr. Rosser’s most exhaustive grilling, what of him?

If Frank is convicted, Conley subsequently will be convicted, no doubt, of being an accessory after the fact of Mary Phagan’s murder—and that will mean three years, at most, in the penitentiary.

After that—when the Frank trial, more or less, has been forgotten—Conley will be a liberty to come back amongst the people of Atlanta.

Not far from Five Points, a little due east along one of the big thoroughfares meeting there, there is a negro bootblack who now and then, when he is on the job, which frequently he isn’t, gives me a “shine” so much to my liking that it brings me back on other days.

He is a sort of Jim Conley negro—at least, he has a smattering of education, an ingratiating air, and is polite, particularly when it pays him to be.

Quite without previous design, I stopped at this negro’s stand Wednesday afternoon, and it was not long before he mentioned the famous trial. He having started the conversation, I asked him a few questions—and his replies, given herein in part, rather set me to thinking.

Complimented on All Sides.”

“George,” I said—not that I know his name is George, but that it so happens I address negroes unknown of name that way—“what do your friends down on Decatur street think of Jim Conley’s story over yonder in the big court? Rather clever, negro, Jim, eh?” said I to this bootblack.

“Well, boss, dat Mr. Rosser ain’t made nothing on Jim yit, is he?” replied George.

I ventured the opinion that Mr. Rosser failed, at least, to make Jim out so many different kinds of a liar that his story might not stick in spots.

“Well, boss,” continued my bureau of information, “dem niggers down on Decatur street, dey ain’t talking of nothing but Jim Conley. He’s de most talked about nigger anywhere, I guess. I hears him complimented on all sides!”

“In other words, Jim’s a sort of hero along Decatur street nowadays?” said I.

“Yassir, dat’s it—Jim’s a hero. Niggers all talking about him. He done got de best of de smartest of ‘um. Nobody can’t fool er nigger like Jim!”

Hero Around “Butt In” Bar.

I presume, too, that something of the same condition prevails over on Peters street—particularly in the neighborhood of the “Butt In” bar over there.

You remember the “Butt In” boozorium in Peters street is the one wherein Conley filled up rather freely on beer, the morning of the Phagan murder, also on beer mixed with wine.

The “Butt In,” it also will be recalled, is where Conley obtained a “double-header” beer—“double-headers” being the order of the day always in the “Butt In;” there being, perhaps, some subtly humorous connection between “Butt In” and “double-header!”

It Is Not Improbable.

It is not improbable that many a foaming “double-header” has been dumped into dusky citizens along the way of the “Butt In” of late—in honor of Jim, and the way he “done got de best of de smartest of um, over dar in de big court!”

If Jim Conley ever gets back to Decatur street, and hereafter he be permitted to tread the primrose way of the “Butt In” bar over on Peters, in all probability the drinks will not cost him anything for many days.

The proprietor of the “Butt In” doubtless right now would scorn to take Mr. Conley’s honest money—the violent presumption being that Jim ever had, or ever will have, that kind of money—even for “double-headers.”

Jim has just passed through the fire. And he got through, his reputation more or less damaged for truthfulness, to be sure, but not utterly shattered beyond patching up in such wise that it might be worked one more time, at least, if necessary.

True, Conley already had been in jail seven times that he admits of, and several times more that he can not recall precisely, and that had served to make him something of a hero in darkest Darktown; but Jim’s involuntary residence in durance vile heretofore has been in police circles and mere county chaingangs exclusively. So that didn’t make him a particularly big hero—albeit it made him a hero not altogether to be sneezed at!

Now, however, Jim has been in “de big court,” tangled all up in a murder case, suspected by some of being a principal to the murder, indeed, but cleverly side-stepping that too deadly peril—and his name has been in all the newspapers hundreds of times, and his picture dozens of times, and before he gets through with it, he will be decorated by the State’s majesty in stripes—but the latter not so long that it will seriously inconvenience anybody, particularly Jim!

All in all, Jim’s a real hero in darkest Darktown, at last—a real ebony chevalier of crime—and those brethren who frequent the “Butt Ins” and the “Butt Outs,” and booze dispensaries of like persuasion will bow down and worship Jim—for, in their philosophy, of such as Jim is the Decatur street “kingdom of heaven.”

Ruling Generally Approved.

The general impression seems to be that Judge Roan did the right thing in permitting the Conley story to go to the jury in its entirety, inasmuch as it had gone in deadly part, anyway.

Perhaps the evidence fixing upon Leo Frank another crime than the one he stands charged with under the present indictment was primarily inadmissible, but there was no way to relieve the jury of the charge Conley made, and it would have been hardly fair either to the jury, the court and even to the defendant, to cut the story off there.

If the State is able to sustain its terrible charge against Frank, it perhaps is common sense now to let it proceed to the corroborating of Conley, if it can corroborate him.

To have left Conley’s charge neither contradicted nor corroborated—that would merely have resulted in its probable corroboration in the minds of the public, if not elsewhere.

The things Conley said to the Frank jury can not be said and then forgotten.

It would have been folly to have ASKED the jury to forget—it would have been imposing upon it an impossible mental task.

Other Charge as Serious.

It it so be that error was committed in not ruling out the story, a new trial will be granted, on appeal, in the event of Frank’s conviction—and the trial next time undoubtedly will proceed without this particular evidence in.

The State can, if it falls to sustain eventually its charge of murder, still move against Frank, if it so elects, in the other direction—which crime under the Code, is quite as serious as murder.

One may feel the injustice of flinging at Frank, while on trial for murder, another capital charge—still, since the additional charge was admitted, with protest, as an original proposition few people will contend strenuously that the State should not be permitted to proceed to the conclusion of a line of evidence begun without protest.

I have heard Judge Roan’s ruling discussed about town last night, and to-day, and I heard few who find fault in it.

Indeed, as matter of simple justice to Frank, no less than to the State—and it will not do to forget that the State has large rights at stake in this matter—it seems common sense and elementary justice that the State having made its awful charge, but required either to corroborate it or not.

That appears to be the public attitude to the matter.

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Atlanta Georgian, August 7th 1913, “Jim Conley, the Ebony Chevalier of Crime, is Darktown’s Own Hero,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)