Jim Conley’s Story as Matter of Fact as if it Were of His Day’s Work

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

By O. B. Keeler.

Jim Conley, hewer of wood and drawer of water.

On the witness stand at the Frank trial this morning, Jim unfolded a tale whose lightest word—you know the rest. It was a story that flexed attention to the breaking point: a story that whitened knuckles and pressed finger nails into palms; a story that absorbed the usual courtroom stir and rustle, and froze the hearers into lines upon lines of straining faces.

And Jim Conley told that story as he might have told the story of a day’s work at well-digging, or driving a dray, or sweeping up the second floor at the National Pencil Factory.

Jim was matter-of-fact.

A Story in Monosyllables.

And the farther boundary of the hideous slips very near as you listen to a matter-of-fact narrative, in words of one syllable, such as that Jim Conley told this morning.

A hewer of wood—and Jim Conley slipped the strangling cord over his own neck, to show how he said he had found it about the neck of Mary Phagan. A drawer of water—and Jim Conley’s work-worn hands were quick to twist and turn the burlap, wrapping and lifting and bearing an imaginary horrid burden.

True or false, Jim Conley told his tale as a part of the day’s work.

He spoke rapidly; very rapidly. His vocabulary was small, and he seemed to know all the words well. Mr. Dorsey asked him few questions, once the real business was reached. The defense opposed fewer objections.

It was with Jim Conley.

His Face Never Changes.

Not a line of his face changed. His broad, low forehead was unwrinkled. He was prompt to take out his meager descriptive powers with gestures.

“Mr. Frank, he set in his chair, and he twis; about, this way and that; he twis’ like he was too far to the front, or too far to the back, or the chair was too big, or too little. * * *

And then he do his hands this way (clasping them), and he look up at the ceiling, and he say: ‘Why should I hang? I got rich people in Brooklym.’”

“And what did Jim do then?”

“Me? I look up at the ceiling, too. But I ain’t see nothing.”

And again, after the fearful visit to the basement:

“Mr. Frank, he stumble like that when he get out of the elevator, and he wipe his face and he say, ‘Gee, that was an awful hard job.’ And I say, ‘Pshaw, Mr. Frank, your job wasn’t nothin’ like what mine was.’”

“And what time was it?”

“I look up at the clock and the clock say ‘fo minutes of 2.”

Story Unfolds Like a Film.

True or false, Jim Conley’s story unrolled itself with all the speed and certainty of a picture film. He did not hesitate once. His narrative was packed with detail. But there was no emotion in the telling.

“Yes, sir—I didn’t want to go back there with them notes because I was scared,” Jim said readily. But he might have been talking of not wanting to go down in a well on a “job of work,” because the rope didn’t look good.

And about this grim task of wrapping the dead girl in burlap, “like you do up the wash in a sheet on a Monday morning” and the struggling journey to the basement and the scrawled notes, and all the rest—why did Jim Conley do it?

“Mr. Frank, he tell me to do it.”

True or false, there spoke the crude training of the centuries, the enduring command laid from near the beginning on the hewers of wood and drawers of water—on the servants of the world.

* * *

The Atlanta Georgian, August 4th 1913, “Jim Conley’s Story as Matter of Fact as if it Were of His Day’s Work,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)