Lee’s Quaint Answers Rob Leo Frank’s Trial of All Signs of Rancor

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

Atlanta Georgian
July 29th, 1913

By L. F. Woodruff

A page was ripped from a story of Harris Dickson. “Old Reliable” was paraded in the life in as somber a setting as was ever conceived and the temper of the audience that is following the fortunes of Leo Frank through his struggle for life and liberty was revealed.

Some sinister things have been said of the spirit of Atlanta in reference to the trial of the pencil factory superintendent as the slayer of Mary Phagan. It was whispered once that the law would not be allowed to take its course, but that, those who believe Frank guilty would take vengeance as their own.

And, on the other hand, it has been said in sotto voce that the purses of Frank’s friends would be opened to the last penny to see that he receives a verdict of acquittal.

Laugh Gives Lie to Rumor.

But right at the start the whisperings were given the lie, just as happens to most whisperings. A jury was selected and sworn in record time and the story of a people torn by factional feeling by the case was crushed.

The first important witness looked and spoke like “Old Reliable.” And his hearers laughed.

People inflamed by a passion so deadly that they are willing to defy the law to obtain their vengeance do not laugh when the issue is being fought.

People who are willing to spend their last dollar to see a man freed do not giggle when a witness relates circumstances which the opposition maintains, adds a strand to the cord of hemp which it is striving to weave about his neck.

Frank Getting Fair Trial.

Newt Lee, black, ignorant, cornfield pot-licker-fed darky, by the homeliness of his words proved beyond peradventure that Leo M. Frank is getting a fair and impartial trial as the law decrees, and that Atlanta is willing to abide by the verdict which the twelve men return when the historic case shall have passed to its final stage.

It took just such a character as Newt Lee to bring to light the true nature of the people who are listening to the trial, who are following the legal battle step by step, whose interest in the case is so intense that it has kept the slaying of Mary Phagan the big thing in the public mind for three long months.

Fortune favored both sides when the prosecution decided to place him on the stand among the first. Whether his story materially damaged Frank or his cross-examination materially aided the defense is of little moment. The reception of his testimony indicated to each side just what the public thought and enabled them to know that the case will be tried in the orderly manner which justice demands.

Newt Enjoys His Fame.

Let’s have a look at Newt Lee. There’s a lot to be learned from this homely negro. When his name was called and he entered the courtroom, he had a joyful realization of his own importance. His face showed he was again enjoying the thrilling pleasure of “comin’ thru” or going on a “scussion.”

He is typical of the type that Judge Dickson so vividly depicts. His head is flat as a ballroom floor. His big frame is sightly bent, not from weakness, but from the natural laziness of his type.

Sympathy that has been spent on him for his months in jail, thought admittedly innocent of any crime, has been spent in vain. Newt Lee has been having the time of his life.

“Ain’t dat nigger had his picture took and put in de white folks’ papers? Don’t dem big lawyers pay him respecks? Ain’t he jest sot dere in jail an’ not have to wuk?”

That’s the negro point of view and that’s Newt Lee’s. He has tasted all the popularity of a negro about to be hung and escaped the only drawback to the final ceremony, the actual hanging.

Sang-froid Never Shaken.

His sang-froid never left him even during the cross-examination he underwent under the skillful questioning of Luther Rosser.

He enjoyed every minute of the experience.

He spoke in a dialect that Dockstader would pay thousands for and he spoke with a directness and an intelligence that showed that he had either been thoroughly rehearsed or that he was possessed of one of those quick, in-seeing mind, so rarely found among negroes of his type, but so typical of the class.

Lee is beyond doubt “a white man’s nigger.” He spread a feeling of kindliness over a courtroom where bitterness was supposed to prevail. Judge, jurors, spectators, all seemed in sympathy with him, and even Mr. Rosser did not prod him in the merciless manner that has made him one of the most famous, one of the most feared cross-examiners in the entire South.

Newt did not wish to let one sweet moment of his self-aggrandizement slip. Once during the testimony he was asked as to his faithfulness in performing his duties as night wachman.

Light Jest Wuz Shinin’.”

He “swelled visibly,” as Sam Weller remarked, before he answered. “Folks say there never is been a nigger to punch that clock so prompt as me,” and a stern objection from Mr. Rosser kept him from going on with his story of personal prowess, though his lips struggled to speak the forbidden words.

And his illustrations were apt. They were not strained. They fitted like a glove. He was asked to tell whether a light was burning dimly or brightly. Like a flash he replied:

“Has you ever seed a lightnin’ bug? Has you ever seed one whut’s jest been hit with a stick? Well, you knows how his light shines. Hit jest do shine. Well, dat was dat light. Hit just wuz shinin’ and dat’s all.”

Racial horror of being alone in the presence of the dead was also displayed.

Lee was in a dramatic period of his story. He had just told of his grim discovery in the cellar of the pencil factory.

“What did you do when you saw the girl?” Solicitor Dorsey’s question was spoken with rifle shot ring.

He “Went Right Back Up.”

“I went right back up dat ladder,” said Lee, as though he were repeating a confession of faith.

“How did you get up the ladder?” asked the Solicitor.

“I dunno how I got up dar, but I sho’ wuz up dar. I sho’ wuz,” the negro replied fervently.

And on he went with his story, practically each reply being greeted by an outburst of laughter until a bailiff had to threaten to clear the courtroom.

He came down from the stand, smiling still, his glory gone, but realizing that for days he was sure to be a power on Decatur street, a persona sought for socially, a man among men. And as he descended the audience smiled an applause as gracious as bowling prima donnan or stentorian tragedian ever received.