Mary Phagan’s Death Only Assured Fact Developed

by Archivist on May 11, 2016

Mary Phagan's Death Only

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

Atlanta Georgian

Sunday, May 11th, 1913

BY JAMES. B. NEVIN.

Mary Phagan is dead. She was murdered.

Leo Frank, and Newt Lee are in jail, upon the findings of a Coroner’s jury, held as suspects for investigation by the Grand Jury.

Here is a case of cause and effect involving the most elusive series of connecting events that ever came under my observation of criminals and crime, through fifteen years of varied newspaper experience in a number of American cities.

It is not my purpose here to try this case. Such comments as I may set down are personal merely.

I did sit through the last day of the Coroner’s inquest, but beyond that, my information as to this strange case came to me by way of the mouths and pens of persons charged with some measure of responsibility for fixing the truth of the matter in such wise as it might be fixed. My facts are authoritative, my conclusions strictly my own.

It is my opinion that the slayer of poor, little Mary Phagan has not yet been found or identified. Moreover within my mind there dwells an ever-increasing doubt that her slayer, or slayers, ever will be apprehended.

Case Against Prisoners.

As I see it, a wabbly circumstantial case has been made out against Frank, and all but no case at all against Lee.

The most horrible false details have been conjured up in some disordered brain hereabout, and imaginary facts and circumstances of this little girl’s death have been passed from lip to lip in revolting detail. It was bad enough, as it was—but removed from out the mass of misinformation, near-facts, pure falsehoods, and prejudice, what remains of it? What is there left that will stand up before a jury and fix responsibility for Mary Phagan’s murder upon somebody now in custody?

Lee’s Straight Story.

I looked Newt Lee over carefully, observed his manner and his general bearing on the stand, during the sitting of the Coroner’s jury on Thursday. I have studied his testimony as delivered at the hearing. Lee is just an ordinary negro. There half a million Newt Lees in the South to-day. He told a simple, straightforward story from the first—and no amount of prodding has caused him to swerve a hair’s breadth from it.

If Lee committed the crime, he is a most unusual negro—rather than a most commonplace negro, such as I take him to be. If he killed Mary Phagan early in the evening of April 26—and he must have murdered her early in the evening, if at all—and remained in the building with her dead body until 4 a.m., then to call the police, he is the most astonishing negro that ever came under my observation!

If, however, there were other circumstances tending to show that he did do it, nevertheless, I might incline to waive the first cited unnatural and unheard of circumstance, and say all right, he may have done it.

If Lee committed the crime and then dragged the body to the cellar of the National Pencil Factory, there to lay it in the dirt until he sent in his 4 o’clock alarm, why was the staple of the door leading into the cellar broken from the outside? Was this done to arouse the suspicion that the murderer and the murdered came into the cellar through the cellar door, and that, therefore, the crime was committed by some one outside the factory? This necessarily would mean that the real murderer inside the factory, after committing his crime, dragged the body to the cellar, then went outside, broke the staple of the door, re-entered the building and awaited his next move, the belated alarm to the police.

Where Was Mary Phagan.

Did Lee do that? He is a most exceptional negro, if he did. And yet, if murderer and murdered really did enter that cellar from the outside, and after dark, or near dark, what became of Mary Phagan from the time she was paid off at noon until dark or near dark, as the case may have been? Could she have been outside the factory any of that time, or part of that time, and no living soul be willing to testify to that fact to-day?

Against all these fine spun theories, must be set off Lee’s remaining in the factory certainly many hours after the murder was committed, his alarm to the police near daybreak, his straightforward story, and his satisfactory bearing since the crime was brought to light.

Did Lee murder Mary Phagan? If not, does he know anything of who did murder her? Or is he utterly innocent of all connection with it?

Mary Phagan's Death Only 2

Personally, I incline to the last conclusion, but I may be altogether wrong.

It looks to me more probable that Lee did the perfectly negro-like thing in this Phagan case, and not the unusual or very-much-out-of-the-way thing.

Well, if not Lee, was Leo Frank concerned in this killing?

A jury likely will pass upon that, for I suspect the Grand Jury will indict Frank. There is some circumstantial detail connecting him with this crime that may or may not mean much.

I looked Frank over critically at the Coroner’s inquest, just as I looked Newt Lee over.

Appearance of Frank.

Frank looks very unlike the traditional murderer. That spells little if anything, perhaps—at least, nothing of itself. And yet a man’s gentlemanly appearance should count for something, when there is nothing much established against him otherwise.

Unfortunately for Frank, it is easier to make out a case of what he might have done than it is to make out a case against somebody else as to what HE might have done.

But, while Frank MAY have done all these things, were is the evidence that he DID do them? Such as there is is purely and loosely circumstantial, and woefully lacking in detail at that.

Solicitor Dorsey plainly is puzzled almost to his wits end by the mysteriousness of the Phagan case. I doubt capitally, although he has not said this to me, that he believes he has sufficient evidence to justify an indictment either of Frank or Lee. I think he DOES believe that he is on the right road, but that he is far from being in sight of the end thereof.

But, even after indictment, it is a long, long road to conviction in circumstantial cases, even of the strongest kind.

As to the attempts to break down Frank’s character—well, there has been testimony submitted pro and con on that phase of the case. To my mind, the evidence submitted in vindication of his character has outweighed that against it—that is to say, the preponderance is favorable to Frank.

Who, then, DID murder Mary Phagan? The question is almost as far from an answer to-day, I think, as it was when Mary Phagan’s dead body was dragged to light on that early Sunday morning in April.

At the Coroner’s inquest, ninety—five per cent. of the questions asked were irrelevant, and ninety-nine per cent. of the information obtained worthless. Necessarily this was so, because there was so very, very little to go on! The Coroner, the Solicitor, and the jury did the best they could—angels could have done no better, perhaps—but there was so little by way of fact to predicate questions upon.

If the cases against Frank and Lee break down, where shall investigation begin anew? If there were other clews to be obtained, over and beyond the pitiful few that were obtained, could they be picked up now? It is within the range of the possible, but hardly within the range of the probable.

* * *

Atlanta Georgian, May 11th 1913, “Mary Phagan’s Death Only Assured Fact Developed,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)

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