Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.
Saturday, May 31st, 1913
Police Hope Meeting Will Prove Whether Negro Will Stick to Latest Story Under Eyes of the Man He Accuses—Ready to Pay Penalty.
[Important Developments Looked For, but Nothing Sensational Made Public—Insists He Has Told All, but Further Confession Is Expected.
For hours Saturday James Conley, negro sweeper, whose sensational confession accuses Superintendent Leo M. Frank of the murder of Mary Phagan, explained in detail to Solicitor General Hugh M. Dorsey the dread mysteries of the National Pencil Factory on April 26, explaining many things that had not been clear to the officials, but sticking tenaciously to the story he told the city detectives.
Conley was taken to the Solicitor’s office at that official’s request and put through a severe cross-examination. With an elaborate diagram, drawn for the Solicitor by Bert Green, a Georgian staff artist, to guide him, the negro traced the various scenes in the factory after the slaying of the girl.
He told just where he first claims to have found her and how he and the superintendent he accuses attempted to dispose of the body. The drama he enacted in the factory Friday for the detectives he re-enacted for the Solicitor in the little room at the court house with the artist’s charge as the stage and his finger as the tracer of tragedy.
Dorsey Well Satisfied.
The Solicitor was well satisfied with the results obtained in the secret conference behind closed doors and certain points that had been vague to him before were made clear.
At Conley’s own request, through William Smith, his counsel, the negro was later transferred to the police station. The negro had been so besieged by questioners at the county jail that he asked to be put within the shelter of police headquarters, where he had been closely guarded and where none but policemen had been allowed to interrogate him.
Conley intimated that he had been threatened at the jail, but little credence was put in his ramblings. It was plain that he wanted rest. He had told his story so often—each time, it may be noted, in almost the same words—that he was tired. The police agreed that he had answered enough questions from outsiders and he was moved. — The above section in brackets is additional information reported in the earlier “home” edition of the Georgian from the same date — Ed.]
A determined effort is being made by the police department to bring Leo M. Frank face to face with his accuser, Jim Conley, the negro sweeper.
The detectives wish to learn how Conley will go through the ordeal of confronting the man he accuses of directing the disposal of the body of Mary Phagan, and dictating the notes that were found her body.
They desire also to give Frank an opportunity to deny the negro’s story as Conley is repeating it. Frank has been the man of silence in the Tower. He has had nothing to say in regard to the crime to anyone who has sought to talk with him on the subject, unless it was to his most intimate friends who have visited him in his cell.
He still refuses to have anything to say or to have Conley brought to his cell, except by the permission of his attorney, Luther Z. Rosser, and in Mr. Rosser’s presence.
Plan to Ask Rosser.
The detectives propose to take the matter up with Attorney Rosser. They will represent that the case has reached a stage where it is necessary to give Conley’s statements their final test. Conley went over the scene of the crime step by step on Friday and never wavered in his tale involving Frank deeply.
Now it is desired to have him appear before the very man he so strongly accuses and have him repeat the terrible charges. Some believe that if Conley is alone guilty of the crime, this ordeal will be the final straw that will bring about his full confession.
If Attorney Rosser agrees to the plan, the negro will be taken at once to the cell of Frank. Conley is still in an unsettled state from his long three-day grilling by the detectives, and is thought to be just in the frame of mind to break down and make a full confession, if he knows any more about the crime than he already has told.
Silent Regarding the Case.
In the event that the meeting is arranged, it will be the first time that Frank has broken his silence in regard to the case. He may have talked of it to members of his own family, but his most intimate friends say that he has played cards with them and conversed freely on the topics of the day as he has read of them in the daily papers, but that he never has discussed the Phagan mystery directly and at length. Some of his friends have been with him every hour of every day since he has been in the cell at the Tower. They have been most loyal to the imprisoned man.
They declare that he never has mentioned the subject to any of the attaches of the jail, except occasionally to the Sheriff himself. And then it was in an almost impersonal manner.
“I do not know who is guilty,” he said, “but whoever he is, he should hang.”
Conley Is Ready to Pay Penalty as Accomplice.
“Yes, sir, I guess maybe it’s all over with me. I suppose they’re going to hang me or send me to the penitentiary for life, but I done told the truth.
“When the Sheriff puts the rope around my neck, I’m going to say:
“’Stop; wait a minute. I know I did wrong. I tried to hid that dead girl’s body and I ought to be punished, but before God I didn’t kill her.”
Jim Conley, negro sweeper, whose confession that he helped Leo M. Frank dispose of the body of Mary Phagan after the superintendent had killed her, created a profound sensation, peered through the bars of his cell to the Fulton Tower and pronounced his readiness to die for his crime as an accomplice, and in the same breath protested his innocence of the actual murder.
Ready to Face Frank.
“I am ready right now,” he said, “to face Mr. Frank. I’ll look him right in the eye and I’ll say, ‘You know I didn’t kill that girl, Mr. Frank, and you know I’m telling the truth to these white folks.”
Conley declared again that Frank wrote one note himself. He said he had written the “long, tall black negro message” on “single-ruled, white paper from a tablet.” He asserted that Frank wrote something on paper not white, but a shade of green or gray—paper that he thought had the letterhead of the National Pencil Company factory on it.
It has always been taken for granted that the two notes are the work of one man. The paper of neither corresponds to that described by Conley as the kind Frank used. What does Conley’s assertion signify?
Harassed by questioners, bombarded with hostile queries, importuned and threatened in an effort to get at the truth in the terrible pencil factory mystery—in the minds of many a mystery no longer—this negro withstood every attempt to shake the remarkable story he unfolded to the detectives in the startling confession affidavit and re-enacted at the scene of the crime itself.
Sticks Close to Story.
Like an unwinding panorama, he laid before his questioners in the eloquent, if often almost incoherent, jargon of Decatur Street the shifting scenes in the grim tragedy which reached its great climax Friday, but in which the greatest battle is yet to be fought in the courts of Fulton County.
One thing is certain: Those who have though that it will be easy for a skillful lawyer to tear the negro’s story into tatters must revise their judgment. From careful rehearsal, studied drilling or the indelible impression of ghastly tragedy, the prisoner has learned his lesson well. From whatever angle he is attacked he tells the same narrative. Under cajolery or abuse he is unchanged.
“I waited and waited, boss,” he said. “I thought Mr. Frank would sure see me. I thought maybe we could have a talk and maybe everything would be all right, but he never would see me. I tried once and I tried twice and I tried again, but Mr. Frank never would see me. So, I guessed it was just about time for me to tell the truth. It looked like Mr. Frank couldn’t get out of it after all, and it was all up, so I told the truth.”
Looks Little Like Novelist.
A shiny-skinned, close-cropped, thick-chested, low-browed negro is Jim Conley—with eyes smiling or sinister as his mood changes—like a thousand and one other negroes that make faithful servants or troublesome prisoners as their footsteps happen to fail, and if the story he tells is the product of his imagination he belies appearances.
It may be he has learned his tale as a child learns a fairy story until it sees the goblins as it plays in the twilight. It may be that constant turning over of them in his mind as he lay in a police cell for three weeks, that constant repetition has made the details come readily to his lips. The lesson is learned. There is no doubt of that.
“Jim, why did you write the notes?” he was asked. “Didn’t is strike you that ‘long tall black negro,’ would be taken to mean you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Conley, readily. “It did and I tole Mr. Frank, I said, ‘Look here, Mr. Frank, they’re going to think that means me.’ But Mr. Frank said he just wanted it to send to his mother, so his mother wouldn’t think he done it, and he told me he had powerful wealthy folks in Brooklyn—that was the first time I ever heard he had rich folks up North at all, I thought they all lived here—so I wrote what he told me.”
Frank Always Good to Him.
Now this reply, as it is given, sounds incoherent and preposterous, but it is given just as Conley gave it and no amount of questioning could change it.
“How long did you know Mr. Frank?” was another question.
“I guess I must a known Mr. Frank (Conley kept scrupulously to the “mister” throughout) for about two years. Yes, sir, he was always a good boss to me. There was never no trouble about getting my money if I needed it. Yes, sir, Mr. Frank was always pretty good to me.”
“And now you’re telling a story, Jim, that may cost a good boss his life.”
“Well, I had to do it. That’s all there was to it. I had to tell the truth. I waited and waited for Mr. Frank to do something and when he didn’t I just reckoned he couldn’t and it was about all up.”
Three distinct times during the questioning Conley let drop remarks that might truthfully be interpreted as jubilation that another man was in as bad a plight as he.
Shows Little Sorrow.
Each time when the remark was called to his attention he protested that he had no feelings of malice against Frank and that he was not eager to see him suffer. In spite of his protests, it was very plain that he beheld with little sorrow the predicament of the man he accuses.
The stumbling block of premeditation Conley removed entirely. He explained without any apparent hesitation that Frank had told him Friday that he should report Saturday to shove some boxes of pencils that had been reposing on one shelf for about two years.
He was absolutely certain that the killing was accidental.
“Mr. Frank,” said Conley, “never meant to kill that girl. No, sir, he never had no idea like that. When he come running to me and said, ‘Jim, want to make some money quick,’ and I said yes, he said ‘I picked up a girl back there and let her fall and her head hit against something,’ and he told me to get a cloth, and I ran back and I looked down and I saw a girl lying on the floor, all still, and her head was cut, and I hollered, ‘Why, Mr. Frank, this girl’s dead.’”
Clings Close to Details.
The rest of this chapter of the heartbreaking story has been told and retold since The Georgian presented Conley’s affidavit. The negro clung tenaciously to the details as he gave them to the detectives.
He added that he had heard no scream, but accounted for that by the distance he was from the scene of the killing, according to his story—several hundred feet, he thought.
He declared that a piece of the girl’s skirt had been torn away. Certain grim questions were put to him along lines which the detectives have indicated they will take. The replies, even hesitatingly and with apparent unwillingness, were sinister and unmentionable, but they will play a forbidding part in the trial of Frank.
Conley asserted that he could not explain the torn-away staple on the back door in the basement. He asserted also that he had not put the death notes beside the body.
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