Report Negro Found Who Saw Phagan Attack


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

Atlanta Georgian

Friday, June 6th, 1913

St. Louis, June 6.—That a negro, who is alleged to have said he witnessed the murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta, is under arrest in Cairo, Ill., and is about to be returned to Atlanta by a Pinkerton detective, was the information brought into St. Louis today by a passenger who declared he overheard a conversation betwene [sic] the detective and an attorney in the case who were on the train en route to Cairo.

According to the passenger, the negro has admitted that he was in Atlanta with a show at the time of the murder, and was shooting craps in the basement of the National Pencil Factory with a negro watchman when the watchman told him that he would attack the Phagan girl, which was done in his presence.

Inquiry at Cairo failed to-day to verify the report of the arrest of the negro.

Strenuous denials of any knowledge of the mysterious affidavit reported to have been made by Jim Conley, in which he was said to have confessed to A. S. Colyar that he murdered Mary Phagan, was made to Chief of Detectives Lanford Friday by both men.

Conley, on the grill, declared that he had never heard of Colyar until he read his name in the newspapers in connection with the pictograph controversy. The negro said he had never either talked with him or seen him, and that he had at no time made an affidavit other than the ones given to the police.

Colyar made a similar denial. Following the examination, Lanford declared that the whole report was wholly without foundation. He also stated that Conley had reiterated the truth of his former affidavit and that there was nothing further to add to it.

“I attribute this report to Colonel Felder’s work,” said the chief. “It merely shows again that Felder is in league with the defense of Frank; that the attorney is trying to muddy the waters of this investigation to shield Frank and throw the blame on another.

Charges Felder Plot.

“This first became noticeable when Felder endeavored to secure the release of Conley. His ulterior motive, I am sure, was the protection of Frank. He had been informed that the negro had this damaging evidence against Frank, and Felder did all in his power to secure the negro’s release. He declared that it was a shame that the police should hold Conley, an innocent negro.

“He protested strenuously against it. Yet not one time did Felder attempt to secure the release of Newt Lee or Gordon Bailey on the same grounds, even though both of these negroes had been held longer than Conley. This to me is significant of Felder’s ulterior motive in getting Conley away from the police.”

Peculiar Features.

A feature of Conley’s affidavits and stories which has struck many who have read them over is the apparent care which has been taken in framing the declarations so that Conley can not be held as an accessory to the murder itself, and so that the indictment can hold which charges Leo Frank of killing Mary Phagan by strangulation.

In the sensational affidavit in which Conley swore that he helped Frank dispose of the body, there was no mention of the cord with which the strangulation was supposed to have been accomplished. It was only said that Frank had told Conley that a girl had hit her head against something back there. This left nothing in the negro’s story to indicate that the killing had been other than accidental. The indictment charging strangulation would have had no support in the negro’s story.

An Omission Supplied.

But the day that the negro went through the factory with the detectives and re-enacted the tragedy, this omission was supplied. Conley was standing at the point where he said he had found the body and was describing the manner in which it lay. He was about to continue by telling of placing it on his shoulder when he was interrupted by one of the officers.

“Didn’t you find any cord there?” the officer asked.

Conley hesitated and then answered that he had, and said that the cord was right by the girl’s body, but that he did not know that it had been used to strangle her.

Conley’s story also avoided implicating him as an accessory to the murder by declaring that Frank had said that the girl had struck her head accidentally. This relieved Conley from any guilty knowledge of the girl’s death. Had Conley framed his story so as to have Frank admitting murdering the girl, Conley would have been an accessory to the crime and would have been liable to the death penalty.

Mystery in Notes.

Another weird feature is contained in one of Conley’s stories of the note writing. He said that he wrote one of the notes and that Frank wrote another. Yet the two notes are admittedly in identically the same handwriting.

After this is explained, those interested in the case will ask how Frank could have been satisfied with these incoherent notes, in the first place. It will be represented that if the notes actually had been dictated, as the negro says they were, there would have been some intelligibility and evident sequence to the notes. Instead, they say, the notes are exactly like the ramblings of a drunken and ignorant person.

Darley’s Contradiction.

No explanation ever has been given of the wide discrepancies in the time of different events on the day of the tragedy, as narrated by the negro and a[r]e described by others who were actual participants in the events. One of the most glaring is that of the conversation which Conley says he overheard between Foreman Darley and Miss Mattie Smith. Conley has declared that he heard this between 11 and 12 o’clock. Darley insists that he left the factory with Miss Smith at 9:30 in the morning. At this time Conley says he was not in the factory, but that he came later at the invitation of Frank.

Conley may not be able to explain these breaks in his story at this time, but he surely will be asked to explain them satisfactorily when he is called as a witness in the trial of Frank.

The McKnight Incident.

Chief of Detectives Lanford said Friday that his department would take no further action in reference to Minola McKnight, the colored cook at the Frank residence, who is said by the detectives to have made an affidavit incriminating Frank, but who denied it shortly after to The Georgian.

Chief Lanford said that if the woman was to be rearrested it would have to be at the instigation of Solicitor Dorsey. With an investigation of the “leaks” in the department taking place before the Grand Jury, the detectives are saying little to-day about the Phagan case, but it was plain that they were disappointed that the McKnight affidavit, which had been heralded as a document of the most vital importance, had fallen first so far as actual value as evidence was concerned.

The affidavit, in the first place, was only hearsay evidence and would not have been received in any court. To top this, the woman only a few hours after she is said to have made the affidavit made a most emphatic and complete denial. She said that she had said nothing and that she knew nothing damaging to Frank.

“I am not surprised at the turn of this feature of the case,” is the only comment that Chief Lanford would make upon her repudiation.

Censorship Ordered.

Announcement was made by Chief of Detectives Lanford Friday that he had issued orders forbidding the giving out of any information to the newspapers except by the heads of the departments.

The chief said that the order had been given prior to any investigation by the Grand Jury into department “leaks” and was, therefore, not the result of the probe. It, however, was not posted until Thursday night.

The new order makes any member of the detective force liable to immediate suspension if he gives out information without the authority of the head of the department.

Conforming to the new order, Detectives Starnes and Campbell refused to intimate the nature of the information they gleaned from Jim Conley’s wife after they had questioned her at length in the office of Solicitor Dorsey. They would not even divulge the reason for questioning her again.

Frank’s Cook Missing.

The report that Minola McKnight, reputed author of the sensational affidavit against Leo M. Frank, had disappeared from her home added another mystery to the Phagan murder investigation Friday.

She was not at the Selig residence, 68 East Georgia Avenue, where she had been employed as cook and where she returned immediately after she was released from the police station. It was said she could not be found at her home in the rear of 351 Pulliam Street and the detectives denied they had her in custody again.

Her whereabouts was a complete mystery, although the search that was being made was expected to locate her within a short time. It was not believed that she had left town, but rather that she was in hiding at the home of one of her acquaintances of relatives to avoid further questioning by the police and newspaper reporters.

Gordon Represents Whom?

George Gordon, whose name has been mentioned frequently as the attorney of the McKnight woman, was asked Friday to define his connection with the Phagan case. This he declined to do. He was asked whether his services had been engaged personally by the McKnight woman or by other parties. He refused to answer.

“What does the woman say?” he inquired.

“She says that she doesn’t even know you,” he was told. He would make no comment on this information, citing instead the example of a certain wise old owl that found that the less he said the more he heard. Then he proceeded faithfully to emulate the example of the owl by returning to his typewriter.

Say Woman Is Lying.

That Minola McKnight was lying when she asserted that she never had signed an affidavit in regard to conversations she had heard between Mrs. Leo Frank and her mother was the statement Friday of Ernest Pickett and Roy Cravens, the two employees at the Beck & Gregg hardware store whose information led to the arrest of the McKnight woman.

They did not wish to talk at length on the matter, but desired to make this particular statement in reference to the affidavit, as they said that they had been present during the time the affidavit was being prepared and when the McKnight woman signed it.

They said that considerable persuasion was necessary before the woman finally consented to talk, but that after she began she told her story with little hesitation.

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Atlanta Georgian, June 6th 1913, “Report Negro Found Who Saw Phagan Attack,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)