Second Chapter in Phagan Mystery

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

Atlanta Georgian
July 23rd, 1913

The Discovery of the Body of the Slain Factory Girl and Start of Hunt for Slayer.


His heart pounding in superstitious fright, Newt Lee, the night watchman, forced himself to approach the strange object on the pile of debris in the pencil factory basement. A step nearer and he could make out what appeared to be a human foot. He recoiled and was on the point of precipitate flight.

But he must look closer, he thought. Perhaps, after all, it was only the ghastly prank of some of the factory employees who had manufactured a rude effigy and placed it there to scare him.

Determinedly he walked closer and thrust his lantern out over the mysterious object. He shrieked. Before his horrified eyes the shaky and uncertain light of his lantern disclosed the body of a little girl.

Grimed, bloody and mutilated the body lay on the flat of its back, as the terrified negro remembered it afterward, although the police, coming a few minutes later, found the body on its face, one arm drawn slightly up under the body and the other stretched full length at the side.

Discrepancy Not Explained.

This strange discrepancy never has been explained to the public except by the possibility that Lee, in his terror, was mistaken in the position he believed the body was in when he discovered it. Conley, telling his remarkable story three weeks later, said that he dumped the girl’s body face downward on the trash pile where it later was come upon by Lee.

Lee was to oappalled [sic] by his grewsome find to make a close investigation. He only saw that it was a little white girl and that she had been murdered. With frightened steps he hurried to the ladder at the other end of the basement. He was in a panic. He scuttled up the ladder and dropped the trap door over it. He felt a bit relieved away from the blackness of the basement and the awful thing that it contained.

In a moment he remembered that Mr. Frank had told him that when anything happened at the factory to call the police. The telephone at police headquarters rang at 3:30 o’clock. Policeman Anderson answered it perfunctorily. Suddenly he straightened in his chair, his indifference dropping from him in a flash.

“What’s that? What’s that?” he shouted, trying to make out the incoherent message of the negro at the other end of the wire. Finally he understood that a girl had been killed and that her body was lying in the basement of the National Pencil Factory on Forsyth street.

Police Rush to Scene.

“There’s been a murder, fellows,” he exclaimed, slamming the receiver on the hook. “Boots” Rogers was in the station. His automobile stood in front. The two men rushed out and jumped into the car. In the still morning hours, they dashed toward the scene of the tragedy. Sergeants Dobbs and Brown stood conversing at Pryor and Decatur streets. An instant’s stop was made and the two officers leaped into the car.

The automobile sped on to Forsyth street, and then down to the bleak, gray building from which only one dim light flickered. The car had barely stopped before the men were out of it, and on the sidewalk. They tried the door and it was locked. They rattled it impatiently and in a moment the figure of the still frightened negro, swinging his smoky lantern, was seen coming down the stairs that lead from the second floor.

“Where’s the body?” was the first question they shot at him.

Already the negro was under the shadow of suspicion.

“Come this way,” Lee replied, and led the way to the opening into the dark basement.

Into the Dark Basement.

One by one the officers descended the narrow ladder into the inky darkness, unrelieved except by the single gas jet, which was turned so low that the negro Lee described it as a “lightning bug.” Dobbs and Brown, with the negro, took the lead. Straight to the huddled, tragic form the black man guided the men. Sergeant Brown took one look.

“My God, it’s only a child!” he exclaimed.

And the child was little Mary Phagan, who had gone forth from home the day before filled with the happiness of youth and untouched by any thought of harm or evil.

The change was terrible. In the tortured form that lay cold in the factory basement could hardly be recognized the fresh, pretty girl that came to Atlanta the day before to draw her pay and take childish delight in the Memorial Day parade.

The brute who slew her had worked a sickening transformation in her features. The smiling, innocent face was bruised, swollen and discolored. Cinders and black dirt were ground into the tender face so that at first it was almost impossible to tell whether she was black or white.

Dragged About the Floor.

She appeared to have been dragged across the basement floor by her murderer with as little feeling as is given a sheep in the shambles.

Blood from an ugly wound in the back of the head soaked and matted the pretty hair that, with girlish vanity, had been carefully brushed and tied with twin blue ribbons on each side of her head when she left home.

A length of heavy cord was looped about her neck, and the deep purple imprints in her flesh told that her assailant had used this either to drag her across the floor or to strangle her to death. If the story of the negro Conley is found to be true, the body was not dragged in the basement. A clumsy gag, torn from her dress, was bound around her head.

The pongee, silk lavender dress which Mary proudly had donned for the holiday was torn and bloodstained. The twin bows of blue had been kept in place by the gag bound around her head. One little slipper was on her right foot and the other was found a few feet away. Her hat was found near the elevator shaft.

Basement is Searched.

When the policemen had recovered from their first horror they set out at once to investigate. They had hardly begun a search of the basement before their eyes lighted on two bits of paper by the side of the body. These contained the mysterious incoherent notes which were to play such a large part in the progress of the investigation.

This is the manner in which the almost illegible scrawls was deciphered:

“He said he wood love me laid down like the night witch did it, but that long tall black negro did it by hisself.”

The other read:

“Mama that negro hired down here did this I went to get water and he pushed me down this hole a long tall negro black that has it woke long lean tall negro I write while play with me.”

By daybreak the police and detective departments were in a turmoil of excitement.

Lee Put Under Arrest.

Newt Lee, the only person at the time known to have been in the factory while the murdered girl was there, was placed under immediate arrest, being taken directly from the factory to the police station. The dragnet was spread for other suspects. Leo Frank had been called from the factory by Policeman Anderson, but no answer came to the telephone. Early in the morning an automobile was sent to his house and he was brought to the police station to tell all he knew in order to assist the officers in their search for criminal.

Soon after daybreak the news spread that a terrible murder had been committed; that a 14-year-old girl had been attacked and strangled in the National Pencil factory. Crowds of morbidly curious began to gather about the factory. They pressed their way into the front door and swarmed down into the cellar. Officers had difficulty in handling them.

Who the victim of the tragedy was the officers had not yet succeeded in establishing. Someone had said he thought it was a girl by the name of “Fagan,” but no one was certain. Grace Hicks, of No. 100 McDonough road, one of the girl employees of the factory, was brought from her home by “Boots” Rogers to identify the body.

Girl Identifies Victim.

She looked at the swollen face and at the little gold bracelet imbedded in the flesh of the arm.

“It’s Mary Phagan,” she cried, and fainted.

She had been a warm friend of the murdered girl and at one time had worked by her side.

One of the most pathetic scenes was enacted when 12-year-old Vera Epps, who had been a chum and playmate of the Phagan girl since Mary had moved to Atlanta, visited the morgue and looked upon the distorted features of her little friend.

She burst into hysterical weeping and would not be comforted. She probably did not comprehend the full tragedy, but she knew that her playmate had been taken from her in a terrible manner and that some man fiendishly and ruthlessly had strangled her to death. Her father and mother were with her. They tried to get her to leave the room where the body lay, but she stayed on for more than an hour.

Cries Out for Vengeance.

Childish rage was added to her sorrow and she cried for vengeance.

“I’d help lynch the man that killed poor Mary,” she cried, clenching her little hands in fury. “If they’d just let me I’d like to hold the rope that choked him to death. That’s all he deserves. I was playing with Mary only a few days ago. She was my playmate nearly every day, but when I saw her dead body I hardly would have known her.”

A grief-stricken home on Lindsay street received the news of Mary Phagan’s fate that morning. Mrs. Coleman, her mother, had been frantic with anxiety when Mary had failed to return home the night before. Mary had said that she would return directly that she would return directly after the Memorial Day parade. She never had failed in any of her promises.

But the mother remembered that Mary had remarked about wanting to go to the Bijou. Possibly she had met some of her girl companions and they had gone to the entertainment in the evening. She sent Mr. Coleman to town to wait at the door of the theater. He waited until long after the crowd had filed out, but Mary did not come. Mrs. Phagan slept hardly at all that night.

Mother Had Premonition.

Mary probably had gone to the home of one of her friends, she tried to assure herself, but a deadly weight of fear oppressed her in spite of all her efforts to shake it off. She would doze into a troubled slumber only to awake with a premonition that harm had come to her child.

When a knock came at the door that morning she answered with a sinking heart.

Helen Ferguson, a girl living nearby, stood there with the tragic message on her lips.

“Mary is——“ she started to say.

“Not dead?” shrieked Mrs. Coleman, knowing too well that it was so. Other members of the family rushed to the door and they were told the meager facts as they were known then, only that Mary’s dead body had been found in the basement of the factory and that she plainly had been murdered.

Mrs. Coleman swooned and for days she was unable to do more than walk about the house and moan for her little girl.

Aroused by the shocking crime, practically the entire detective force was sent out to capture the murderer of the girl. It was only the matter of a few hours before the police station was filled with persons who declared that they had seen Mary Phagan some time on the day that she was slain or that they had seen a girl of about her age with one or more men at various times of the night.

Every Clew Run Down.

The detectives were hampered as much as they were aided by these well meaning persons. They were forced to investigate every story that had any semblance of furnishing a clew to the mystery. Hours that day were wasted in looking up tales of suspicious occurrences on the streets of Atlanta that Saturday night.

Newt Lee, already in custody, was kept under a running fire of questions, but maintained, even when he broke down and wept, that he knew absolutely nothing about the crime except that he found the body in the basement.

A traveling man told the detectives that he saw a girl he was certain was Mary Phagan standing in front of the factory Saturday afternoon talking to a man. Another person told a story of seeing three men intoxicated and reeling, leading a little girl in a short dress, near midnight Saturday. The girl, he said, appeared reluctant to go with them and was crying.

Another story that had to be investigated was that a girl of Mary Phagan’s age had been seen talking to a man on the sidewalk near the pencil factory at a late hour Saturday night, and that she seemed to be trying to get away from him.

The police at this time were ready to credit the story that the girl had been lured to the factory at night and there attacked and killed. Nothing as yet had developed to substantiate the theory that she never had left the building after she entered it Saturday noon to obtain her pay envelope.

Startling Story Told.

After scores of persons had related suspicious incidents that they had observed came the most startling story of all. It was that Mary had been seen on the street at about 12:30 Saturday night by an acquaintance who actually had spoken to her and had received a reply.

E. L. Sentell, an employee of Kamper’s grocery, was the informant. He had known Mary Phagan for years, he said. He was walking on Forsyth street that night when he was attracted by the sight of a man coming down the street walking with a little girl in short dresses. As a girl of this age was an uncommon sight on the street at this hour of night, he waited as they approached. He was startled to recognize Mary Phagan in the little girl. He knew that her parents were not accustomed to let her go out at this late hour.

He spoke to her as she and the man passed.

“Hello, Mary,” he said.

“Hello, Ed,” she replied.

This is the sensational story that he told. Unquestionably, the man she was with must be the man who knew about her death. A clew to his supposed identity was obtained. Sentell was positive he could recognize the man when he faced him. The news spread like wildfire that an arrest was to be made and that the man to be taken was without doubt the one who had lured Mary Phagan to the factory and killed her.

Within an hour the waiting crowds at the police station saw the officers arriving with their prisoner. (To Be Continued To-morrow.)