Story of Phagan Case by Chapters

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

Atlanta Georgian
July 22nd, 1913

Slaying of Factory Girl, South’s Most Baffling Crime Mystery, Reviewed in Detail.


Will the veil of mystery be lifted when the curtain rises next Monday on another scene in Atlanta’s darkest tragedy?

A vast audience, shocked by the horror of Mary Phagan’s fate on a Saturday of last April and held through the succeeding weeks in the thrall of the baffling crime drama, in keen suspense awaits this question’s answer.

Will Fulton County’s Solicitor General be able to point his finger at Leo M. Frank and exclaim, “That is the man who strangled Mary Phagan!” backing his damning accusation with such abundance of evidence that there can remain no shadow of doubt?

Or will Luther Rosser, certain to be a towering and masterful factor in the titanic struggle that is to be staged, unmask his strength, bring to bear the secret evidence that has been in his possession for weeks, beat down every bulwark of suspicion that the State has erected about its prisoner and, as a dramatic finale, assail the negro, Jim Conley, cowering in the witness stand, with a ranking volley of questions that will leave the negro man shaken and terrified, a confession of the crime upon his lips?

Whole State Stirred.

All of Atlanta—most of the State—is hanging with the most intense interest on the outcome.

No other crime ever stirred Georgia to its depths as has the slaying of the little factory girl.

No murder ever has so gripped the hearts and aroused the sympathiee [sic] of the people throughout the State.

Georgia’s criminal history reveals no other case in which the public’s interest has remained at fever heat through three months filled with other exciting events. From the time the extras first flamed the details of the brutal killing in the National Pencil Factory—until the present there has appeared to be no diminution in the desire to learn each day’s developments.

There was in the early days of the tragedy, a cry for summary vengeance upon the murderer, but time has tempered this into a universal demand for justice, which is none the less determined in that it is not so demonstrative as the first hot wave of indignation.

The Phagan case has remained in the public mind partly, of course, because it has remained as baffling a mystery as the local detectives ever have encountered. With the mystery solved its appealing interest gradually would have died out, but a review of the tragic features of the drama so far as it has progressed and a consideration of those who have parts in it supplies an explanation of why the fate of Mary Phagan is still uppermost in the people’s hearts.

The revolting circumstances of the crime—the attack, the pitiful struggle of the helpless child in the hands of her assailant, the blow and, finally, the garrote—all refuse to be erased from the memory.

Two Principal Figures.

But standing out in stronger prominence than the remembrance of these abhorrent details are two of the principal figures in the tragedy.

They are Mary Phagan, victim, and Leo M. Frank, charged by the State with her death. These two have made the appeal to the public imagination. The contrast in their positions in life intensified it.

Mary Phagan was only a little factory girl whose happy and innocent laughter was stilled by one of the blackest crimes in Atlanta’s history.

Leo Frank, a brilliant young man of position and family, was accused of this deed of a beast in human guise.

Mary Phagan was not rich. She was glad to get the $3 or $4 a week that her work at the pencil factory won for her.

Leo Frank’s family had wealth. An uncle was a reputed millionaire.

Mary Phagan had hardly the education to which her years entitled her. Times were not always easy in her family and she was driven to neglect her schoolbooks and work in the factory.

Frank was a Cornell graduate. He had a high technical education. He had been sent abroad to select the machinery for the Atlanta plant. His business associates placed every confidence in him. His friends knew him for an upright and moral young man, with a most promising career ahead of him.

That he would descend to the level of a criminal of the worst type was inconceivable to them. The possibility furnished to thousands of others a subject for daily conjecture.

Life of Slain Girl.

Mary Phagan’s life began 14 years ago in Marietta. She was the petted “baby” of the family. She had three older brothers and a sister, now 18. Even in the early years of childhood she is remembered as having the pretty features and attractive ways that made her greatly liked by her girl friends later when she came to work in Atlanta.

For a playmate in the days at Marietta she had one who was to play a brief but sensational part in April’s tragedy. It was J.M. Gantt. Within a few hours after her cold body was found in the gloomy basement of the National Pencil Factory, her childhood playmate was arrested as he left a car in Marietta, to which place there seemed at the time every indication that he was fleeing.

Her childish prattle had changed to the happy conversation of young girlhood when the family moved to East Point. There bereavement visited the family in the death of Mary’s father. Hardship followed sorrow and it became necessary for little Mary to follow the example of her brothers and sisters and assist in providing a livelihood for the family. She could not do much, but she did her mite willingly and cheerfully.

A year ago Mrs. Phagan married W.J. Coleman and the family moved to No. 146 Lindsay street, Atlanta. Mary obtained work in the National Pencil Factory and soon made friends with all the children about her home and with the girls she met at the factory. Although she never had many of the luxuries of life, Mary was reared carefully by her mother and enjoyed the wise counsel that is sometimes denied the children of families in more pretentious circumstances.

All Loved Little Mary.

To the loving and painstaking home training, the attractive half-shy little maiden brought a naturally sweet disposition. In the few leisure hours she had she often played about her home with the children of the neighbors. The little people of Bellwood; on the outskirts of Atlanta, all grew to love the sweet-tempered, pretty little girl. When they returned to their homes after a frolic their conversation was of what Mary had said and what Mary had done.

The fathers and mothers began to take notice of her as she laughed and chattered among the other children. They came to watch for the time each morning when she boarded a car to go to work at the pencil factory. They took a sort of parental interest in the bright-eyed, light-hearted little girl.

The small community is a bit of a city in itself. Everyone knows everyone else and the neighborly spirit is exemplified in the manner in which the residents, most of them working people, struggle for each other and sympathize in each other’s afflictions. They joined in their near-worship of the little factory girl. She embodied in their minds pure and attractive young girlhood. They guarded her reputation almost as jealously as did her own mother. If anything should happen to her it would be a shock to every family in the little community.

On a Thursday, the last in April, Mary was playing with two of her dearest girl chums, Vera Epps and Lillian Walgnel. The back yards of the Phagan and Epps homes adjoined. The Walgnel girl lived just across the street from Vera Epps at No. 249 Fox street. An expected shipment of metal at the pencil factory had not arrived and a section of the plant was shut down temporarily, throwing Mary out of work until the metal should arrive.

A Strange Foreboding.

The three little girls ran and played about the whole afternoon, laughing and talking in their childish happiness. Toward evening, tired from the frolic, they rested on the embankment near their homes. In the hard red clay they dug out their initials as they rested.

“M.P.” were the letters scratched out of the dirt by Mary.

“Let’s keep them here always,” cried Vera, clapping her hands.

“But if one of us should die?” suggested Mary.

“Then the other two of us would come back here and dig the initials out again when it rained,” Vera replied, but a shadow had fallen over the gayety of the little group.

Two days later several of housewives of Bellwood, looking from their windows, saw Mary Phagan get aboard a car for Atlanta, and they never saw her return. Vera Epps waved her a good-bye as Mary hurried down the street without a thought that it was a last farewell.

When Vera looked upon her playmate the next time, there was no answering smile. The pink cheeks that flushed with happiness and health were ghastly white except where they were begrimed and pitifully bruised and swollen. The beautiful young body, once full of life, was cold and inanimate and mutilated.

Goes to the Factory.

The Confederate veterans were preparing to honor their dead when Mary came into town that day. It was a holiday and she had planned to go to the pencil factory to get the $1.20 due her for the short time she had worked that week and then to witness the parade of the boys in gray.

She got a word of greeting from Conductor W.T. Hollis when she boarded the car on its run into town. Motorman W. M. Matthews, who many times before had brought the little girl from her home in Bellwood to work in Atlanta, also noticed her as he slowed down to take her at the crossing.

Conductor Hollis says that the car arrived at Broad and Marietta streets at 12:07 o’clock. He was relieved there by another conductor and shows only that Mary stayed on the car. Motorman Matthews says that she left at Broad and Hunter and started toward the factory. Some time between 12:10 and 12:15 Mary Phagan entered the doors of the National Pencil Factory and went to the office of Leo Frank, where she drew her pay. She never was seen alive after that moment except by the brute that attacked her, beat her cruelly and completed his demonic crime by looping a cord about the tender flesh of her neck and strangling her to death.

No One Saw Her Alive Again.

From the moment that the little factory girl entered the office of Frank the mystery dated.

Whether she never left the presence of the young superintendent alive, the public does not know.

Whether she started down the stairs and there was attacked by a negro fiend lurking in the darkness, later paying out the toll of her young life to the fury of his bestiality, also is shrouded in a mystery as yet undispelled by the searching investigation of three months.

Many pieces of evidence point to the latter surmise, but no one, so far as is known, is able to say with certainty that this is so, save possibly Jim Conley himself.

Conley and Frank, by their own admissions, were in the factory when Mary Phagan entered. Frank told freely of his presence there. Conley’s confession was wrung from him after three weeks in a cell at the police station.

Upstairs on the fourth floor were Harry Denham and Arthur White. Mrs. White visited the factory to see her husband. She left shortly before 1 o’clock, when Frank came to the fourth floor to tell the men that if they wished to remain, they would have to stay until about 3 o’clock, as he was going home for lunch and would lock them in.

Frank Alone in Factory.

They stayed in the factory and Frank departed within a few minutes. Shortly before 3 o’clock he returned and the men came downstairs and left, after White had gone into Frank’s office to borrow $2.

Frank was alone in the factory from this time until 4 o’clock. No one has any information as to when Conley left or how he left except by his own statements. He says that he left shortly 1 o’clock by the front door. If Frank’s story of the time he quit the building is true, it is fairer to presume that the negro left some time after 1 o’clock and through the basement’s rear door, which he forced open by pulling the staple.

Newt Lee, the negro night watchman, came to the factory at 4 o’clock. He unlocked the outside door and the door leading up to the second floor.

“All right, Mr. Frank,” he shouted as he approached the superintendent’s office.

Sent Negro Lee Away.

Frank appeared rubbing his hands and remarking that it was too bad Lee had come down at this time as he might as well have stayed at home and got more sleep. He told Lee he might go and return at 6 o’clock, the regular hour for reporting.

A few minutes after Lee came back to the factory, J. M. Gantt, a discharged employee, walked across the street and said he would like to go into the factory and get a pair of shoes he had left there three weeks before. Frank gave him permission, but seemed a little doubtful of Gantt’s real purpose. After the factory superintendent had gone to his home, he called Lee up on the telephone and asked if Gantt were gone and everything was all right at the factory. Lee replied that Gantt had left as soon as he had obtained the shoes and called up a girl friend from the office.

Lee made his regular rounds for several hours that night, shutting down all the windows and making his trip over the different floors, as was his custom.

He climbed down the ladder into the basement to see if everything was all right down there. He went no farther, however, than the flickering gas light at the bottom of the ladder. Peering through the darkness, he saw nothing out of the way.

Second Trip to Basement.

That night was no different than any other night up until shortly before 3 o’clock in the morning, if the negro’s story is to be credited. At this time he made another trip into the basement.

Did he hear some sound that led him to go down the ladder and venture beyond the dim circle of light from the gas jet?

Was some other living being in the cellar when he clambered down the ladder?

He says not. With his dirty, smoky lantern he descended through the scuttle hole. This time he did not stop at the little area of light made by the gas jet. Swinging his lantern slowly back and forth in front of him, he made his way toward the rear of the basement. Near the boiler he stopped. After a few moments he looked about him.

What was that lying over there to his left on a pile of sawdust and other trash and dirt? Could it be that some of the rascally fellows in the plant were playing this ghoulish joke on him?

Tremblingly he held the lantern in front of him. The black man’s eyes dilated with horror. There could be no mistake about it. His impulse was to flee, but he pulled himself together.

He started toward the dark, inert object lying there on the trash heap […] (To Be Continued To-morrow.)