The 1955 Slaton Memorandum

slaton_john_retiredVery near the end of his life in 1955, former Georgia governor John Marshall Slaton (pictured) wrote this mistake-ridden memorandum justifying his decision to commute the sentence of Leo Frank from execution by hanging to life in prison, a decision which effectively ended his political career. It was found, unpublished, among his papers after his death. Slaton’s career ended because he was widely viewed as corrupt for having commuted the sentence of a man who was his own law firm’s client — Slaton being a partner in the firm that defended Frank at trial — and for bowing to a very well-funded worldwide Jewish campaign to exonerate Frank, a campaign which continues to this day.

The Frank Case

by John M. Slaton

I HAVE BEEN ASKED by so many persons to write out facts [sic] influencing me to act in the above case, which were not known to the general public, but which influenced me as Governor to grant a commutation of the sentence to death of Leo Frank. I did not go further than reduce the sentence from death to imprisonment for life. On [Confederate — Ed.] Memorial Day, the 26th day of April 1913, a girl, Mary Phagan, was murdered at the pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia.

Leo Frank, an official of the pencil factory located on South Broad Street [sic — Actually, South Forsyth Street], Atlanta, Georgia, was arrested and charged with the murder. This charge was made some days after the committing of the crime.

One Jim Conley, a negro employed at the factory, was arrested and charged with the crime.

Two pages of a letter were attached to the body of the dead girl. Conley was arrested and charged with the offense.

He first stated that he could not write and there was produced a signature at a pawn-shop. He then admitted he could write his name, but that was all.

A further reproduction of his handwriting was produced and he admitted that he did write the first page of the letter, but not the second page.

Upon being shown that the letter was continuous and the second page must have been written by the one who wrote the first page, he admitted that he wrote the second page, but said he wrote it at a different time from that at which he wrote the first page. Leo Frank was a Jewish gentleman who had graduated at a Northern College, Cornell at Ithaca, New York, and when the case came on for trial numerous class-mates of Frank testified as to his good character.

There was immense excitement on account of the trial of the case. There was immense prejudice created as to racial differences and politics played a very large part in the formation of public opinion. Mr. Thomas E. Watson published a paper which had circulation over the entire State and was known as the “Jeffersonian.” He strongly urged in his paper that Frank was guilty. Shortly before this at Augusta, Georgia, a man walked into a textile mill and shot down a woman and having shot her down fired three more bullets into her body. A revenge for her refusal to marry him. He was tried and sentenced to death. Watson was offered $2,000.00 to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Governor Hoke Smith declined to grant the commutation, and the Atlanta Journal supported him in his refusal.

Mr. Watson was elected United States Senator largely upon my action in the Frank case. I am informed by those who are associated with him that he never mentioned my name, nor the Frank case.

The Atlanta Journal advocated the commutation of Frank and this caused Watson to turn his attacks on the Governor and on The Atlanta Journal, and he seized the Frank case as the means by which he would direct vengeance because of their preventing the commutation of the man who killed the woman at Augusta.

Mr. Watson sent Dr. Jaragan [actually Jarnagin — Ed.] to see me as Governor with the message that if I would let the Jew hang, he would elect me as United States Senator from Georgia, and make me master in National Politics in Georgia for “twenty years to come”. I believe he published in his paper that he made this statement and had sent Dr. Jarnigan [Jarnagin — Ed.] as a messenger to carry this promise.

As to the committing of the crime itself, immense excitement was created in Atlanta and in Cobb County, from which Miss Mary Phagan came. The Court House was crowded and reporters from the Press took their seats at nearby windows so that they would have means of escape if the Jury found Frank not guilty. After the conviction of Frank, the following events with which the Public was not informed were as follows:

Mr. John A. Boykin wrote a letter in regard to the commutation and was elected Solicitor-General for many years succeeding the trial. He stated in the letter that the Attorney for Jim Conley said to him that he knew that Jim Conley committed the offense, but could not disclose it because he was his Attorney and he only hoped to save his life. The fight was made on Mr. Boykin as Solicitor-General by E. T. Williams, and Mr. Boykin carried every precinct in the County with the exception of one.

Mr. Will Smith became so angry with the City of Atlanta at its attitude towards Frank that he moved to New York. He told Mr. Tuggle, a policeman, who controlled the traffic at the corner of Broad and Marietta Streets, what he had induced Mr. Boykin to say to me.

The daughter of Mr. Will Smith wrote an article entitled “Why Frank Could Not Have Been Guilty”, which article was sent me by her father, and which I have.

One of the three Prison Board members, Mr. Patterson, wrote me that he knew as far as human knowledge could go, that Frank was innocent.

Col. P. H. Brewster, one of the leaders of the Bar of Georgia, wrote me entreating that I should grant a commutation, since he was acquainted with all the facts being a partner of Mr. Hugh M. Dorsey, Solicitor-General at the time, and from the facts as he learned them at the office, Frank was innocent and Col. Brewster upon being asked by me what I should do with his letter answered, “Publish it, it is the truth.” One other Board of the Prison Commissioners said that he would have nothing to do with the matter since that was the Governor’s responsibility, and he did not propose to interfere to his own personal detriment.

Dr. Bates Block asked me if I knew Dr. Wainwright of New York, a leading Cancer Specialist, under whose care Judge Roan who tried the case was subject. I told him no, and Dr. Block said I noticed in talking to him that you would be interested in seeing Dr. Wainwright, which I did the next time I went to New York.

Dr. Wainwright said to me when I took lunch with him in New York, that Judge Roan said I did what he should have done and he was worried more about the Frank case than anything else.

Judge Roan had charged the Jury incorrectly. Judge Ben Hill, who had to pass on extra-ordinary motions for new trials, told me the whole evidence against Leo Frank was circumstantial. The law is that where the evidence is circumstantial in a murder case, it is the prerogative of the Judge to put the penalty at life imprisonment, instead of death, but Judge Roan charged the Jury that he was compelled to impose the death penalty unless the Jury recommended mercy.

Mr. Frank Myers, Deputy Clerk of the Court, told me that Judge Roan told him in the gentleman’s restroom, that if Charlie Hill was [sic] Solicitor-General, he would ask the Jury to find a verdict of not guilty. Mr. Tuggle who was a prison-keeper at the Station House told me if he had been left for a few days longer in charge of the prisoners he was convinced from the way Jim Conley talked, that Conley would have admitted committing the offense, but the Chief of Detectives said that he didn’t care anything about convicting a negro for the murder. That, of course, was the usual course of events, but it would be a feather in his cap if he could convict a white man and a Jew.

Not only that when the case went to the Supreme Court of Georgia, Chief Justice W. H. Fish, and Judge Marcus W. Beck, Associate Chief Justice, both dissented and said Frank did not have a fair trial and wrote powerful dissents. Not only did the case go to the Supreme Court of the United States, but Charles E. Hughes who afterwards became Chief Justice, and Judge Oliver Wendel [sic] Holmes dissented and would have discharged Frank on habeas corpus petition [sic]. A few years later when five negroes from Arkansas were sentenced to be hanged, the Supreme Court of the United States sustained the Writ of Certiorari and freed the negroes, Justice McReynolds declared in his dissenting opinion in the case of Moore against Dempsey, 261 U.S.-Page 93, as follows:

In Frank vs. Mangum 237 U.S.-309, 325, 326, 327, 329, 335, after great consideration a majority of this Court approved the doctrine which should be applied here. The doctrine is right and wholesome. I cannot agree now to put it aside and substitute the views expressed by the majority of the Court in that cause.

Justice McReynolds entered into an extensive quotation of the Frank case with Justice Sutherland on the reversal by the Supreme Court of the Frank case.

The case of the negroes was one in which it was held by the Supreme Court of the United States that it was the trial by mob law.

If the Supreme Court of the United States had been constituted at the time it decided the Frank case as it was when it decided the five cases from Arkansas, the decision in the Frank case would have been reversed. All that I did was to lessen the penalty from death to life imprisonment for life. It would have been given a cooling down in which the proper authorities would have investigated the matter, and would have decided whether Frank was really guilty or not.

We have in Georgia a case more like the Frank case in which Governor W. Y. Atkinson issued an unconditional pardon under these circumstances. A negro was charged with the rape of a white woman at the corner of Trinity Avenue and Central Avenue. When the case was tried, he was convicted. The case then went to the Supreme Court [of Georgia] and the Supreme Court said in the decision of Judge Lumpkin, 97th Ga., pp. 180, “After referring to the discrepancies in the evidence that they were almost tempted to grant a new trial on the ground of lack of evidence, but since two juries had found the negro guilty, he would send him to his doom.” Upon this decision being called to the attention of Governor W. Y. Atkinson, Governor Atkinson immediately upon seeing the opinion of the Supreme Court granted an unconditional pardon.

The Bar of the State became interested in this case and action of the Governor. The Georgia Bar Association thereupon elected me President of the State Bar Association, and the Supreme Court appointed me on November 11, 1925 Chairman of the Georgia Board of Law Examiners, which position I occupied until February 11, 1954, being 28 years [He evidently means years in office — Ed.] when I resigned.

Judge H. M. Dorsey, who was Solicitor-General, was afterwards appointed Judge. I tried many cases before him and he proved an honest and capable Judge, and I supported him.

The foregoing states generally the questions that came before me as Governor on the matter of clemency. I have stated generally the facts and they forced me to take the action I did. The Defendant being a negro, as was the case with Governor W. Y. Atkinson, or had he been a Chinaman, or a member of any other race whatever, I should have done the same thing.

Dreyfus was called on the drilling grounds in France and the medals and other testimonials of honor were torn from his uniform and he was sent to Devil’s Island where he remained five years.

At the end of that time it was discovered that he was convicted on the testimony of Count Esterhazy, who admitted he committed perjury. Thereupon, Dreyfus was granted an unconditional pardon and was brought back on the drilling grounds and all his honors restored to him. It was solely a matter of justice. I write the above and a statement of the facts as they came to me and I was compelled to do the same thing and had the only alternative been with me to grant an unconditional, or an absolute pardon, I should have granted an absolute pardon. The effect of this action upon my future career was a matter of no consequence. Had I done otherwise, I should have been haunted the remainder of my life, which would have been very short, with the conviction that I committed a murder. The above facts had they been known to the people of Georgia would have led them to a different opinion. Numerous other facts relating to what has been written came to my attention, but it is unnecessary to narrate them. I was aware that a large proportion of the people of the State were against my decision, but I had the firm belief that when they knew what the facts were they would approve what I did.

The last I heard of Jim Conley, there were several burglaries committed in West End, in the City of Atlanta, and the Police advised the owner of the store to shoot whomsoever should break into his store. The owner of the store followed the advice and he did shoot Jim Conley who was prosecuted for burglary in the Fulton Superior Court of Fulton County. He was convicted before Judge Humphrey and when asked what he had to say, he simply laughed, and he was sent up for twenty years for the offense of burglary. After he had served fifteen years he was released by the Board of Pardon Commission, because of his good conduct. This was the last I heard from him, but I understand he has since died.

I have stated in the foregoing the main facts dealing with the Frank case. I did what my sense of justice and my conscience demanded that I do. The effect of my action upon my political future was not a matter to which I paid any attention, and I did my duty under the facts as presented to me, and that was all that was required of me. I practiced law in Atlanta with a clear conscience, and I would not have changed my action. The case was finished as to me, when I signed the order granting the commutation.

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