The Crime: Mary Phagan’s Death by Strangling

Mary_Phaganby Scott Aaron
and the editors of

ON SATURDAY morning at 11:30AM, April 26, 1913 Mary Phagan (pictured) ate a poor girl’s lunch of bread and boiled cabbage and said goodbye to her mother for the last time. Dressed for parade-watching (for this was Confederate Memorial Day) in a lavender dress, ribbon-bedecked hat, and parasol, she left her home in hardscrabble working-class Bellwood at 11:45, and caught the streetcar for downtown Atlanta.

Before the festivities, though, she stopped to see Superintendent Leo M. Frank at the National Pencil Company and pick up from him her $1.20 pay for the one day she had worked there during the previous week. She had been laid off for most of that week because the material needed for the tipping department in the metal room, where she worked, had been late in arriving.

Monteen Stover, a 14-year-old worker at the pencil factory, was well-disposed to Leo Frank. Nevertheless, her testimony that she found him missing from his office at the approximate time of Mary Phagan’s visit proved to be very damaging to him. Her testimony contradicted Frank’s statement that he never left his office from noon to 12:45.

She entered the grim and massive four-story Victorian building a few minutes after noon, and proceeded up the stairs to the second floor, where both Leo Frank’s office and – more than a hundred feet further back – her own department were located. By all accounts, she did not know that Jim Conley, the company’s African-American sweeper, was sitting in the shadows on the first floor behind the staircase, near the elevator and the “scuttle hole” ladder that led to the basement. Strangely, even though it was his day off,  and even though the factory superintendent was around, Conley was there, partly hidden by darkness but not stealthily concealed, doing no work – drawing no pay – and apparently doing nothing but watching.

One of Mary Phagan’s autopsy photographs: The mark of the cord which was used to strangle her is clearly visible on her neck, as are the marks of the beating and dragging to which she was subjected.

As Conley watched, a few moments later, at 12:05, one of the factory’s other working girls, 14-year-old Monteen Stover, arrived to collect her pay. She also walked up those same steps, also failed to notice Jim Conley, and also entered Leo Frank’s office. Mary had not left. But Monteen found no one there. Frank’s office was in two sections, an outer office and an inner office. Looking for him, Monteen saw that the outer office was empty, so she went into the inner office, and saw that it was empty too.

Newt Lee, the pencil factory’s night watchman, was the first to discover the Mary Phagan’s body, at around 3 AM on April 27. He failed to reach Leo Frank by telephone, then called the police. He was arrested, but no amount of intense police questioning could shake his simple story and he was eventually exonerated. Lee said that Frank sent him away for two hours when he first arrived for work on Saturday afternoon.

She looked down the hall toward the rows of factory machinery. There was nothing but motionless silence. So she decided to wait. She waited a full five minutes, according to the office clock. She saw and heard no one. Shortly after 12:10 she left by the same route she came, again encountering not a single person. (The exact timing of Mary Phagan’s visit was disputed later, with some Frank partisans insisting that Monteen arrived before Mary. Frank himself stated on April 28 of Mary that “She came in between 12:05 and 12:10, maybe 12:07, to get her pay envelope, her salary.” Clocks and watches in 1913 could easily be off by several minutes. Nevertheless, it appears clear that Monteen Stover failed to find Frank, or anyone, in his office at around the time that Mary was there. Frank told detectives that he never left his office from noon to 12:45.)

Former pencil company employee J.M. Gantt: Why did Leo Frank jump back when Gantt showed up at the factory on the evening of April 26? And why did Frank tell detectives that Gantt was intimate with Mary Phagan – precipitating Gantt’s arrest – while at the same time Frank claimed to not even know Mary Phagan’s name?

After one o’clock, Leo Frank left to go home for lunch. His wife and mother-in-law were waiting in their best finery, ready to go to Atlanta’s opulent opera house, where New York’s Metropolitan Opera was on tour, presenting a matinee performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. After eating, Frank returned to the factory while not far away the somber, intoxicating strains of Donizetti’s prelude wafted over the wealthy Atlantans in their temple of culture, and while the common folk readied themselves to salute the aging heroes in grey who were marching together, perhaps for the last time in their lives.

Almost no one knew it at the time, but by one o’clock one young life was already over. For her there would never again be parades, or music, or kisses, or flowers, or children, or love. Mary Phagan never left the National Pencil Company alive. Abused, beaten, and strangled by a rough cord pulled so tightly that it had embedded itself deeply in her girlish neck and made her tongue protrude more than an inch from her mouth, Mary Phagan lay dead, dumped in the dirt and shavings of the pencil company basement, her once-bright eyes now sightless and still as she lay before the gaping maw of the furnace where the factory trash was burned.

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Leo Max Frank: Why did the manifestly innocent Newt Lee find him so unnaturally agitated and nervous on the afternoon of April 26, long before the discovery of Mary Phagan’s body?

ON FRIDAY, the day before the murder, Leo Frank had told the factory’s African-American night watchman, Newt Lee, to come to work Saturday afternoon at four, as Frank wanted to leave around four so he could attend a baseball game with his brother-in-law Mr. Ursenbach. But upon arriving at four, Lee said that Frank appeared extremely nervous and insisted that Lee leave the factory and “have a good time” somewhere else and return at six. When Lee suggested he might instead just sleep for a couple of hours on the premises, Frank rejected the suggestion, repeating that Lee should depart for two hours.

The massive bulk of the old Venable Building, which housed the National Pencil Company, dominated its Forsyth Street environs in 1913 Atlanta.

Lucille Frank, Leo Frank’s wife: Did she long delay visiting her husband after his arrest because of his admission to “killing a girl” on the night of the murder, as the household cook swore? The cook later repudiated her statement.

Frank again seemed very nervous when Lee returned at six, and even visibly jumped back when he noticed that a former employee named Gantt had arrived about the same time as Lee. Frank was to claim that this was because Gantt was a large man and had in fact been fired by Frank not long before. Frank would also later state, however, that he believed that Gantt was close to Mary Phagan and so his visit might have been interpreted as being to inquire about her whereabouts.

Newt Lee made his rounds as usual that night, but he didn’t go all the way into the basement until around three in the morning. There he discovered the lifeless body of Mary Phagan. He tried and failed to reach Leo Frank by telephone. He then called the police.

Lee described the events of that afternoon and night to detectives, beginning with his first arrival at the factory:

The front door was not locked. I pushed it open, went on in and got to the double door there… The front door had always been unlocked on previous Saturday afternoons. After you go inside and come up about middle ways of the steps, there are some double doors there. It was locked on Saturday when I got there. Have never found it that way before. I took my key and unlocked it. When I went upstairs I had a sack of bananas and I stood to the left of that desk like I do every Saturday. I says like I always do “Alright Mr. Frank” and he come bustling out of his office. He had never done that before. He always called me when he wanted to tell me anything and said, “Step here a minute, Newt.” This time he came up rubbing his hands and says, “Newt, I am sorry that I had you come so soon, you could have been at home sleeping, I tell you what you do, you go out in town and have a good time.” He had never let me off before that. I could have laid down in the shipping room and gone to sleep, and I told him that. He says, “You needs to have a good time. You go downtown, stay an hour and a half, and come back your usual time at six o’clock.” I then went out the door and stayed [out] until about four minutes to six. When I came back the doors were unlocked just as I left them and I went and says, “Alright, Mr. Frank,” and he says, “What time is it?” and I says, “It lacks two minutes of six.” He says, “Don’t punch yet [a reference to the company’s time clock – Ed.], there is a few worked today and I want to change the slip.” It took him twice as long this time than it did the other times I saw him fix it. He fumbled putting it in, while I held the lever for him and I think he made some remark about he was not used to putting it in. When Mr. Frank put the tape in I punched and I went downstairs.

While I was down there Mr. Gantt came from across the street from the beer saloon and says, “Newt, I got a pair of old shoes that I want to get upstairs to have fixed.” I says, “I ain’t allowed to let anybody in here after six o’clock.” About that time Mr. Frank come bustling out of the door and run into Gantt unexpected and he jumped back frightened. Gantt says, “I got a pair of old shoes upstairs, have you any objection to my getting them?” Frank says, “I don’t think they are up there; I think I saw the boy sweep some up in the trash the other day.” Mr. Gantt asked him what sort they were and Mr. Frank says “tans.” Gantt says, “Well, I had a pair of black ones too.” Frank says, “Well, I don’t know,” and he dropped his head down just so. Then he raised his head and says, “Newt, go with him and stay with him and help him find them,” and I went up there with Mr. Gantt and found them in the shipping room, two pair, the tans and the black ones.

Not long after, Frank did something that, according to Lee, he had never done before:

Mr. Frank phoned me that night about an hour after he left, it was sometime after seven o’clock. He says, “How is everything?” and I says, “Everything is all right so far as I know,” and he says “Goodbye.”

…There is a light in the basement down there at the foot of the ladder. He told me to keep that burning all the time. It has two little chains to it to turn on and turn off the gas. When I got there on making my rounds at seven o’clock on the 26th of April, it was burning just as low as you could turn it, like a lightning bug. I left it Saturday morning burning bright. I made my rounds regularly every half hour Saturday night. I punched on the hour and punched on the half and I made all my punches. The elevator doors on the street floor and office floor were closed when I got there on Saturday. They were fastened down just like we fasten them down every other night. When three o’clock came I went down the basement and when I went down and got ready to come back I discovered the body there. I went down to the toilet and when I got through I looked at the dust bin back to the door to see how the door was and it being dark I picked up my lantern and went there and I saw something laying there which I thought some of the boys had put there to scare me, then I got out of there. I got up the ladder and called up the police station. It was after three o’clock… I tried to get Mr. Frank on the telephone and was still trying …I guess I was trying about eight minutes.

Defense Exhibit 61 is a scale diagram of the basement (bottom), first floor (middle), and second floor (top) of the National Pencil Company factory and offices at 37-39 S. Forsyth Street in Atlanta. The street entrance side is on the left. Click for a large high resolution version.

Eventually Newt Lee gave up on Frank and called the police. When the officers arrived and were directed down the ladder to the basement by Lee, they discovered the mysterious handwritten “death notes” in the sawdust near the body. These notes purported to be written by Mary Phagan herself, but were later proven not to be so. They seemed the work of someone barely literate, and the language used was similar to Southern African-American dialect. They read:

Mam that negro hire down here did this i went to make water and he push me doun that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it was long sleam tall negro i wright while play with me.

he said he wood love me and land doun play like night witch did it but that long tall black negro did buy his slef.

The mysterious “death notes” which were found near Mary Phagan’s dead body in the basement of the National Pencil Company: Some writers have interpreted the phrase “night witch” as a reference to a bogey man of African-American folklore, but the black man who found the body, company night watchman Newt Lee, immediately saw the reference as a means to implicate him, understanding the words to mean “night watch.” When factory sweeper and suspect Jim Conley was later asked to write the words “night watchman,” he unhesitatingly wrote “night witch.” After intense grilling, Conley eventually admitted that he had written the notes – but did so at the direction of company superintendent Leo M. Frank.

When the notes were read out loud in the presence of Lee, he exclaimed “that’s me, boss” (or words to that effect; the exact phrase was disputed) when the words “night witch” were reached, Lee obviously assuming that “night watch” – as in “night watchman,” as we would say – was what was really meant. Added to the facts that Lee was a “long slim tall negro” and dark complected (“negro black”), the notes said such a person did the deed “by his self.” It did appear that the writer of the notes was trying to implicate Lee.

Detectives also found a bloody handkerchief ten feet away, one shoe, and some sheets of paper and pencils. Oddly, Mary’s hat and parasol had apparently been tossed in the bottom of the elevator shaft. Along with a quantity of miscellaneous trash, some human excrement was also found in the shaft, which was crushed and caused a stench when the detectives rode the car down later in the day. There were marks indicating Mary’s body had been dragged across the basement floor, and her bloody, bruised face was smeared with dirt and cinders. The dragging marks began at the elevator shaft.

Lee was an obvious suspect and was immediately arrested.

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