Tragedy, Ages Old, Lurks in Commonplace Court Setting

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

Atlanta Georgian
July 29th, 1913

Outwardly Quiet and Singularly Lacking in Excitement, Frank Trial is Enactment of Grim Drama.


One of the most commonplace things in the world—crime—is riveting the attention of Atlanta and Georgia to-day.

Crime is almost as commonplace as death—and yet death, in a thousand ways, never is commonplace at all.

If I were a stranger in Atlanta and should walk into the courthouse where Leo Frank is being tried for the murder of Mary Phagan, doubtless I should be utterly astounded to discover what I had walked into.

That pale-faced, slight, boyish-looking party over there—the one sitting beside the massive frame of Luther Z. Rosser and the well-groomed person of Reuben Arnold—I should be shocked, I am sure, to learn that he stands charged with one of the blackest, most inhuman and most unspeakable crimes in all Georgia’s somewhat long and varied catalogue of crime.

Yet that is the truth—Leo Frank is answering to the charge of the Grand Jury, and he has pleaded not guilty.

Crime and wrongdoing began, of course, when Mother Eve, through no motive other than curiosity, and without malice aforethought, either expressed or implied, bit a small and toothsome morsel from the first apple.

Cain performed the first murder not so very long afterward.

There were no newspapers in those days, but a well-authenticated story of those first infractions of the law have come down to us—and to-day crime runs riot throughout all the world!

Here in Atlanta, thousands of years after Cain committed the primary murder in history, Leo Frank is answering to the charge of killing Mary Phagan, some three months ago.

Frank Calm, Unagitated.

There sits the judge, and over yonder the jury. Pale of long confinement in jail, calm, unagitated, and even smiling, sits Leo Frank, the defendant.

Beside him are his devoted wife and his mother—his mother, who would as soon believe the stars had ceased to move in their orbits as to believe—even to suspect—that her boy was ever so remotely concerned in the death of Mary Phagan.

Over on the other side, however, all the relatives of Mary Phagan—those who are not under the rule and debarred from the courtroom. They are grim and unsmiling—they are invoking the law’s sternest displeasure upon whoever it was that took the life of their innocent little one!

Many and varied must be the emotions surging within the hearts and souls of these people, notwithstanding their outward poise—but I, who am theoretically a stranger in Atlanta’s courtroom for the moment, still am wondering what it all can be about.

Gradually I realize a tenseness in the atmosphere, perhaps—and there may steal over me, as I grope mentally for something to fasten upon, a feeling that, after all, tragedy is in the air, and that its sinister shadow has fallen athwart this courtroom, the while I still recall that outside the sunshine is very bright, and is beaming upon the just and the unjust, impartially and alike.

One of the world’s truly great physicians says “death is never uninteresting,” and that no really great physician possibly can find it so.

He may become used to it, he may grow to view the mere physical fact of death itself as not a particularly astounding phenomenon, but never does he see in any one death the same sequenced things he has observed in others.

It is much the same way with crime, I think.

Murder is as old as the hills—as old as laughter, love, and the hate of hell—but it never loses its repugnant appeal—and so, all Atlanta and all Georgia to-day is watching the progress of the Frank trial, because Atlanta and Georgia are made up of human beings—that’s all!

Few Women Present.

There are few women attending the trial of Frank. If there were thousands, however, one alone and above all other would stand forth and challenge the attention of the spectators. I mean, of course, Frank’s wife.

There isn’t anything the least bit “weepy” or downcast about her. She’s a woman—the accused man’s wife—but she plainly is a most extraordinary woman, nevertheless.

Whatever her thoughts, and whatever she expects of this trial, she gives no sign. She counsels freely with her husband’s lawyers, but not frequently. She leans over and whispers something into Frank’s ear now and then, but not often. She smiles upon him, and occasionally she runs her hand lightly along his shoulder, and maybe her arm is around his neck for the fitting fraction of a second, but if any of it is for effect or the least spectacular or theatrical, she is a consummate artist and surpassingly adroit.

Somehow she gave me the impression of the wife affectionate, but not demonstrative, of the wife unafraid but not obtrusive, of the wife deeply concerned, but too proud to let it be seen any more than it must be.

Perhaps there is a subtle motive in her quiet and repressed movements in the courtroom now and then—if so, I can but admire the complete perfectness of her methods and the dramatic excellence of her role as she enacts it.

Looking there at Leo Frank’s wife and then at Leo Frank, one unconsciously finds himself asking himself this all-important question: What could have been Frank’s motive when he killed Mary Phagan, if it be possible that he could have performed that monstrous deed?

Far and away the most frequent thing encountered in the unraveling of murder cases is the eternal triangle—the man, the wife, and the other woman!

That “other woman” may be an angel, she may be a devil; she may be a princess, she may be a pauper; she may be an innocent child, she may be a faded courtesan; she may be a willing third party, and she may be the most unwilling—but too often she is there, in some aspect, when murder has been done!

Could the motive behind the murder of Mary Phagan have been an unrighteous infatuation upon the part of Frank toward the dead girl—an unholy infatuation repelled to the extent of bringing about murder itself?

Was it that? And if it wasn’t that, what was it?

Unless there was malicious motive and intent behind the slaying of Mary Phagan, there has been no murder done. The law says that malice is as essential to murder as oxygen is to the breath of life.

Frank? Of all the defendants ever saw arraigned, Leo Frank, I think, he looks the least the part of a murderer!

Not that that means anything whatever conclusively—but it is a thought that must obtrude itself upon all who view him there in the courthouse, battling in his own way for his life and liberty.

Frank never could be made to look the part of a hero, no more than he can be made to look the part of a villain—and yet he might be either, and deceive his looks no more than hundreds have done before his time and will do hereafter.

If someone should have told me that Frank is a bookworm, or a collector of postage stamps, or a person with a fad for pottering around in the garden at early morn, it never should have occurred to me to doubt it.

But Frank a murderer, a thing lost to every sense of decency and right, a traitor to his dearest and nearest, a—well, I should have asked explanations and enlightenment as to detail!

And yet, if Frank be the thing charged in that bill of indictment, he must be all of those sinister things combined.

Is he? Frankly, I have no fixed opinion, and I am of open mind.

The sweetest-tempered play-fellow otherwise I ever had when I was a boy had a marked passion fo[r] sneaking off by himself and robbing birds’ nests, particularly when [t]he young birds were in the nests!

One Touch of the Dramatic.

There has been so far in the trial of Leo Frank but one touch of the genuinely dramatic—properly designated melodramatic, perhaps—and that was when the clothing little Mary Phagan wore when murdered was exhibited to the jury.

This, of course, was one of the tricks of the trade, and it was indulged in entirely for the jury’s benefit.

It is not unusual—the same thing happens in all murder trials, and I have wondered why it could happen save for the doubtful effect of it desired.

To be sure, the sweet and innocent cause of this trial—the pathetic victim prerequisite to it—is, of all the parties to it, save one, absent.

She may be there in spirit, comforting and sustaining her grief-stricken mother, but her voice is not heard, and never will or can be heard.

She is not in the courtroom, and the one other extreme of the tragedy—omitting the yet undetermined status of Frank—is over yonder in the Tower—Conley.

In the grewsome exhibition of Mary Phagan’s clothing, just as it was removed from her dead body, there was a power of appeal hardly to be described in words. The youthful garments spoke eloquently, if inconclusively, of the deceased—the unoffending, methodical, carefree little working girl, so suddenly and so frightfully thrust into public notice, never to know what it all was about.

If within the person of Mary Phagan dwelt the awful propelling force of motive that promoted Frank or someone else to murder, her simple clothing there in the courtroom suggested wonderfully clear the pathos of it and the inhumanity.

And there must have been a motive! What was it about Mary Phagan that gave rise to it in the heart and mind of—Frank?

The things that have happened so far in the trial of Frank are relatively inconsequential, as concerns the verdict.

Battle of Wits.

Two conclusions stand out unmistakably—the trial is to be a battle of legal wits, and it is to rage most fiercely about the negro Jim Conley—the big, black and all-meaning factor yet held jealously in the background.

Mr. Dorsey, the Solicitor General, evidently feels the strain of his position. He is plainly nervous at times and unmistakably irritable now and then. He snaps his points to the court, and sometimes borders almost upon the rough and querelous in his language.

Undoubtedly Mr. Rosser disconcerts and irritates the Solicitor continuously. At times Mr. Dorsey’s objections have seemed more like complaints—and when Mr. Rosser turns his massive head around and stage whispers additional words not to Dorsey’s liking, he resents it in every sentence and gesture he offers by way of comment or reply.

Reuben Arnold has had little to say so far, but he is forever whispering something into Rosser’s ear—Rosser frowning like a thundercloud the while he listens.

Mr. Rosser is fighting his way along cautiously and carefully. He seemed upon the point almost of browbeating Newt Lee more than once, as that darky’s examination proceeded, but generally he quit just short of actual performance.

Lee, too, was unconsciously outspoken in his resentment of the Rosser treatment, and more than once scored well and powerful in reply to Mr. Rosser’s questions—particularly when couching his replies in quaint and curious negro illustrations and phrases.

If at times Lee became more or less confused and contradictory, he proved in the main to be something of a Tartar under cross-examination, and while his testimony as a whole could not amount to much as an isolated proposition and is valuable only as one link in a long chain yet to be forged about Frank, it nevertheless went to the jury in pretty good shape, and will be hard to discount, whatever it may be worth.

Hooper Singularly Calm.

But if Dorsey is agitated and irritable, and if Rosser is imposing and pugnacious, and if Arnold is keyed to a high pitch and continuously prompting his associate counsel, the other big figure among the attorneys, Frank Hooper, is as calm as a May morning, smiling, dispassionate and altogether at his ease.

Hooper looks as if he had just stepped out of a cold storage bandbox.

Handsome, as he certainly is, if not of particularly commanding presence, and well dressed, he moves about with all the unconscious grace and ease of a—panther?

Hardly that, and yet—Frank Hooper may loom larger than any attorney in this case before the final word is written in respect of it.

There is no doubt that the trial is to be long drawn out. Every inch is being disputed pro and con, and every possible point is being raised to keep the case strictly within its legal bounds.

The jury apparently is much above the average—it was plain enough all along that the defense was seeking a jury of high intelligence, and a city jury, moreover.

I think the jury trying Leo Frank may be expected to record the truth of the trial—it appears to be composed of level-headed, clean cut, sensible men, as it should be, if it is to give a fair play to all parties concerned.

The climax of the fight, of course, will be entirely within Jim Conley. The State will make every possible effort to sustain him, and the defense will make every possible effort to break him down.

Luther Rosser will exhaust his remarkable resourcefulness in this mighty effort, aided and abetted, to the very limit by the subtle and incisive art of Reuben Arnold.

Frank Hooper will strive as he never before has striven to hold Conley together—and Huge Dorsey will back him with all the experience of his career at the criminal bar.

A happy and reassuring circumstance it that over and above all these contending forces sits Judge Roan—unruffled, unafraid, of unblemished and unquestioned integrity, upright and just—to hold all the stormy elements eventually in order and within the rules of the law.

The real trial of Leo Frank hardly yet has begun!