Women of Every Class and Age Listen With Morbid Curiosity To Testimony of Negro Conley

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 5th, 1913

By Britt Craig.

There was a chorus girl who sat next to an aged and withered woman who is undoubtedly a grandmother—a great-grandmother, maybe; there was a painted-cheeked girl with hollow eyes who bore the unmistakable stain of crimson, who sat between a mother who held in her lap an eager 13-year-old.

There was a wrinkled and worn old woman with the lines of care stamped indelibly, who hobbled into the room on a crutch and sat beside a man who chewed tobacco and whispered profanity. Over in a corner there was a graceful young woman with a wide hat and flowing plume and pretty features crowned with a wealth of auburn hair.

They all were at the Frank trial yesterday, listening intently to Jim Conley’s ugly story, many parts of which brought shame to the cheeks of the hardened court attaches. They sat throughout his tale, eager, expectant, apparently thrilled through and through and intent upon missing nothing.

Not a single one left the courtroom until adjournment time. On Friday afternoon, when Dr. Harris gave intimate testimony of details of his examination of Mary Phagan’s body a number of women arose from their seats, shielded their blushing cheeks with newspapers, and strode from the courtroom.

But Monday it was different. Jim Conley’s tale reeked at times and yet not a woman left the courtroom. Instead they leaned forward, bent upon escaping nothing of the odious details that came from the negro’s mouth. A mother held a child in knee dresses on a knee in a position in which the child could see and hear perfectly.

The mother held a fan, with which she fanned briskly at times. That is, at times when there was a lull in the story. But it stopped, the fan did, and was held poised in expectation, when Conley would resume relating his story.

Every Type Represented.

There was every type of woman in the courtroom Monday. There seemed to have been something in the air that foretold of sensation and scandal. There were fully as many women and girls as men. Girls in their teens, women in the eighties. There was not the hubbub of voices and talk that generally spreads over a gathering of women. There was a hush that could almost be felt.

Nobody wanted to talk. They wanted to hear. Tomorrow they would talk—tomorrow when they were in their own homes and porches. There would be plenty of topic then for talk. Now it was a case of gaining the topic—listening to Jim Conley and his scandal-reeked narrative. A staid and experienced deputy looked over the courtroom at noon and said:

“It’s shameful. I’m going to see if these little girls can’t be kept out hereafter.”

There were plenty of little girls, sprinkled all over the place. But there were more older women—women who had mothered little girls and had seen their little girls mother little ones.

Fight for Seats.

The most prevalent type of woman at the trial Monday, however, seemed to be the ordinary housewife—the wife and mother of an uncertain middle age. They came early to the building, and stood about in groups on the street, waiting for the doors to be thrown open. They rushed forward, and, some of them, even so far forgot themselves as to fight for seats.

In a number of cases some women patronized the doorkeepers for admittance. Some of those who came late did this. These same women, no doubt, would be shocked upon listening to the gossip of a neighbor who had committed the same indiscretion. They resorted to many subterfuges. Some said they were reporters. Others declared they were friends of the defendant.

Some even went so far as to say their husbands were connected with the trial, when, no doubt, if the truth were known, their husbands were employed blocks and blocks away—may, miles. It was no sin to fib when the reward for fibbing was such a precious thing as a seat in which to hear Jim Conley’s tale.

One thing is noticeable about the type of women at the Frank trial. There are but few women of experience, or, what might be called worldly knowledge and wisdom, seen among the gathering. The girl on whose face is stamped the wisdom of things she has seen by rubbing against the world is missing from the Frank audiences. It might be peculiar, but it’s true.

Why Do They Do It?

There are women whose features look out of place anywhere but in a neat and tidy home, or at the rocking-side of a cradle. They have come and mingled with the various characters that are found in every sensational trial. They come and sit beside the aged woman and withered, and the girl of the crimson stain and the man who chews tobacco and whispers profanity and winks significantly at suggestive testimony.

Is it that the housewife, cooped within the limited boundaries of her home-making, husband-keeping and child-mothering, pines to know the scandalous, the sensational, the underside of life which she has not seen?

Is it that she takes advantage when the opportunity affords purely because other women are doing the same?

Is it the same principle that makes the life of worldly things so attractive to the girl and woman who knows nothing but her home and neighborhood?

One little girl who said she was a newspaper reporter, but who, very likely, had never written anything more than a school essay and who had never seen any further in a newspaper shop than the business office, sat within the railing that separates the lawyers and persons interested from the audience, and scribbled enthusiastically in a notebook while Jim Conley told of an alleged scene he had witnessed between Leo Frank and a girl in Frank’s office.

All Listen Eagerly.

The mother that held the 13-year-old strained eyes and ears while Conley told the same story. The woman on the crutch, whose years are but few among the living, cupped her hand behind an ear so as not to miss a word and leaned as far forward as her aching bones would permit.

The woman with the big, wide hat, flowing plume and auburn tresses, who wasn’t as worldly as she tried to paint her features, while the negro prattled on, retained her standing position, unabashed, apparently unmindful of the eyes from all parts of the courtroom.

Two chorus girls, with all the appearance of the cheap vaudeville type, while Conley told his story, attempted to whisper something to each other, probably of similar incidents they themselves had seen, when the mother with the child leaned near with a cautioning whisper.

Women were all over the courtroom, sprinkled here, there and everywhere. They sat between criminals, crooks and jailbirds. They didn’t care where they sat or between whom, just so they found a seat. They fought for them, they demanded them. Pride nor anything else counted. Just so they got a seat—just so they could hear Jim Conley’s story. Let the consequences take care of themselves.

And the question again is asked:

Why was the woman of worldly wisdom absent?

Why was the little girl and the housewife, who, no doubt, maintains a happy home, and the woman of withered countenance and few remaining years, present in scores?

It’s a question even a woman could not answer.

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Atlanta Constitution, August 5th 1913, “Women of Every Class and Age Listen With Morbid Curiosity to Testimony of Negro Conley,” Leo Frank newspaper article series (Original PDF)