Three Deaths by Strangling: Mary Phagan, Leo Frank, and Truth

Mary Phagan, just a few weeks short of her 14th birthday, was an Atlanta child laborer who was planning to attend the Confederate Memorial Day parade on April 26, 1913. She had just come to collect her $1.20 pay from National Pencil Company superintendent Leo Frank, when she was knocked down, struck, and wounded by an assailant who tore her undergarments, abused her, and then strangled her to death with a piece of cord. Her body was dumped in the factory basement.

by Scott Aaronson

IT MAY WELL BE the greatest murder mystery of all time. Some assert that the Mary Phagan murder case is solved, but those who so assert are of two different and mutually exclusive camps. And those two camps still stand diametrically opposed to this day, four generations later.

The case aroused the outrage and ire and vengeance of two great communities. One, the Jewish community, feel overwhelmingly today, and felt to a lesser but still substantial extent in 1913, that Leo Frank was tried and condemned simply because he was a Jew. They believe that Leo Frank is so obviously innocent that he never would have been tried had it not been for endemic anti-Semitism in 1913 Atlanta. And they have been remarkably effective in making  Southern anti-Semitism the leitmotif of virtually all drama, documentary, and other remembrance of this case for the last half century. The other, the largely Christian Southern gentile community, believed overwhelmingly in 1913 — and to an unknown but doubtlessly  large degree still believes today — that justice was done when all the jurors, and every appeals court in the land including the Supreme Court of the United States, after a monumental and impressively-funded defense, agreed that Leo Frank was fairly tried and convicted for the murder of Mary Phagan. And it must rankle Southerners almost beyond words to be accused of anti-Semitism, when no Christian community anywhere on earth has so respected and welcomed Jews, has so openly acknowledged its spiritual roots in Judaism, or has so enthusiastically supported the Jewish state of Israel.

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Dramatic Moment of Trial Comes as Negro Takes Stand

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

L. O. Grice, a stenographer in the offices of the Atlanta and West Point Railroad, was the first witness called. He said that he saw Frank on Sunday morning after the murder and Frank attracted his attention by his undue nervousness.

Grice said he was on the way to the Terminal Station when he bought an “extra” stating that a murder had been committed at the National Pencil Factory. He said he stopped by the pencil factory and saw eight men on the inside of the building.

“Did any of these men attract your particular attention?” asked Solicitor Dorsey.—A. Two or three of them did.

Q. Who were they?—A. When I went in the building Detective Black, whom I knew, was asking a great many questions.

Q. Did anybody attract your attention by their nervousness?—A. Not right then, but later we went down through the basement and out the back door. Then I was attracted by the nervous actions of a small dark man. I did not know him.

Q. Is this the man? (Pointing to Frank.)—A. Yes.

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Frank Calm and Jurors Tense While Jim Conley Tells His Gastcy [sic] Tale

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

During the long wait for Conley to appear, Frank, his loyal wife and his no less loyal mother gave no sign of fear. Accuser and accused were about to face each other, a dramatic situation which the authorities had sought to bring about since the negro made his third affidavit charging Frank with the terrible crime.

If Frank at last were on the edge of a breakdown his calm, untroubled features were most deceiving at this time. He seemed no more concerned than when John Black, floundering and helpless on the stand, was making as good a witness for the defense as he was expected to make for the State.

When Solicitor Dorsey announced that Conley would be the next witness the courtroom was electrified with a shock of interest in which the only three persons who seemed not affected were this trio—Frank, his wife and his mother.

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Jurors Strain Forward to Catch Conley Story; Frank’s Interest Mild

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

Dramatic in its very glibness and unconcern, Conley’s story, if it failed to shake or disturb Leo Frank, at least had a wonderful impression upon each member of the jury.

Conley told of seeing Mary Phagan enter the factory. This was the first time he had admitted to this, so far as the public had known.

Frank showed only a mild interest, but the jurors strained forward in their seats.

Conley told of hearing the footsteps from his vantage point on the first floor of two persons coming out of Frank’s office.

Frank still exhibited no sign of concern.

Conley then related hearing the footsteps going back to the metal room and of being startled by the shrieks of a young girl.

Mrs. Frank bowed her head, but gave no other sign. Frank still was the personification of coolness and composure.

* * *

The Atlanta Georgian, August 4th 1913, “Jurors Strain Forward to Catch Conley Story; Frank’s Interest Mild,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)

Frank Witness Nearly Killed By a Mad Dog

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

Deputy Sheriff W. W. (“Boots”) Rogers, witness for the State in the Frank trial, is taking the Pasteur treatment at the State Capitol Monday after being bitten half a dozen times on the right ankle by a rabid dog that pulled him from his motorcycle at Henderson’s crossing, on Capitol avenue, Sunday night about 11 o’clock.

After a battle of more than fifteen minutes Rogers finally drove the dog away, and though his right leg was badly torn and lacerated, rode the two miles from the crossing to Grady Hospital. When he arrived at the hospital his leg had begun to turn black and was very painful.

Treated at Grady Hospital.

The Grady Hospital surgeons cauterized the wounds and gave him temporary relief. This morning the leg which the dog had gnawed was still swollen and painful, and Rogers decided to take the Pasteur treatment.

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Envy Not the Juror! His Lot, Mostly, Is Monotony

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

By L. F. WOODRUFF.

A policeman’s life is not a merry one. The thought was expressed and event set to music in those dim days of the distant past when people heard the lyrics and listened to the charming lilts of Gilbert and Sullivan opera instead of centering their attentions on a winsome young woman with a record in the divorce courts and not much else in either ability or raiment.

Gilbert and Sullivan, now being tradition, can be considered authorities. Wherefore the thought is repeated that a policeman’s life is not a merry one.

But there are twelve Fulton county men who will say that he went too far in his statement in one way and didn’t come within a mile of approaching the mark in another.

For after the sergeant sings “a policeman’s life is not a merry one,” the chorus of constabulary cants, “ta ran ta ra, ta ran ta ra,” which sounds rather joyous.

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Boiled Cabbage Brings Hypothetical Question Stage in Frank’s Trial

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

By JAMS B. NEVIN.

When a prospective juryman is on his voir dire in a given criminal case, he is asked if his mind is perfectly impartial between the State and the accused.

If he answers yes, he is competent to try the case, so far as that is concerned. If he answers no, he is rejected.

How many people in Atlanta and Georgia, having heard part of the testimony in the Frank case, still feel themselves to be perfectly impartial between the State and the accused?

How many people, having heard part of the evidence, still have refrained from expressing an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Frank?

Not many, I take it—and yet, that jury is supposed to be perfectly poised and as yet impartial between the State and the accused, notwithstanding the State’s evidence thus far delivered, and the presumption of innocence legally established in behalf of the defendant.

I venture the opinion that nothing developing in the Frank trial last week so profoundly weighed upon the minds of the people over Sunday as the question of the digestibility of boiled cabbage—nice, greasy, palatable, if often shunned, boiled cabbage!

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Jim Conley’s Story as Matter of Fact as if it Were of His Day’s Work

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

By O. B. Keeler.

Jim Conley, hewer of wood and drawer of water.

On the witness stand at the Frank trial this morning, Jim unfolded a tale whose lightest word—you know the rest. It was a story that flexed attention to the breaking point: a story that whitened knuckles and pressed finger nails into palms; a story that absorbed the usual courtroom stir and rustle, and froze the hearers into lines upon lines of straining faces.

And Jim Conley told that story as he might have told the story of a day’s work at well-digging, or driving a dray, or sweeping up the second floor at the National Pencil Factory.

Jim was matter-of-fact.

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Conley’s Story In Detail; Women Barred By Judge

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

There was a murmur of excitement following the calling of Jim Conley; there was a wait of several minutes, officers having just left the police station with the negro a minute or two before he was called.

Judge Roan impatiently ordered the Sheriff to bring in the witness. A number of spectators who were crowded up too close to the jury box were moved back by the court deputies.

“The Sheriff hasn’t got Jim Conley,” said Attorney Rosser, after a statement from Deputy Sheriff Plennie Miner.

“Mr. Starnes will bring him in,” returned Solicitor Dorsey.

“See if Mrs. White has arrived,” then requested Dorsey. “She has a very young baby, and when I had her subpenaed this morning she said that she would have to send to the factory and get her husband before she could come.”

Courtroom Quiet as Conley Enters.

“You may call her later,” said Mr. Rosser, “there wont’ be any objection.”
Jim Conley was brought into the courtroom just at this time. He took the witness chair and was sworn in while in the chair. Solicitor Dorsey examined him and everyone leaned forward, while extreme quiet prevailed.

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Rosser’s Grilling of Negro Leads to Hot Clashes by Lawyers

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 4th, 1913

A bitter, determined cross-examination of Jim Conley by Luther Rosser was marked by a prolonged battle between counsel for the defense and State over the method of questioning the negro.

The defense won a complete victory, Judge Roan ruling that the accuser of Leo Frank could be cross-examined on any subject the prisoner’s lawyers saw fit.

In the course of this legal tilt Luther Rosser said:

“I am going after him (referring to Conley) and I am going to jump on him with both feet.”

Turning to counsel for the State he added significantly: “And I won’t enlighten him, either. Your period of enlightenment is over.”

Rosser, before the afternoon session concluded, got the negro to say that he had been lying when he said that he got up at 9 o’clock the day of the crime. He said he got up at 6 o’clock.

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Dorsey Pleased With Progress

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

Solicitor Will Put Dr. Roy Harris on the Stand Again on Next Tuesday Afternoon.

While Solicitor Hugh M. Dorsey declined to make an expression of what he believed would be the outcome of the case against Leo M. Frank, which he has been prosecuting all the week, he expressed himself yesterday afternoon as thoroughly satisfied with the present progress.

The solicitor held an extended conference immediately after court adjourned with his assistant, E. A. Stephens, and with Attorney Frank A. Hooper, who is aiding him, and together with the lawyers went over what had been done and mapped out their program for the coming week.

With the attorneys were detectives J. N. Starnes and Pat Campbell and others who have assisted in getting up the evidence and working the preparation of the case.

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Chief Beavers Tells of Seeing Blood Spots on Factory Floor

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

Police Chief James L. Beavers followed Dr. Hurt upon the witness stand. Mr. Rosser immediately asked him if he had been in the courtroom, as he had not been named by the state when other witnesses were named, sworn and put under the rule. He replied that he had for a short time and Mr. Dorsey explained that in the beginning of the case he had no intention of using him.

“Were you present at the National Pencil factory on the Monday following the finding of the dead girl?” asked Mr. Dorsey.

“I was there not on Monday, I believe, I think it was on Tuesday,” he replied.

“Did you see the area of the floor around the girls’ dressing room?”

Mr. Rosser then arose and declared that he did not think that the court should allow Mr. Dorsey to get Chief Beavers in as a witness merely on his statement that at the time the other witnesses were sworn and put under the rule that he did not know he would need him.

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Good Order Kept in Court by Vigilance of Deputies

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

Despite the throng that has gathered each day around the courthouse where a man is on trial for his life, and despite the number of people who have crowded in to fill every seat, there has been on the whole good order in the courtroom, due to the vigilance of the deputies in charge.

Sheriff C. W. Mangum sits daily in the room and with him are practically every deputy and bailiff that the courtrooms afford. To handle the large crowd and to take care of the entrance all of them are needed. In charge of the men is a deputy who has figured in practically every sensational trial in Atlanta for a number of years and whose knife with which he raps for order and tiny rose which he wears on his lapel are known to every court attendant in Atlanta. He is Plennie Miner, deputy sheriff in charge of the criminal division of the Fulton superior court and a master-craftsman in handling crowds, enforcing order and yet doing it in such a way as to avoid giving offense.

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Girl Asked for Mary Phagan’s Pay But Was Refused by Frank

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

Miss Helen Ferguson, formerly employed at the National Pencil factory, but now working for Marcus Loeb and company, was the first state witness put on the stand Saturday morning.

She proved to be a li[t]tle girl in short dresses with her hair hanging in two braids down her back. Her age she gave as sixteen. On the stand she was rather timid and answered questions in an almost inaudible voice, but replied positively to each one. She was only kept on the stand about fifteen minutes.

For two years previous to the murder she declared that she had been working for the National Pencil factory.

“Did you see Frank on April 25, the Friday before the murder?” the solicitor asked after the usual introductory questions of her age and identity.

“Yes,” she replied.

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Finding of Dead Girl’s Parasol is Told by Policeman Lasseter

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

Following Chief Beavers the name of Detective Bass Rosser was then called, but he was not present and Policeman R. F. Lasseter was put on the stand.

“Did you go to the National Pencil factory on Sunday morning, April 27?”
“Yes.”

“Did you ever see this parasol before?” asked the solicitor, holding up the which was found in the elevator shaft and identified as Mary Phagan’s.

“Yes, I found it that morning at the bottom of the shaft.”

“What else did you find? Any other wearing apparel?”

“No.”

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Fixing Hour of Girl’s Death Through Aid of Modern Science The Prosecution’s Greatest Aid

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

By Britt Craig.

When Mrs. J. W. Coleman, mother of Mary Phagan, related a simple story on the witness stand the first day of the Frank trial of the slain child’s frugal meal of cabbage and biscuit which she ate upon leaving home that fateful day, she paved the way for the most thrilling development thus far in the entire case.

Her story was as devoid of thrills as any yet told. It was an ordinary recitation of a common meal and told in the mother’s plain, simple manner. Had she not broke into tears her connection would have been completely devoid of interest, except for the fact that she was Mary Phagan’s mother.

But her statement of the meal the murdered child had eaten, prepared an opening for the startling testimony of Dr. Roy F. Harris, the state chemist, who testified that the cabbage found in the stomach, and which Mrs. Coleman stated the child had eaten at the noon meal, indicated that she had met her death within 45 minutes after eating.

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Detective Waggoner Describes Extreme Nervousness of Frank

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

City Detective D. L. Waggoner was called to the stand following Miss Ferguson Attorney Rosser immediately raised the objection that he had been in the court room and the solicitor declared that he did not know whether or not the detective had Waggoner stated that he was present for about 20 minutes Wednesday.

“He was not sworn and put under the rule,” explained Solicitor Dorsey, “because I did not know that I would need him.”

The defense made no further objection and the examination began.

“How long have you been on the force, Mr. Waggoner?” the solicitor asked.

“About four years, in all.”

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“Break” in the Frank Trial May Come With the Hearing Of Jim Conley’s Testimony

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

By Britt Craig.

Jim Conley isn’t a cornfield negro—he’s more of the present day type of city darkey—and that’s the only difference between him and Newt Lee. Outside of that there is but little variance.

However, Jim’s ancestors hewd cotton and plowed bottom lands long before Jim had an idea of existing. He’s got the good old country strain in him and he’s as black as tar.

Some folks say he’ll make a witness as good as Newt, and others say he won’t. That all remains to be seen. One thing is sure: There’ll be plenty of pyrotechnics when he begins to show whatever kind of witness he is.

Jim is the hinge of the Frank case. His testimony is expected to swing it one way or the other. If his story sticks and he is as firm as he has been thus far, things will look quite melancholy for the white man. If he falls down as the defense expects then Lord help his neck.

It’s a question of Jim Conley or Leo Frank with Jim Conley’s testimony as the scales.

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Condition of Girl’s Body Described by Dr. J. W. Hurt

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

Dr. J. W. Hurt, county physician, who examined the body of Mary Phagan, took the stand following Detective Waggoner. Dr. Hurt not only made an examination on the Sunday morning that the body was found, but he was present several days later when the girl’s body was disinterred at Marietta by Dr. Roy Harris.

“How long have you been a physician?” asked Solicitor Dorsey after he had put the formal questions to establish the physician’s connection with the case.

“Since 1884.”

“What are your duties as county physician?”
“To attend all inquests and examine the bodies of the dead.”

“Did you see Mary Phagan’s body?”
“Yes.”
“Where did you first see it?”
“At P. J. Bloomfield’s undertaking establishment on the Sunday morning that the body was found.”

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Resume of Week’s Evidence Shows Little Progress Made

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 3rd, 1913

Place and Time of the Murder Only Big Facts Brought Out in the Mass of Evidence.

One week of the battle Leo M. Frank, accused of the murder of Mary Phagan in the factory of the National Pencil company, for his life has elapsed, and his fate is yet a question for future developments to decide.

The first week of the trial has been markedly free from sensations.

The two big facts that the week’s evidence would seem to show are that Mary Phagan was murdered in the second floor of the pencil factory, and that she was murdered within one hour after she ate her breakfast at home shortly after 11 o’clock.

The principal features of the week’s evidence are as follows:

Mary’s Mother Testifies.

The examination of witnesses began with the most pathetic scene in the whole week, when Mrs. J. W. Coleman, mother of the murdered girl, took the stand.

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