As horrible as it may sound to say, murder cases seem like a dime a dozen these days. A whole slew of real life crime shows have a veritably endless supply of murder cases at their disposal, making these programs some of the most popular shows on television today.
Despite the obvious fanfare and obsession that some have for terrible acts of violence, every once in a while a crime will come along that tears at the heartstrings of American society and invokes powerful emotions of anger, sadness, revenge, etc. Cases ranging from the Lindbergh Kidnapping of the early 1930s to the JonBenet Ramsey case in the 1990s have been catapulted to international attention, often causing extreme reactions from anxious onlookers.
But when it comes to high profile murders, there is perhaps no case that is more dramatic than that of Mary Phagan. Though on the surface she may appear like any other average thirteen-year-old girl, her murder was anything but, for it invoked passionate feelings that stretched far beyond Phagan's relatively simple and uneventful life. Lingering racial, religious and social tensions came into play in such a way that eventually elevated the Phagan murder to national attention. Or as one documentary of the case put it:
Considered one of the most sensational trials of the early 20th century, [the Phagan murder] seemed to press every hot-button issue of the time: North vs. South, black vs. white, Jew vs. Christian, industrial vs. agrarian. In the years since, it has inspired numerous books and films, TV programs, plays, musicals and songs. It has fueled legal discussions, spawned a traveling exhibition and driven public forums.But all public notoriety aside, the Phagan murder (like any murder) boils down to the fundamental reality that a young woman's life was prematurely ended because somebody chose to end it. As a result, the demands of justice require society to uncover the "who" and "why."
As is the case with any violent crime, victimology (the studying of victims and their life patterns) takes on an incredibly important role, for it is by looking at the life, habits, risk factors, etc. of victims that investigators are able to narrow down the list of possible suspects. In the case of Mary Phagan, this becomes somewhat problematic, since she lived a relatively average life that was free of most major risk factors...
...except for one.
Like many children of her era, Phagan was forced to work to help provide for her mother and five siblings. During the early years of the 20th century, child labor was relatively common, especially in developing urban cities like Atlanta (where Mary Phagan grew up). The emergence of industrialization and mass production had forced many poor families to send their children into the workplace. As a result, Mary Phagan began employment at the National pencil Factory when her youthful vulnerability and inexperience could easily be exploited.
It was at this pencil factory that Mary Phagan encountered a diverse assortment of employees. Everyone from poor children (like herself), immigrant Jews and African Americans still trying to make a living for themselves and their families in the post-Civil War south were thrown together in the emerging industrialized workplace of Atlanta.
The manager of the National Pencil Factory was a young Jewish American named Leo Frank. Frank, who had graduated from Cornell University and worked a number of apprenticeships in pencil manufacturing, had established himself as a relatively stable member of the "jet set" community. Contrary to what many may think, a large portion of the Jewish community in the south experienced a good deal of success and social prestige during the early years of the 20th century. Many Jewish shop owners, merchants, etc. rose to prominence in southern society where their beliefs and practices were at least tolerated by their Christian neighbors. However, the further influx of Jewish immigrants to the south helped to fuel the bias of many "traditional" southerners. For Leo Frank, Atlanta (and much of the south in general) was teetering on the balance beam of social and racial strife. All that was needed was a spark to ignite an inferno.
The spark came on April 27, 1913, when Mary Phagan's dead and beaten body was found in the basement of the National Pencil Factory. Police were summoned to the factory when Newt Lee, a night watchman at the factory, reported finding a body of a deceased female. Phagan had apparently been strangled, raped and discarded in the dirt and mud of the basement. In addition, police discovered two handwritten notes neatly placed on Phagan's body, a pile of fresh excrement underneath the elevator, a small piece of cord and a large number of bloody fingerprints. Despite finding this treasure trove of evidence, investigators demonstrated almost complete incompetence in the processing of the scene. Every single bloody fingerprint was lost while other trace evidence was never collected. In fact, police actually loaned out many pieces of collected evidence (clothes, photos, etc.) to local reporters, some of it never to be returned. Newt Lee, who was the first to report the crime, was immediately imprisoned and kept under lock and key for over four months without ever being charged. In short, the police proved to be almost entirely unreliable.
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, police focused their attention on several factory employees, including the manager Leo Frank who accompanied police to the factory on the night Phagan's body was discovered. According to police, Frank appeared extremely nervous and was visibly shaken when asked to return to the factory. As one investigator would later testify:
Mrs. Frank came to the door; she had on a bathrobe. I stated that I would like to see Mr. Frank and about that time Mr. Frank stepped out from behind a curtain. Frank's voice was hoarse and trembling and nervous and excited. He looked to me like he was pale. He seemed nervous in handling his collar; he could not get his tie tied, and talked very rapid in asking what had happened. He kept insisting on a cup of coffee.For many, Frank's nervousness was a clear sign of guilt, while for others it was simply the normal reaction of a man who had been awaken in the middle of the night by police and asked to accompany them to a murder scene. Either way, Frank's demeanor at the time was eventually used against him as "evidence" of his guilt (Click here for source material).
In addition to Frank, a factory janitor by the name of Jim Conley was also suspected of being involved in the murder. Conley, an African American, had been working the night of Phagan's murder and had also behaved strangely. At least two employees claimed that they saw him washing a shirt (which appeared to be covered in blood) that Conley claimed was dirty from cleaning the basement. In addition, Conley, while in a drunken stupor, allegedly told a friend (on the night of the murder) that he had "already killed one person for money" and "didn't want to kill another." When interviewed by police, however, Conley insisted that he wasn't at work, was illiterate and that he never knew Mary Phagan. However, Conley was forced to change his story when confronted with conflicting evidence. Police were able to prove that Conley had in fact been working the night of the murder and had known Phagan.
In addition, the most damning hole punched in Conley's story was his alleged illiteracy. Despite his claim, cops were able to prove that Conley was not only literate but had, in fact, penned the two notes found on Mary Phagan's body (click here to see the notes). Several handwriting experts were able to prove that Conley had written the notes. These notes (which were allegedly written by Mary Phagan as she was being murdered) essentially stated that "a long tall negro black" was responsible for the killing.
Faced with the truth, Conley concocted a new, sensational story in which he was forced by Leo Frank to write the notes. In addition, Conley told investigators that Frank had summoned Mary Phagan to his office and had told Conley to essentially stand guard outside while Frank conversed with Phagan. Conley then stated that Frank, who was visibly shaking and sweating, informed Conley that he had killed Phagan. Frank then allegedly ordered Conley to dispense with the body in the basement furnace. Police, however, found several problems with the story. If Frank had wanted the body burned then what was the point of placing notes on her body? In addition, a fresh pile of excrement had been found at the base of the elevator. If Conley had taken the body down via the elevator (as he claimed) why was the excrement untouched? Despite these obvious lies, police actually seemed to side with Conley. They believed that Frank held enough pull as a manager to make Conley conspire to such a cover up. Ignoring the obvious holes and downright lies in his story, investigators essentially embraced Conley's story and eventually made him their key witness against Frank.
On May 23, just short of a month after the murder, Leo Frank was indicted for the murder of Mary Phagan. The grand jury, which included 5 Jewish participants, only needed 10 minutes to indict Frank, claiming that "clear evidence" of Frank's guilt made the decision an easy one. Of course most of this "clear evidence" came from the "reliable" mouth of Jim Conley.
At trial, Frank's attorney's relied heavily on Frank's alibi, which they believed clearly exonerated their client. For the defense, the timeline of events leading up to Phagan's death made it impossible for Frank to have been involved in the murder. In addition, Frank's attorneys clearly chose to play the race card. And while it's understandable that the defense would want to pass guilt to Jim Conley, the racial bit was an obvious response to the already mounting antisemitism surrounding the trial. Unfortunately for Frank, the trial had become a public circus in which race and religion became more important than the actual case (I will discuss the social impact of the trial in part II). So when the defense made statements like, "A dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying nigger is behind this" it's clear that even Frank's attorneys were feeling the mounting social tension.
In addition to calling on Jim Conley, the prosecution also relied on the testimony of several factory employees who claimed that Frank had made advances towards Phagan in the past. And while the validity of such testimonies are difficult to prove/disprove, it's important to note that many of these "testimonies" had been initially taken by investigators who had given these witnesses an abundance of liquor during questioning.
To make a long story short, Leo Frank was eventually found guilty, primarily because of the "expert" testimony of Jim Conley. The following day, Frank was sentenced to hang for the crime but the sentence of death was eventually commuted by Governor John Slaton (more on this coming in part II). The governor's decision set off a massive response of anger and hostility from those who were convinced that Frank was guilty. As a result, Frank was eventually kidnapped from the jail in which he was housed and lynched by the mob (the only recorded lynching of a Jew). Included in the mob was a former governor, mayor, 3 lawyers and several of Frank's co-workers. Frank's final words were, "I think more of my wife and my mother than I do of my own life."
The Leo Frank fiasco is virtually a textbook example of the criminal justice system gone terribly wrong. The combination of inept police investigators, biased prosecutors, a pathetic defense and the obvious influence of mounting mob anger gave Leo Frank zero chance at a fair trial. And whether or not you believe Frank to be guilty there can be no doubt that the man's trial was a fiasco. By the rules of law, evidence, etc. Frank never should have even seen the inside of the courtroom.
As for Jim Conley, who many feel was the true killer, he received only 1 year on a chain gang for his part in the cover up. In addition, it's worth noting that a former factory worker named Alonzo Mann stated that he saw Conley alone at the factory (Frank had gone home) and that it was Conley who disposed of the body and threatened to kill Mann if he talked. Conley's lawyer also later stated that Conley was "obviously guilty."