A few years ago, John Douglas, one of the first FBI profilers and one of the real-life models for Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs, wrote The Cases That Haunt Us. In this book Douglas considered several unsolved murder cases, among them Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and Jon Benet Ramsey. His purpose was to offer his own profile of what the murderer in each case was likely to be.
It is too bad that Douglas did not turn his attention to the case that still haunts many Georgians: the Leo Frank case. Would a profile of Mary Phagan’s killer turn out to be more like Leo Frank, the pencil factory manager, or Jim Conley, the itinerant day laborer?
The murder of Mary Phagan, a young (either 12, 13 or 14 according to various sources) factory worker, occurred on April 26, 1914, Confederate Memorial Day. The young girl worked at The National Pencil Factory where Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, was plant manager. Phagan came by on the holiday to pick up her paycheck from Frank but never left the building. Her body was found that night in the basement of the building by Newt Lee, a black watchman.
Leo Frank was called to the factory in the middle of the night to identify the body. Obviously nervous, he did so. Newt Lee was arrested first, but within two weeks, suspicion turned to Frank and he was brought to jail, never to be free again.
In a complex and sensational trial, Frank was found guilty. The most damning testimony came from a black, manual laborer named Jim Conley, who said that Frank had killed the girl and then sought his help in moving the body to the basement. Conley’s testimony, which he steadfastly maintained, was the first in Georgia that the testimony of a black witnesss was used to convict a white defendant. The general feeling seems to have been that Conley was too simple-minded to have planned the crime and covered it up.
Frank was sentenced to death. After much controversy, including the revelation by Jim Conley’s attorney that Conley had confessed to the murder, Georgia Governor, John Slaton, commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison. A mob stormed the Governor’s Mansion, and Slaton’s life was endangered. The commutation eventually cost Slaton his political career.
In August of 1915, a group of men from Marietta, Mary Phagan’s home, drove through the night to the Georgia prison at Reidsville, kidnapped Leo Frank, drove back to Marietta, and there lynched the unfortunate man.
Since that time the case has been analyzed and reanalyzed. Most evidence points to Frank’s innocence and to Conley’s guilt.
Most present-day analysts of the Leo Frank case see Frank as a victim of anti-Semitism and sectional prejudice that was fanned by Populist demagogue, Tom Watson, and an overzealous and politically ambitious prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey. Racial prejudice may also have been involved since most people thought that Jim Conley, a black man, could not possibly have committed the murder, planned such an elaborate cover up and maintained his story in the face of skillful cross examination by Frank’s attorney, Luther Rosser. Interestingly, Hugh Dorsey used this case to propel himself into the Governorship and Tom Watson was elected to the U. S. Senate.
In 2003, Steve Oney, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published what is now the definitive work on the Leo Frank case – And the Dead Shall Rise. Oney’s thorough, and amazing, research makes it difficult not to conclude that Leo Frank was not guilty. Oney does not actually argue for either side but instead tries to present the best evidence and arguments for each in alternating chapters. Still, by the end of the book, the conclusion is obvious that Frank was innocent. (Oney has even been able to discover the names of all the men who were involved in Frank’s lynching.)
Even with Oney’s evidence, there are still a few questions about the case: why did Frank with such nervousness at the time of the body’s discovery, where was Frank at the time Mary Phagan was murdered (a worker testified that Frank was not in his office as he had sworn), why did so many of the female workers in the pencil factory accuse Frank of what would be called sexual harassment today, does the belated testimony of Alonzo Mann exonerate Frank or confirm Conley’s testimony, and was there collusion between former associates Luther Rosser, Frank’s attorney, and John Slaton, Governor of Georgia. Oney provides answers to these questions, but some controversy still remains.
For anyone interested in the Leo Frank case today, the place to start reading is obviously And the Dead Shall Rise by Steve Oney. Other good books are The Leo Frank Case by Leonard Dinnerstein and A Little Girl Is Dead by Harry Golden. For a different point of view, there is The Death of Little Mary Phagan by Mary Phagan (great niece of the victim.) Two contemporary accounts of interest are The Trial of Leo Frank: Reuben Arnold’s Address to the Court in his Behalf (Classic Publishing, 1915) and three issues of Watson’s Magazine from July, August and September of 1915. Tom Watson lays out the case against Frank with energy and venom. The August Watson's Magazine was published during the same month that Frank was lynched; the September issue defends the lynching. These magazines and Arnold's Address are palpable bits of history.
There are other works that touch on the case in interesting ways. C. Vann Woodward’s biography of Watson, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, has a couple of chapters that take up the case and Watson’s influence on it. Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer by Allen Lumpkin Henson has a chapter on the case in which Henson, who worked as a lawyer with John Slaton, reveals that Slaton received word from Jim Conley’s lawyer that persuaded the Governor to commute Frank’s sentence. Henson also wrote a book about Eugene Talmadege, Red Galluses. In our copy of that book, there is a letter pasted in that touches on the Frank case. Finally, David Mamet has written a novel, The Old Religion, which takes up the case fictionally. There are also numerous websites that present and discuss this case.
Besides books, there are numerous newspaper and magazine articles on this case. Also, many people collect letters, documents and autographs related to the case. Obviously, Mary Phagan’s autograph is the rarest, but Leo Frank’s signature is not frequently seen, even though he did correspond with many people while he was in jail. Hugh Dorsey and Tom Watson are not common but are available, as is John Slaton. There was also a TV movie, The Murder of Mary Phagan, that starred Jack Lemmon and Peter Gallagher. Finally, photo postcards of the lynching of Leo Frank exist. The book Without Sanctuary, a compendium of lynching postcards, compiled by James Allen and turned into a moving exhibit at various museums, depicts two cards of the Frank lynching. A photographer appeared at the scene of the lynching, took several photographs, made them into postcards and was selling them as souvenirs shortly thereafter. These cards were once quite common and still appear in various markets.
The Leo Frank – Mary Phagan case deals with what remains the most famous murder in Georgia history. Today, there seems to be little doubt that Leo Frank was innocent. Still, there are those who assert his guilt and so the controversy continues.