Leo Frank: Villain or Victim

During the early morning hours of April 27, 1913, night watchman Newt Lee tripped over a lifeless body in the basement of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia. It was 3 a.m. and Newt immediately called the police. Within hours the elderly Black watchman was arrested for the murder and rape of 13-year-old Mary Phagan.


The superintendent in charge of the one hundred and fifty employees who worked at the factory was a young Jewish businessman from New York City. When informed by the police of Mary’s death, Leo told them that Mary worked part-time at the factory and that he had last seen her when she came to his office the day before to collect her pay. The police questioned Leo for several hours. After being questioned by the police, Leo hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to aid in the investigation. In the meantime, the police were being flooded with tips and theories as to who committed the crime.


The original suspect, Newt Lee, was set free after being held and questioned for three days. Upon the release of Mr. Lee, the police honed in on James Conley. Conley was a semi-literate Black handyman who sporadically worked at the factory. Conley had not been scheduled to work the day Mary picked up her pay. However, several witnesses claimed that they had spotted James loitering near the factory’s entrance when Mary went into the building. The police brought Conley in for questioning and because he kept changing his story, they kept him in custody.


Meanwhile, Henry Scott, the lead investigator for the local branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, interviewed the frail five-foot-five 29-year-old Leo Frank at length. In his thoroughness, the detective kept a record of several minor discrepancies in Leo’s statements. Henry Scott also postulated in his notes that the only reason Leo Frank hired the Pinkerton agency was because in his opinion; Leo was the murderer, and he was trying to draw attention away from himself.


In 1913 the Atlanta police required all private detectives working within their jurisdiction to share their notes, findings, and suspicions with them. Pinkerton detective Henry Scott complied with the law and presented his notes to the police. The personal notes of Henry Scott clearly implicated Leo Frank. On May 24, 1913, the Atlanta police arrested Mr. Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan.


The trial began on July 28th and would last nearly a month. Hugh Dorsey prosecuted the case for the State of Georgia. The only evidence Dorsey had against Mr. Frank was the outrageous and constantly vacillating statements given by James Conley. Conley claimed that Leo Frank, a thin 120-pound married man, was a sex fiend and that he had seduced and molested hundreds of women in his second-floor office. Conley also claimed that he acted as a look-out for Leo Frank, when Leo took these women into his office.


On the witness stand, Conley was asked if he knew the names of any of the women who frequented Leo Frank’s office. Conley gave the names of several prominent women in the community. Eventually, each and every one of these women took the stand and testified that James Conley was lying.


As the trial progressed, James Conley testified that Leo Frank killed Mary Phagan and that Mr. Frank offered him two hundred dollars to carry the body to the basement of the factory. Conley readily admitted to removing the body. But, Conley claimed Leo Frank acted alone in the killing of Mary Phagan. Conley also said that after he carried the body to the basement, Mr. Frank did not give him the money, but said he would hold the money for him.


While the trial was in progress the proceedings received little coverage from the press. But, when it was announced on August 25, 1913, that the jury found Leo Frank guilty of murdering Mary Phagan; the verdict was plastered on the front pages of newspapers across the entire State of Georgia. And, the next day when Leo Frank was sentenced to hang, almost every newspaper in the country carried the story.


In the days before radio and television, the printed word brought current events from every corner of the world to people who were able to read. In 1913 the two biggest newspapers were the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers. These two media giants were in fierce competition; each attempting to outdo the other by providing the public with the latest sensational news.


Opinions, theories, and stories about the Leo Frank trial captivated readers from all over the country. Some newspapers touted the guilty verdict as justice prevailing, and other papers printed arguments that were meant to prove that Leo Frank was an innocent man. The obvious bias of many newspapers prompted some prominent people such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Jane Addams and others to voice their belief in Leo Frank’s innocence.


During the two years after the guilty verdict, Leo Frank’s lawyers worked feverishly to have the decision overturned. They filed appeals with the Georgia Supreme Court and when the Georgia Supreme Court denied the appeal, Leo Frank’s defense team filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States. However, the U.S. Supreme Court also denied Leo Frank’s appeal.


On June 21, 1915, just as all options to save Leo from the hangman’s noose were seemingly depleted, Georgia Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison. It was the Governor’s last day in office and most of his political supporters were against his choice. Upon hearing the governor’s decision, the people of Georgia were outraged and the governor started receiving death threats. For his own safety, and that of his family, the Governor moved out of the State of Georgia and did not return for ten years. In the meantime, civil unrest was fermenting. In order to protect Leo Frank from mob violence, he was transferred in the middle of the night from the Fulton County Prison to the Georgia State Penitentiary in Milledgeville. However, the Georgia State Penitentiary would soon prove to be negligent in protecting Leo Frank. On July 18, 1915, Leo’s throat was slashed by another prisoner. Two doctors, who were also prisoners managed to save Leo’s life by stopping the bleeding and stitching the wound. But, Leo’s safety at the prison was still in serious jeopardy.

Leo Frank case with John Marshall Slaton

Governor John Slaton

On the night of August 16, 1915, twenty-five men, who called themselves, “The Knights of Mary Phagan” drove 125 miles, over mostly dirt roads, from Atlanta to the State Penitentiary in Milledgeville. When they arrived, they cut the telephone and telegraph wires. Then they entered the prison and overpowered the guards. Next, they went to Leo Frank’s cell and, with the keys from the overpowered guards, they opened his cell and seized him. These men then drove Leo Frank to Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marrietta and lynched him from an oak tree near the cemetery where Mary was buried.


Photographers took hundreds of photos at the scene of the lynching. No one hid their faces, many prominent community leaders posed alongside the dangling corpse to have their expressions of righteous justification captured for history.


And today, more than a century after the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank; there is still doubt as to who really murdered Mary Phagan.


The Leo Frank case and its outcome have been the subject of contentious debate for more than a hundred years. These facts are indisputable.


1. Almost all newspapers of the day routinely printed unkind and often totally untrue articles about Jewish people. The sad result; subliminal brainwashing.


2. Most of the men who lynched the “New York City Jew” were the sons and grandsons of men who fought for the South during the Civil War. Many hated Northerners and passed their prejudices to their children.


3. The big divide between the rich and the poor was a stark reality in 1913. Again, the main media of the day often portrayed Northerners as being rich. These newspapers greatly influenced the masses and planted the seeds of resentment in the minds of Southern workers. Terms such as Rich New Yorkers, Rich Northerners, and Rich Jews appeared in newspapers every day in the early 1900s.


And please be aware; newspapers, radio, television, the internet, and social media are great sources of information, but be careful. Is it the truth?