The New York Jew Who Was Wrongly Convicted and Lynched

Elad Simchayoff

The Story of Leo Frank Changed America Forever

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The Murder of Mary Phagan

It was Confederate Memorial Day and 13-year-old Mary Phagan couldn’t be more excited.

There was a parade scheduled, with a firework display, and Mary was due to meet her friends for the celebration. First, however, she had to pass by the National Pencil Company’s factory and collect her weekly pay.

Mary Phagan came from a poor family of farmers who moved to Atlanta for financial gain. Like many other teenagers at the time, Phagan too was working for a living. On Saturday, April 26, 1913, she entered the pencil factory to speak to the superintendent, Leo Frank, and receive $1.20 for the two shifts she had that week.

Mary Phagan never left the factory alive. Her murder set off a chain of events destined to change America forever.

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While working the night shift at the pencil factory, Newt Lee, the night-watchman, found a body of a girl laying in the basement, partly hidden by the storage shed.

Strangled, beaten, and with apparent signs of being sexually assaulted, the girl was in such a terrible state that she couldn’t be identified. The time was 3 am. Alarmed, Lee first phoned his boss, Leo Frank, at his home but there was no answer. Lee’s second call was to the local police station.

The policemen at the scene were shocked. Detective John Black took the lead and started examining the basement. Two hand-written letters were found near the body. In plain language, the letters mentioned a tall black man committing the murder.

The officers quickly arrested Newt Lee who fit the description. Detective Black, however, wasn’t satisfied. Lee, an elderly man, did not ‘feel right’ as a suspect for such a heinous crime.

Something that the night-watchman said got the detective curious. He mentioned calling the superintendent at 3 am and that there was no answer. Black found that extremely suspicious.

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The Investigation

Since first approaching Leo Frank, Detective Black deemed the man was hiding something.

Frank’s behavior was later described by the detective as strange. Black felt like Frank was stalling for time, he was nervous, and at unease. When asked whether he knew Mary, Leo answered no.

The detective then asked if a young girl didn’t come to speak to Frank about her wage the day before. Frank answered that he didn’t know her by name, only by her employee number.

Detective Black closely examined Frank with a suspicious eye, later claiming he seemed to show little empathy in the face of the tragedy at the factory he was managing.

Leo Frank was born in Texas but moved with his family to New York when he was 3-months-old. Raised in a Jewish family, Frank was quiet and much-liked by his friends.

He studied engineering at Cornell University and had a decent job in New York. 5 years prior to Mary Phagan’s murder, Leo Frank’s uncle offered him a job at the National Pencil Company’s factory he owned in Atlanta, GA. Frank took the role very seriously and went on a trip to Germany to learn the trade.

Leo Frank was very successful and was able to improve the company’s performance. While being welcomed by the local Jewish community, he never felt like he fits in his new home.

To the locals, he seemed distant and cold. He embodied the typical foreigner stereotype by his appearance and manner. He was a northerner, a businessman, a Jew; He was different.

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The media was all over the story of Mary Phagan’s murder. Understanding the public’s interest and financial potential, Georgia’s leading newspaper; The Atlanta Constitution, and its rival The Atlanta Georgian competed on who will publish the most gruesome and sensational details. This led, more often than not, to exaggerated and plainly false information being published daily, inciting the crowds and turning Mary Phagan’s murder into the most discussed story in the state.

Frank was called to the police station and while his attorney reacted with outrage at the very notion of the superintendent being considered a suspect, Frank remained calm. He allowed the detectives to examine his body and showed no signs of scratches or bruising.

He also allowed them to check his dirty clothes at home. Frank was certain that he had succeeded in proving his innocence. On behalf of the pencil company, Frank hired detectives from the well-known Pinkerton firm to conduct a parallel investigation and help restore the company’s good name.

Unknown to Frank, the lead Pinkerton detective put on the case, Harry Scott, was a close friend of police detective Black. The two worked together and were determined to prove that Frank was guilty.

The police detectives conducted a search at Newt Lee’s house. They found a bloodstained shirt at the night watchman’s apartment. The shirt seemed like it was never worn, and the blood didn’t seem like it was caused by a violent fight.

Detective Black decided that Leo Frank planted this shirt in Newt Lee’s house and that the reason the superintendent agreed to have his laundry searched was to make the police search Lee’s clothes as well so that they could find the shirt there. Leo Frank was arrested later that day for the murder of Mary Phagan.

Large crowds gathered outside the police station upon rumors of the arrest. The policemen outside were ordered not to let anyone in.

Frank’s attorney was held off outside while his client was interrogated. Frank’s wife, Lucille, couldn’t get in and left outside sobbing. Hearing she was outside, Frank sent his wife a message telling her to go home as he will be set free soon.

Some newspapers later reported that Lucille didn’t come to visit her husband as she knew he was guilty. Reports claimed she wanted a divorce, and that Frank paid her a large sum in order to stay married. Lucille wrote a letter to one of the editors denying all claims, but the damage was already done.

The local newspapers pointed the blame towards Frank. Many reports portrayed Frank as a ‘Yankee Jew who invaded the south to steal southerners' money and defile the good-natured southern girls’.

Under publisher Tom Watson, the newspaper The Jeffersonian published a series of antisemitic stories, filled with false information and an anti-northerners, anti-capitalist, agenda. The hatred towards Frank was raging among locals.

Rumors started to surface claiming Frank was sexually taking advantage of the female teen workers at the factory. Some claimed he was often ‘too familiar with the girls’, rubbing up against them, or making lewd remarks. no such claim was ever proved, some were found to be false. However, at the time, Frank’s reputation was completely destroyed.

As the investigation progressed, evidence started to emerge that pointed towards another man’s guilt.

Jim Conley was the factory’s janitor and was seen lurking around the scene on the day of Mary’s murder. He was seen rinsing a stained shirt, and although initially claiming he couldn’t read or write, a note with his handwriting was found to be identical to the two notes found next to Mary’s body.

Conley had a criminal record and a very shady reputation. His lies kept piling up, and he was undoubtedly involved in the murder although denying it categorically.

After spending a night in an isolated jail cell, and after an undocumented meeting with detective Black and detective Scott, Conely gave a new statement to the police. Conely claimed that Frank ordered him to write the two letters a day before Mary was murdered.

The police didn’t accept this statement as the murder didn’t seem to be premeditated. Conely was asked to change his story. The janitor then changed his statement once more, now claiming that Frank called him at the office after the murder, telling him that he needs help carrying the body to the basement.

Conely claimed that Frank then ordered him to write the letters saying “why should I hang for this? I have a wealthy family in Brooklyn”. Conely also claimed that Frank gave him $200, only to ask for the money back later.

The press questioned Conely’s changing stories and raised the question of his innocence. However, the police now had what it wanted; An eye witness pointing the blame at Frank. People in the community, and the police force, found it much more fitting for a white Northerner man to take the blame for this horrific act rather than a local black man.

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The Trial

On May 23, 1913, Leo Frank’s trial started with Hugh Dorsey as the prosecutor. Dorsey was at a low point in his career as he recently lost two high-profile cases. He was determined to win and was ready to do anything it takes to get a guilty verdict.

Minola McKnight was the cook at Frank’s house. McKnight’s husband heard about a reward offered for information in the case and claimed his wife has valuable information to share. When asked by the police, McKnight said that Leo Frank returned home at 1:20 pm for lunch, an identical version to that Frank himself told.

This didn’t fit with the time frame of the murder, Dorsey wanted to show that Frank arrived home later. McKnight’s husband was called to convince her to change her story, but the cook refused.

McKnight was then sent to spend a night in jail and interrogated in the morning. Pressured and intimidated, McKnight changed her statement, now claiming that Frank left the house quickly without eating, and later returned drunk and hysterical saying that he killed a young girl.

The trial itself was full of circumstantial evidence, lying witnesses, and was largely based on the testimony of Jim Conely, a man who undoubtedly been involved in the murder.

A large crowd was gathered outside the court shouting “hang that jew”, and threatening the jury that anything less than the death penalty wouldn’t be acceptable. Due to heat, the court windows were left open; Every shout from the street was well heard in court.

All throughout the trial, Frank’s defense lawyers were trying to showcase cold facts and speak to the jurors' sense of reason. They claimed the time frame showed was wrong and gave alternative explanations to some of the prosecution claims.

Prosecutor Dorsey, on the other hand, understood that the way to the jury was through their emotions. He wanted to tell the jurors a story, even if a highly inaccurate one at that.

The prosecution painted a picture showing Frank as a sexually perverted man, taking advantage of teenage girls working at the factory. Conley's testimony alleged that Frank confessed to the janitor that he had beaten Mary to death after she refused him.

The crowd cheered when the judge allowed hearing a claim hinting that Frank couldn’t enjoy traditional sex because he was Jewish and circumcised, and so had to perform acts that were, at the time, deemed as perverted.

The news of the trial made waves across the country. Jewish-American communities were shocked and outraged by the treatment received by one of their own.

An organization was founded to help defend Leo Frank and to make sure no other Jew will suffer defamation solely due to his religion. The Anti-Defamation League was created and is still very much active to this day.

The trial also brought about another organization to form. The ‘Knights of Mary Phagan’ was a local Georgian group created in order to make sure Leo Frank will get the punishment the group’s members thought that he deserved. This organization would later be the part of the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence in the South.

When it was time for the defense to lay its claims, witnesses were brought to show that many of the prosecution's witnesses were lying. Eventually, Leo Frank was given the right to speak to the jurors.

He spent hours explaining his work at the pencil factory, going into specific details about different kinds of pencils. Towards the end of his speech, he passionately claimed all the accusations heard against him were lies.

The jurors, however, found it strange that he talked so much about pencils and so little about Mary Phagan. In Frank’s mind, he couldn’t say any more about a girl he didn’t know.

Frank was not present at court while his verdict was read as the judge ordered to keep him out, fearing that a not-guilty verdict might lead to a riot and to the crowd lynching him to death.

It took the jury four hours to reach a verdict. Leo Frank was found guilty of murdering Mary Phagan and sentenced to death by hanging.

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The Lynching

Shocked by the conviction, Frank embarked on a long process of appeals. The public’s opinion began changing, becoming more skeptical about whether Frank was actually the murderer.

Questions arose regarding the police and prosecution's conduct during investigation and trial. All of this time, Frank was certain he would be found innocent and set free. He often wrote to his wife assuring her that everything will sort itself out.

Among those who doubted Frank’s role in the murder was Judge Roan, the judge in the murder trial. Judge Roan wrote a statement saying that he was unsure that the guilty verdict was just, and gave it to Frank’s attorneys to use if needed.

Another skeptic was the attorney representing Jim Conley, the janitor. He later claimed that he knew his client was the actual killer but couldn’t publicly reveal the information due to attorney-client privilege. As long as Frank wasn’t in a direct death-threat (and as his appeals were still ongoing) the attorney tried advocating for Frank without disclosing what he knew.

The main figure to feel unsure and unease about the verdict was Governor John Slaton. The Governor was a charismatic and popular politician with aspirations to be elected senator and reach even further than that.

He began reading documents relating to the case and met with dozens of people involved. He had many doubts about the trial and its verdict and eventually came to realize that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself unless he acted according to his conscience and values.

When all of Frank’s appeals were rejected, Governor Slaton decided to commute his death sentence to life in prison. Frank was secretly transferred to a remote prison before the decision was made public.

An angry mob stormed Slaton’s house threatening him with violence. Slaton and his family were forced out of town. The aspiring Governor with a promising career ahead of him had to quit public life due to his decision to save Leo Frank.

The people were outraged. Slaton’s decision fuelled anger and hatred like never before. Incited by the local media, the ‘Knight of Mary Phagan’ group, backed by some high-profile local figures, came up with a devilish plan.

On August 16, 1915, eight cars full of men arrived at the prison where Frank was held. The men stormed the prison, cutting the electricity and phone lines, and kidnapped Frank from his cell.

They drove for seven hours to Mary Phagan’s old house. Frank was taken out of the car and faced a former local judge, himself a member of the ‘Knights of Mary Phagan’ group. The judge gave Frank his sentence, death by hanging.

A former sheriff supplied handcuffs and a rope. Frank’s hands and feet were tied; At 7:00 am Leo Frank was hanged from a branch of a tree until dead by the cheering mob.

Hearing the news, dozens of people came to the hanging site from all over the area. People were cutting pieces of Frank’s shirt and rope to keep as souvenirs.

The crowd took pictures posing and smiling with Frank’s hanged corpse in the background. One person suggested that the body should be burnt. When the body was eventually taken down, the crowd stamped on it and disfigured it badly.

Leo Frank’s body was then taken away and transferred to New York. He was buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery on August 20, 1915. None of the men involved in the lynching was ever brought to justice.

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Aftermath

In 1982, Alonzo Mann, who was 14-years-old at the time of Mary Phagan’s murder, decided to come clean and share a secret he kept for almost 70 years.

Mann was working at the pencil factory at the time and claimed that on the day of Mary’s murder, he saw Jim Conley carrying her body, by himself, towards the basement. Mann recalled how Conley threatened to kill him if he ever told anyone about what he saw, and that he was too frightened to speak. In 1982, Mann was in his 80’s and decided to come clean before he ends his life.

Mann’s late statement gave a boost to the campaign to clear Frank’s name. After an unsuccessful first attempt, the state of Georgia eventually granted Leo Frank an official pardon.

Although being pardoned, Leo Frank’s conviction technically still holds, and while writing these lines is being reviewed by a special panel in Fulton County, Georgia.

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Photos credit:

1. Leo Frank. Photo: GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org

2. Mary Phagan. photo: Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

3. The National Pencil Company, Atlanta, Georgia. 1913. Photo: leofrank.org

4. “The Atlanta Constitution” widely covered the case. Photos: Pinterest

5. Leo Frank’s Trial. Photo: Walter Frank Winn. Atlanta Journal, July 29, 1913

6. Former Georgia governor John Slaton. Photo: leofrank.org

7. The hanging of Leo Frank.

8. A memorial placed at the place of Leo Frank’s hanging. Photo: Wikipedia

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I love writing about what I love. Journalist. Always curious. Israeli born, London based. Father, Husband, and a dog person.

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