And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank


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Sep 24, 2008

When the Devil rode through Georgia

Little Mary Phagan
She went to work one day;
She went to the pencil factory
To get her little pay.
- ?The Ballad of Mary Phagan?
by Fiddlin? John Carson

American history contains an abundance of dramatic court trials that have momentarily seized the attention of the entire nation, converting the public into a captive audience. However, none have done so more effectively than the Leo Frank trial (1913-1915) in Atlanta, Georgia. Before the astonishing conclusion ? with the lynching of Frank near Marietta, Georgia - an entire country would have cause to question the integrity of our legal system. Almost a century after Frank?s death, the shameful details of his martyrdom ? like a dark stain ? still color the lives of a modern generation. (The ?sins of the fathers? is an apt phrase here!)
On a Saturday morning, April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old girl, rode the streetcar from her home on Lindsay Street (Bellwood section) into downtown Atlanta and walked to the National Pencil Country to collect her weekly wage: $1.20. The following day, her battered, mutilated body was found in the basement of the factory. As heartrending as the murder was, it hardly seemed a cause capable of setting Jews and Gentiles against each other, provoking the anger of the national media (newspapers), and impugning the integrity of governors, senators and state/federal court judges. In retrospect, Mary Phagan?s death proved to be a catalyst ? the small spark that ignited a host of bitter enmities that slept beneath the surface of Georgia?s social, political and religious facade.
Leo Frank, a twenty-nine-year-old Jew (and the product of a cultured and privileged background), supervised 170 workers (mostly teenage girls) at the National Pencil Factory. Within two days, he became a suspect, largely because the Atlanta police found him ?nervous? and evasive at the murder site and during Mary?s autopsy. Despite the fact that early evidence implicated Jim Conley, an alcoholic janitor/handyman who was known to have been in the factory, Conley eventually confessed to being ?an accomplice.? Specifically, he claimed that he helped Frank dispose of Mary?s body after Frank had sexually violated the child and strangled her.
The subsequent murder trial pitted two of Atlanta?s most gifted (and ambitious) attorneys against each other: Luther Rosser (defense) and Hugh Dorsey (solicitor general of Fulton County). As the weeks turned into months, the conflict between Rosser and Dorsey acquired a bitter enmity. In addition, both sides acquired help: associates and assistants, including such notables as the famous detective, William Burns and a gifted attorney named William Smith who became council for Jim Conley. However, after Frank?s conviction, Smith became convinced that Conley was solely responsible for Mary Phagan?s death. Consequently, Smith would spend the remainder of his life working for Frank?s release.
However, if any singular personality is responsible for the development of an explosive atmosphere that finally drove these warring factions into an orgy of anti-Semitism and vigilante justice, that person is Tom Watson. A charismatic orator with a gift for inciting violence, Watson was a failed politician (candidate for Vice-president with William Jennings Bryan), and editor of a racist newspaper, the Jeffersonian. Preying on the paranoia inherit in Georgia regarding the threat of abuse from ?outsiders,?
Watson told his readers that ?rich Jews from New York? were attempting to save the guilty Frank by bribes and political influence.
Although a growing number of people were questioning the guilty verdict (the New York Times, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford, etc.), the majority of the inhabitants of Georgia believed that Frank was not only a murderer, but also a ?sexual pervert? ? a conclusion that had been endorsed by both Hugh Dorsey and Tom Watson. In the ensuing legal battles, each appeal was rejected, including pleas before both the state and federal Supreme Courts.
With each failed appeal, outrage in rural Georgia grew ? fanned by Tom Watson?s daily rants that blatantly recommended, ?If they won?t hang the pervert, let us do it for them.? Watson frequently bragged of his connection with the Klan (re-named ?The Knights of Mary Phagan?) and now openly requested their assistance.
Without a doubt, the most remarkable person in this tragedy is Governor John Slaton, who after read the court record and visiting the murder site, concluded that Leo Frank was innocent. He immediately commuted Frank?s sentence thereby saving him from execution. It was a decision that ruined his political career and forced him to leave the state of Georgia. However, Slaton?s decision also launched a 25-member execution squad that became known as the ?lynching brethren? who drove from Marietta to Milledgeville prison where they dragged Frank from his cell and transferred him back to a wooded site two miles from Marietta called Frey?s Gin. Here, he was lynched.
Although the identity of the ?lynching brethren? was well known in Marietta in the years following the lynching, no member was ever charged. (The author of And The Dead Shall Rise names them all.) In fact, as time passed, members of the group actually sat on panels that were appointed for the sole purpose of discovering their identities. Over the years, numerous ?investigations? have been thwarted. As author Oney notes, everyone who played a role in Frank?s death prospered socially and financially. Many became judges, senators and lawyers.
In 1983, an 85-year-old man named Alonzo Mann announced that he knew that Leo Frank was innocent.
Mann, who was Frank?s office boy, testified that he saw Jim Conley carrying the body of Mary Phagan to the basement of the plant. Conley threatened him. At home, his mother told him to keep his mouth shut. After 72 years, he decided he wanted to clear his conscience. Finally, in 1986, the state of Georgia officially ?pardoned?
Leo Frank, noting that there was probable cause to believe him innocent.
No one knows what became of the murderer, Jim Conley.
As a consequence of funds provided by Endowment for the Humanities and the contributions of over 100 donors,
Steve Oney?s massive documentary, And The Dead Shall Rise will serve as a basis for a PBS film that is currently in production. The film is expected to be released in the spring of 2009.

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