At the trial, jurors heard mobs shouting, "Hang the Jew," through open courthouse windows. And after the Jewish factory owner was convicted of killing a young girl and the governor commuted his death sentence to life, the mob did just that, abducting Leo Frank from jail and stringing him up from an oak tree 100 miles away near Marietta.
It was perhaps the worst single outburst of anti-Semitism in America: Jews fled Atlanta for Birmingham and beyond, some carrying guns against death threats as they fought to survive business boycotts and cold shoulders from friends. The Ku Klux Klan rose again on the little girl's ghost and the Anti-Defamation League was cranked up to fight back.
Now, nearly 70 years later, Georgia officials are pondering whether the lynch mob got the wrong man. A request for a rare posthumous pardon absolving Frank of killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan sits before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole. A ruling is expected as early as today on the 1913 murder conviction historians have doubted for decades.
Indeed, then-governor John Slaton found the evidence against Frank so flimsy he commuted the sentence, sealing his own political doom and sparking mobs to march on his mansion with guns, dynamite and a hanging rope.
Officials have been asked to consider a 300-page petition filed by three Jewish groups, including fresh revelations from Frank's former office boy--now a guilt-inspired man of 84--who says he wants to tell what he knows to clear Frank and get right with the Lord before he dies.
"Leo Frank did not kill Mary Phagan," declares Alonzo Mann, a white-haired restaurateur retired to Bristol, Va., who saw the plant's black janitor, Jim Conley, carrying Mary's body alone. "He was fixin' to throw her down the trap door to the basement. She looked to me like she was still alive."
Conley testified that Frank, manager of a pencil factory, killed his employe after she spurned his advances, and that they then both carted off the corpse. He was the star witness.
Mann passed tests on two lie detectors and a voice stress analyzer when he told his story to reporters at the Nashville Tennessean last year. His videotaped testimony was played for the board.
"I was impressed with his sincerity," one board member said in an interview. He added that a pardon would only be granted if members were convinced of Frank's innocence "beyond a reasonable doubt, the same standard used to convict him in court."
Mann says Conley threatened to kill him if he told what he saw, and tried to grab him. He ran home and told his parents what he saw.
"Don't say anything except what they ask you," ordered his father, warning the boy that he risked getting lynched himself if he interfered. Mann testified, but held fast to his secret; lawyers never asked the right questions.
Frank's clemency plea was denied at the time by the same board that now ponders his innocence, and some Jewish leaders have quietly moved to lobby black leaders for support. The ruling will not point to a killer, but evidence strongly implicates Conley, a petty thief whose testimony broke an Old South custom: the word of a black man sending a white man to the gallows, albeit a Jew.
History suggests a frame-up, with an ambitious prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, riding victory to the governor's mansion. Even now many historians doubt that Mann's testimony could have saved Frank, a recently arrived New Yorker, from the hangman, such were the impoverished, Yankee-hating, populist furies of the time.
"There was just too much blood lust to avenge Mary Phagan's murder," remarks city historian Franklin Garrett.
As Frank would remark, "You can do right all your life and things still happen to you."
It was a gray, dreary Saturday, April 26, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta. Ty Cobb had just signed with Detroit. Two prominent young men were reported to have fought a duel of fists over a debutante. And ads for an insecticide warned, "More Living Flies Mean More Dead Children."
Mary Phagan happily chattered away through a breakfast of bread and cabbage. She aimed to collect $1.20 in back wages at the factory where she capped pencils for 12 cents an hour. Then she'd be off to the parade, featuring 6,000 veterans, marching bands, firemen in full dress and schoolgirls bearing flowers.
She was the youngest of six children born into a blue collar family that sweated in the cotton mills for pennies an hour. Never allowed sweethearts, she turned heads nonetheless, a strawberry blond who played Sleeping Beauty in the church play.
She promised to be home for supper, catching a streetcar about 11:30 that morning and hopping off at the factory about noon in a pink summer frock trimmed in lace, white silk stockings and ribbons in her hair.
She carried a pink parasol; it looked like rain.
Police found it early Sunday morning in the elevator shaft, about 40 feet from her battered and bruised body. Newt Lee, the black night watchman, had stumbled upon her on his rounds. There was a deep gash above her ear, a black eye indicating a blow and a jute cord about her neck. She'd been strangled, dragged across the floor and tossed into a corner of the basement. Soot and cinders were found in her nose and mouth.
Her underclothes were ripped and bloody, but there was no proof of rape. Her prized silver mesh handbag, containing her wages, was missing. Evidence showed she fought her attacker; several fingers were dislocated. Two curious notes were plucked from the spot, both rife with misspellings and fingering a "long, tall sleam sic Negro," a crude attempt to blame Newt Lee.
James E. Phagan, 55, nephew of the slain girl, is fighting a pardon. "Poor people don't have legacies, only bits of history," says the balding postal worker who retired as an Air Force master sergeant.
He refuses to accept Mann's testament. "If they can find evidence to prove Frank innocent, we'll tell the world. But nothing has come forward in 70 years, and I don't accept Mann's affadavit as proof. You can swear to anything."
Why is it so important? "What if you got knocked off? How do you think your brothers and sisters would feel? Well, that's how my father felt when his sister Mary was murdered. Family pain diminishes, it doesn't disappear, and it's just as alive today as it was 70 years ago."
When his daughter, Mary (named for her great aunt), turned 13, he passed the torch to her. Now 29, she teaches blind children in the public schools, a pretty brunet who lives with her husband and a cat two miles from the hanging spot. She nourishes the ghosts with a giant scrapbook, clipping articles, tucking away souvenirs like postcards of the hanging--gifts from others who will always remember Little Mary Phagan. There is a stunning likeness to her ancestor.
In fact, she is a celebrity among elderly Georgians in the red-clay outback, getting hugs and kiss from old folks who learn of her roots. "All my life I've been taught Leo Frank killed her, and that's what I believe," she says.
At 7 a.m. Sunday, Frank got a call at home. "There's been a tragedy at the factory," said police.
"Do I have time to drink a cup of coffee?" he asked.
"No," said officers who dispatched a car, "come right away." A chain smoker, he stuffed his pocket full of cigars, and was off to the plant.
He didn't remember having paid Mary until he checked the cash books. Indeed, he'd handed her two half-dollars and two dimes about noon, went home for lunch and returned to work, canceling plans to watch the Atlanta Crackers baseball game because of bad weather and a heavy workload.
He heard a muffled noise in the building, but shrugged it off, going home about 6 p.m., when his watchman arrived, he told police. Lee had shown up earlier, on Frank's request, only to be sent away because things were quiet. Police claimed blood stains and strands of hair--proved not to be Mary's only after the trial--were found in a workroom across from Frank's office. That, and his extreme nervousness, made him suspect.
Indeed, no one saw Mary alive after she left his office about noon. Six suspects were rounded up and released. Newt Lee failed to confess following a grueling third degree starring a preacher who produced a fake newspaper headlined, "Negro's Guilt Proved," predicted imminent electrocution and urged Lee to cleanse himself with the truth.
"I swear 'fore God I didn't do it," he pleaded.
Declared the preacher: "He's innocent as a babe."
Two days later, Frank was under arrest. He voluntarily stripped to show police he bore no scratch marks to indicate a struggle with the victim as the coroner theorized. "We have enough evidence to convict the murderers," boasted detectives.
Overnight, Mary Phagan became a symbol for Southern womanhood defiled, providing ammunition for both child labor law crusaders and the Klan. Police were ordered to find the killer fast, or else. A $4,000 reward fund mounted, as three dailies, locked in a bitter circulation war, whipped up the masses.
"Girl Slain in Strangling Mystery!" blared the Hearst paper. "Neighbors Cry for Vengeance!"
Atlanta was already strained by dispossessed dirt farmers who flocked to the city of 200,000 only to discover that survival meant dispatching wives and daughters to toil in the factories, a degrading proposition in a rapidly industrializing economy many blamed on Yankees, bankers, Jews and other unseen forces beyond their control or comprehension.
Such frustrated folks, 10,000 strong, flocked to view the body, the biggest turnout in city history. At the funeral, hundreds sobbed, a choir sang "Rock of Ages," her mother fainted, an aunt shrieked, and the minister branded the killer an "imp of Satan" to shouts of "Amen!"
For working folks, Frank was easy to hate. He wore thick glasses and dressed impeccably, a wiry little man who favored white shirts, dark suits and bowler hats. He'd come from New York, via a brief job in Boston, to manage his uncle's factory, having been offered a small piece of the firm.
He was bright and ambitious, with a typical middle class upbringing and degrees from Brooklyn public schools, Pratt Institute and Cornell University, where he graduated in 1906 as a mechanical engineer.
In Atlanta, he married Lucille Selig, daughter of a prominent family of German Jews, moved in with his in-laws and carved out a quiet social niche in the Jewish community as president of the local B'nai B'rith.
To one reporter, he seemed "a fluent talker, polite and suave." To another he seemed arrogant and cold. But he was hailed, either way, as a promising young man by Jews who prided themselves at having won acceptance down South as merchants, lawyers, grocers and doctors.
So it was all the more shocking, especially for upper class German Jews who spurned their scruffy counterparts from Eastern Europe, to find blind rage unleashed at one of their own, and confront the reality: a Jew was a Jew, an outsider in the promised land.
To the papers, Frank became "the silent man in the prison tower," saying little, taking comfort from his devoted wife and friends, confident of acquittal in the hands of chief counsel, Luther Z. Rosser, 54, a portly, persuasive lawyer who misjudged the prosecutor and the winds of hate.
For Georgia's 3,000 Jews, it was a painful time. Those who had lived peacefully for years in Marietta and in the outskirts of Atlanta, found handbills nailed to storefronts, warning, "We intend to rid Marietta of all Jews!"
Jews boarded up homes for protection. Some shipped children out of town. Josephine Heyman, 82, was visiting an aunt in Birmingham when she got a telegram from her father, ordering her to stay; he was putting the rest of the family on the next train out of Atlanta. "It was terrible," she says.
At the Jewish Home for the elderly here, Fanny Goldstein sits bolt upright and reflects that "Jews were scared to death. We locked our doors and stayed inside. My mother and father wouldn't let me out of their sight."
Edith Lipschutz, 83, who played cards with Frank's widow in later years, watched men drive around swinging a rope. "This here's the rope Leo Frank was hung with," they bragged.
For Eastern European Jews, it was a flashback to the pogrom spirit they had fled; for uppercrust German Jews, an anxious reminder of their separation.
"The less written, the better," says a wealthy Frank relative who requested anonymity and sees the link as "so damn distant I don't really consider myself related at all."
Frank was indicted the same day Conley's damning admission hit the front page: the janitor claimed to have written one murder note. He was jailed two days after Frank's arrest when a foreman spied him trying to wash what appeared to be blood from a shirt.
It was stunning news: police believed that whoever wrote the notes was probably the killer. And Conley was short, stocky and ginger-skinned, just the opposite of the tall, black Negro the notes blamed for the crime. But all that was kept from the grand jury when the case against Frank was presented, and no tests were ever run on the shirt. Detectives shrugged it off as probably just "rust."
At headquarters, Conley, 27, a hard-drinking, ex-con, was put through a big sweat. At first, he swore he was never at the factory the day of the murder and denied he could write at all, until detectives proved they knew otherwise.
So he swore Frank ordered him to pen the notes one day before the murder, paying him $2.50 and a pack of cigarettes. Police argued that premeditation on Frank's part made no sense.
"We told him he must do better than that," testified a detective. "Anything in his story that looked out of place, we told him would not do."
Next, he swore Frank summoned him to his office the day Mary died to write the notes. "Why should I hang?" he claimed Frank said. "I have rich relatives in Brooklyn."
In his last statement, he swore that Frank confessed to having killed a girl on the second floor, and ordered him to carry her body to the basement. But she was too heavy, so they both carried the corpse to the elevator, he said, zipped down and returned to Frank's office where his boss dictated the notes and offered him $200 to burn the body and keep quiet.
That story was good enough for Hugh Dorsey; he made Conley a star.
Little weight was given to the fact that the notes matched Conley's phrasing on the stand and in love letters he later wrote from jail, or that the notes were written on old order pads found only in the basement.
Moreover, the elevator story collapsed when it was shown it could not have been used without crushing feces in the shaft that were found intact by investigators who found the body. Conley admitted having relieved his bowels there Saturday morning, before the murder, and before he said the elevator was used to transport the body. That never came out at the trial, but Gov. Slaton found it convincing.
Nor did Alonzo Mann, then 14, tell how he came back from the parade and surprised Conley on the first floor with Mary's limp body in his arms. He was not using the elevator then, and Frank was nowhere in sight.
"That Conley perjured himself is demonstrated once more," says the pardon application filed on Frank's behalf. "According to Conley's testimony, at no time was he ever with Mary on the first floor of the factory--but Mann saw him there."
In the packed, sweltering courtroom, solicitor Dorsey portrayed Frank as a pervert, the son of a wealthy Brooklyn Jewish family, who came South to exploit young girls like Mary Phagan and indulge his bizarre sexual tastes. He killed Mary only after she rejected him, he claimed.
Conley, who wrote letters from jail that would make Larry Flynt blush, swore he'd watched Frank have "unnatural" sex with women at the factory.
One witness testified that Frank had checked into her rooming house with a young girl, but later recanted after moving to New York, away from local police who warned such witnesses that the penalty for perjury was death.
Rosser fought back with an array of character witnesses, whom Dorsey needled by asking if they knew of Frank's reputation for "lascivious behaviour." One was asked if he knew of Frank taking a little girl to a park, "setting her on his lap and playing with her."
"No, and neither do you, you dog!" exploded Frank's mother, Rhea. Judge Leonard Roan, 64, a balding, fair-minded jurist with a thick white mustache, warned her against further outbursts and fought to keep order.
Then, Conley knocked a homerun for the prosecution. For three days, he transfixed the all-white, all-male, all-Christian jury, holding fast to his tale under intense cross-examination. Relating Frank's alleged sex habits, he won gasps from crowds that overflowed into the streets.
Women and children were barred from the X-rated testimony. He quoted Frank as saying, "You know I ain't built like other men."
Rosser got him to admit he had lied to police at first. But Conley squirmed out of that corner, saying he'd lied only because he thought Frank would come get him out of jail. He admitted having been in jail seven or eight times and, when Rosser got too close, he allowed as how his memory was bad.
Yet, Conley spoke fluently about the crime, without hesitation, regaling jurors with elaborate details.
All the while, people hunkered on rooftops to cheer prosecutors and jeer at the defense.
"How much the Jews paying you, Rosser?" they hooted. "Innocent or guilty, we'll get the damned Jew."
Then Frank took the stand, replaying his every move on Confederate Memorial Day in earnest tones. Only the time he spent at home for lunch was disputed. The husband of the Selig's cook testified Frank picked at his food, leaving after 10 or 15 minutes.
But the cook swore her husband was lying because he was never in the kitchen that day and couldn't have seen Frank eating. She said he ate a long, relaxed lunch with family. Only about 14 minutes of his day was unaccounted for, and the defense argued that was hardly enough time to commit murder and write the notes.
"Gentlemen," said Frank, "I know nothing whatever of the death of little Mary Phagan. I had no part in causing her death, nor do I know how she came to her death after she took her money and left my office. I never saw Conley in the factory or anywhere else."
He branded Conley's testimony a "tissue of lies," denied homosexuality, and painted himself a happily married man.
"I kept my silence and my counsel advisedly, until the proper time and place," he said. "The time is now; the place is here, and I have told you the truth, the whole truth."
His speech was stirring enough that one newspaper reported, "Frank's Telling the Truth!"
But Dorsey got the last dance, telling jurors Mary "died a noble death . . . without a splotch or blemish upon her," protecting her "virtue" to the end from her boss. Again, he held her bloody clothes overhead and, as the church bells pealed noon for effect, implored them to find "but one verdict--Guilty! Guilty! GUILTY!" And so it was.
The verdict came down after one hour and 30 minutes; Frank was not allowed in court to hear it because the judge feared for his life should there be an acquittal. But as people shouted, "GUILTY," and word spread "like the rattle of musketry," by one account, mobs danced in the street, women wept for joy and an admiring throng of thousands hoisted a tearful Dorsey high in the air to show its "admiration."
Frank got word in the prison tower. "My God," he said, "I'm as innocent as I was a year ago." His wife fainted.
Later, he was sentenced to hang. Conley got a year on the chain gang as an accessory to murder, and, in 1919, was shot and wounded while robbing a drug store.
To protest the pardon request, 200 robed Klansmen and jackbooted Nazis marched to a scraggly cemetery outside Marietta on Labor Day this year and laid flowers on Mary's grave. For 70 years, it has been a mecca for haters, especially since the lynching tree was cut down for an expressway.
"We still have a lot of people from out of town come through here," said Letha Bell, 67, who watched the service from behind her peach tree across the street. "Had a friend from Alabama, got the biggest kick out of seeing it."
There were prayers, blacks and Jews were cursed, and a militant Klan unit from North Carolina, in combat fatigues, vowed a never-ending battle for white people's rights.
"They got some good ideas," said Bill Evans, 50, manager of the Marietta Lighting Warehouse. "They're against niggers and things like that. I don't believe in violence but I believe in keeping 'em under control."
One reporter, marching alongside members of the North Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was challenged by Klan leader Glenn Miller, 42, a gaunt-faced ex-Green Beret and the father of five.
"Are you a mud person?"
"What's a mud person?"
"Jews, blacks and people like that," Miller replied.
"How could you tell?" the reporter said.
"Get out of my sight," Miller said. "Y'all are the ugliest people on the face of the earth, generally squat, hairy and bowlegged."
He was asked if this meant the Klan was full of hate.
"We don't hate anyone," he said. "We just love our own people, white people."
"Will everyone please remove their hats and hoods," said Rev. Tom Robb, 37, of Harrison, Ark., who read the graveside eulogy. "She was a 13-year-old girl much like my daughter and your daughter, an innocent victim . . . of terrorism."
The fight for a new trial was carried to the Supreme Court.
Celebrities such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, senators and whole state legislatures and governors signed petitions, donated money or stumped for Frank's cause.
Even Conley's lawyer, William Smith, publicly denounced the verdict, believing his client guilty after his own private investigation.
Defense lawyers, meanwhile, showed that two jurors were prejudiced, with one witness stating he heard a juror say: "I'm glad they indicted the g--damned Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him and if I get on the jury I'll hang that Jew sure."
After denying a motion for a new trial, Judge Roan suffered a nervous collapse, and a letter full of his doubts was delivered to Gov. Slaton. He died, while some Atlanta papers demanded a retrial untainted by mob rule.
They were countered by fiery racist Tom Watson, an ex-Populist Party candidate for president, who labeled Frank "that Jew sodomite."
He quadrupled sales of his sagging weekly, The Jeffersonian, with virulent attacks on Frank, Jews, his lawyers and lackey judges who would rob the people of justice, idolizing Mary as "a daughter of the people, of the common clay, of the blouse and the overall . . . who eat bread as . . . chattel slaves of sordid Commercialism . . ."
Only Gov. John Slaton stood between Frank and the hangman. He researched the case, and summed up his doubts in a report.
On the eve of Frank's scheduled execution, Jan. 21, 1915, he ordered the prisoner secretly moved to a rural prison farm. Deputies smuggled Frank out of jail by leaving a car idling out front as a decoy for reporters.
"It may mean death, or worse, but I have ordered the sentence commuted," he told his wife, shrugging off Watson's tempting offer to send him to the U.S. senate if he let Frank hang.
She kissed him. "I would rather be the widow of a brave and honorable man than the wife of a coward," she said shortly before the state militia was deployed to thwart an armed mob of 5,000 from attacking the mansion.
Slaton would say in a speech: "Two thousand years ago another governor washed his hands and turned a Jew over to a mob. For 2,000 years, that governor's name has been a curse. If today, another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and must consider myself an assassin through cowardice."
In prison, Frank remained optimistic about his chances even after a fellow prisoner, William Creen, slashed his throat with a butcher knife.
Somehow, he lived, and seized upon his survival as a good omen.
Then, it happened, Aug. 16, 1915: 25 masked men, vigilantes who considered their mission holy, cut telephone lines to the prison, overpowered two guards and kidnaped Frank at gunpoint.
They drove 100 miles in a caravan, seven hours by backroads, stopping once to change a flat, until they reached a grove near Mary's grave. On the way, Frank was asked to confess, but quietly maintained his innocence. He was calm, stoic, dignified.
Suddenly, several good old boys believed he was telling the truth and, by one account, pitched for his return to jail. But they were shouted down. The sun was coming up. Time was running out.
Once more, he was asked, "Did you kill Mary Phagan?" He said nothing.
"Mr. Frank," said the leader, "we are now going to do what the law said do--hang you by the neck until you are dead. Do you want to make a final statement?"
Frank removed his gold wedding ring, securing a promise that it would be returned to Lucille. "I love my wife and mother more than I do my life," he said, marching without hesitation to the makeshift scaffold.
He was hoisted onto a table. A rope was thrown over the limb of a sturdy oak, and a regulation hangman's knot was placed over his head. He was blindfolded with a handkerchief. Someone kicked away the table, and it was done.
The body swayed in the hot summer breeze for over two hours, with 6,000 rubberneckers, women and children, flocking to gawk and pose beside the corpse. Some snipped off bits of Frank's night shirt for posterity, and postcards of the hanging became cherished souvenirs. A lucky few made off with pieces of the rope, a red clay sacrament in many families, handed down, to this day, from one generation to the next.