Around 3 a.m. on April 27, 1913, Newt Lee, the night watchman for the National Pencil Factory, carried a lantern with him to the factory basement to help him light his way to the “Negro toilet.” When his light fell upon a prone human form, Lee called Atlanta police, who arrived ten minutes later. The body was that of a thirteen-year-old girl. Her skull was dented and caked with blood. A piece of jute rope was wrapped around her neck. A worker at the factory called to the scene identified the body: “Oh my God! That’s Mary Phagan.”
The murder of Mary Phagan shocked a city already reeling from crime, violence, and desperate working conditions. Within the previous decade, Atlanta had experienced a serious race riot and recorded the highest arrest rate of any major city in the country. Child labor laws were widely ignored and children worked for as little as 22 cents a week. The Mary Phagan murder unleashed a pent up frustration with the pathological conditions of the city. Ten thousand mourners lined up to view Phagan’s body and an angry citizenry demanded that the young girl’s murder be avenged. Atlanta’s mayor told police: “Find this murderer fast, or be fired!”
The crime scene investigation turned up two puzzling notes scrawled on scraps of yellow paper. One seemed to identify the murderer (“a long tall negro black that hoo it wase”), while the other suggested that the writer was told by the actual murderer to throw suspicion elsewhere (“he said he would love me…play like the night witch did it but that long tall black negro did buy his slef.”) Oddly, detectives initially paid little attention to the notes. Detectives seemed even less interested in another piece of evidence that would influence later assessments of guilt: a human feces (“something that looked like a person’s stool,” as it was later described) at the bottom of the elevator shaft near where the body was found. When the elevator descended to the basement, the foul odor that was released eliminated doubts as to the nature of the substance. The sloppy investigation also left untested bloody fingerprints on a basement door and on the dead girl’s jacket.
On the morning of April 26, Mary Phagan, left her home to go to the pencil factory where she worked and pick up her wages. She was planning to go to the Confederate Day Parade, after stopping by the factory. Mary never returned home and her body was discovered the following day. Leo Max Frank, was the superintendent at the National Pencil Company, and it was he that met Mary that day and gave her her wages.
Leo Frank was a college educated Jewish-American from New York. He had just completed a term as President of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith. Officers met with Frank on the 27th and asked him to come with him to identify the body. When the officers took him to see the body, the seemingly agitated Frank, admitted to officers that he had personally paid Mary tier wages, but did not know where she had gone next. Leo Frank was the last known person to see Mary Phagan alive.
Investigators first focused their attention on Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman that discovered the body. Police locked Lee in the City Jail, and after three days of interrogation and beatings he maintained his innocence. Frustrated, investigators turned their suspicions elsewhere.
Testimony at a Coroner’s inquest began to make police think that Frank might have been the actual perpetrator. A young friend of Mary’s, George Epps, said that Mary said that Frank had made advances towards her. Several other employees at the factory also claimed they had seen Frank flirt with various females at the plant. An additional development convinced Solicitor Hugh Dorsey that the time had come to seek a murder indictment against Leo Frank. It came in the form of an affidavit from Nina Formby, the owner of a “rooming house,” stating that Frank had made repeated calls to her on the day of the murder attempting to reserve a room for himself and a girl.On May 24, a grand jury granted the indictment sought by Dorsey.
Even as the jury was indicting Frank, reports surfaced that a 27-year-old black sweeper at the factory named Jim Conley admitted to having written the murder notes found near Mary’s body. Conley was the same man who had been observed washing blood from a shirt by a foreman at the plant–a piece of evidence that detectives were surprisingly incurious about when they heard from the foreman two days after the crime. Conley claimed that he wrote the murder notes at the behest of Frank who, he said, had called him into his office the day before the murder. The improbability of the plant superintendent taking a black sweeper into his confidence concerning a murderous plot, and asking him to pen such strange notes, was apparent to some in the press and even to authorities who had trained their suspicion on Frank. Long sessions with Conley produced a second, and then a third, affidavit modifying the tale told in his original May 24 statement. In his revised story, Conley claimed that Frank had asked him to guard the door while he, presumably, engaged in some sexual activity with Phagan. But things went wrong and Phagan fell against a machine in the metal room and then Frank requested Conley’s help in disposing of the body. Together the two men dragged the body to the elevator, took it to the basement, and dumped it in the corner. Only then, to throw police off the track, did Frank ask Conley to write the two murder notes. Authorities, seemed to view Conley’s third affidavit as the nail in Frank’s coffin, calling it “the final and conclusive piece of evidence…against Frank.” Conley’s admission caused the grand jury to move to indict the sweeper, but it dropped the matter after Dorsey convinced them that an indictment might jeopardize the state’s case against Frank.
The Carpetbagger Did It!
Raised in New York, Frank was cast as a carpetbagging representative of Yankee capitalism, a bourgeoisie northern Jew in contrast to the poverty experienced by child laborers like Phagan and many working-class adult Southerners of the time, as the agrarian South was undergoing the throes of industrialization.
Shortly after Leo Frank’s April 29 arrest, his family approached Thomas E. Watson with the offer of a substantial fee, $5,000 in return for taking on Frank’s legal defense. Watson, who opposed the death penalty, “enjoyed a formidable reputation” as a defense attorney in capital cases. Well-known as a populist party politician, and advocate for the poor, Watson declined the offer.
Leo Frank was going to trial, and a blood-thirsty public, armed with a politically ambitious and ethically challenged representative in Hugh Dorsey was awaiting him. The trial would only be the start of a series of events that still haunts the legal community of Atlanta today, and left an everlasting stain on American justice in the South

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