To some it is the "Murder of Mary Phagan." Others call it "The Trial of Leo Frank." For some it marked the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan. For an America still healing from a conflict that defined a nation it was a wake-up call that would take fifty years to answer. Whatever the case means to individuals, the murder of a 13-year old girl at the National Pencil Factory riveted national attention on the Gateway City of Atlanta, capital of the "New South."
April 26, 1913 greeted Mary Phagan with a refreshing coolness. The brisk morning air rushed through her hair as she rode the trolley from East Point to Atlanta. She intended to pick up her paycheck then join her neighbors for a big party -- Confederate Memorial Day. At about noon Mary entered the factory and went to plant manager Leo Frank's office to collect her wages. He was the last person to admit to seeing Phagan alive.
Next morning, shortly after 3:00 am, watchman Newt Lee discovered a filth-covered body of a girl in the basement of the factory. She had been beaten, strangled and possibly raped. At first police believed the body was that of a young black girl, but a detective peeled back a stocking and realized the victim was white. The relative of a policeman, who worked in the factory, was summoned to the scene early Sunday morning to identify the body of her co-worker Mary Phagan.
The crime scene was rich with clues including two notes purportedly written by Phagan during the attack. Because of a number of unusual circumstances, police immediately suspected Lee of the murder, however, within 48 hours they had a myriad of suspects, clues and widely varied stories as to what occurred for the last hours of young Mary Phagan's life.
Mary Phagan's Grave
Around this Marietta grave the Knights of Mary Phagan swore revenge for her murder
By May 1st the police suspected five different men for the commission of the crime. Of these men the detectives settled on Leo Frank as a primary suspect for a number of reasons, although most of the evidence against the Paris, Texas native was circumstantial. Interest in the case was growing. Mr. Frank called in the Pinkertons and local papers began a drive to hire the Burns Agency. William Burns himself had expressed an interest in the developing mystery.
Within a month the case had changed dramatically. Two suspects (Arthur Mullinex and John Gantt) were freed. Witnesses claimed to have seen Phagan at the Confederate Day ceremonies. Frank and Lee were ordered held for murder at the coroner's hearing. The Burns Agency came and left.
Prosecutor Leo Dorsey faced defense attorneys Luther Rosser and Reuben Arnold in the trial that began on July_28, 1913. Dorsey built a strong case against the accused murderer. Frank claimed to be in his office at the time the murder but another worker contradicted this, saying she visited his office at 12:05pm and he was not there. Testimony was introduced indicating that Frank made "improper" advances to some of Phagan's co-workers.
Newspapers were having a field day with the trial, blaring details of testimony, always searching to beat each other with new evidence that would convict or exonerate Leo Frank. A circulation war fed the fire that promoted hearsay to fact.
On August 4th, 1913, Jim Conley's testimony visibly shook the jury. He claimed that Frank helped him move the limp body of Mary Phagan to the basement and made him (Conley) write the murder notes. The defense tried to shake the janitor's story, but in spite of Conley's admission that he had earlier lied to the police, the story stood. Attempts by defense attorney Luther Rosser to impeach his testimony failed despite some seven hours of cross-examination.
Three days later the state rested its case. The defense then called character witnesses, offered alternate theories of the crime and rebuttal witnesses that contradicted statements of fact by the prosecution. Then Frank himself took the stand. He labeled Jim Conley a liar and gave his story in calm, mild-mannered tones. It did no good. After closing arguments and Leo Frank's conviction, the judge sentenced him to hang on October 10, 1913.
Legal haggling, including a rejection of Leo Frank's appeal for a new trial by the Supreme Court of the United States of America forced postponement of the hanging a number of times. On June 21, 1915 Georgia governor John Slaton commuted Frank's sentence to life in prison, based on recommendations from the presiding judge and additional testimony. He ordered Frank transferred to the state facility at Milledgeville for his protection.
On August 16, 1915 some 25 men launched an armed attack on the state penitentiary in Milledgeville. After cutting telephone wires they seized the barracks in which Frank was housed and returned to Marietta with the prisoner, where he was lynched near the corner of Frey's Gin and Roswell Road. On August 19th an unidentified man gave Frank's wedding ring to his wife, fulfilling his last request.
In 1982 Alonzo Mann, an office boy at the National Pencil Factory who was in the building on the day the crime was committed came forward with additional testimony about the murder. The dying man had seen Jim Conley carrying the body of Mary Phagan by himself, implicating Conley's testimony.
In November, 1915, William Joseph Simmons invited some of the men who hung Leo Frank to a meeting he was organizing. Because the death of Leo Frank was still vivid in the minds of Georgians, he felt these men would be important to the success of the organization. On a cool Thanksgiving evening Simmons, some of the Knights of Mary Phagan, along with a number of other men (34 in all) burned a cross and read from the bible atop Stone Mountain, east of Atlanta. Simmons then declared the founding of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.