Murder, Investigation, & Trials
Mary Phagan (born on June 1, 1899) worked as a minor employee at the 'National Pencil Company.' She was laid off on April 21, 1913. Hence, on April 26, 1913, she went to the factory to collect her last paycheck from Frank.
Before she could leave the premises of the factory, Phagan was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. Watchman Newt Lee discovered her bruised, battered, and blood-smeared body in the factory's basement at around 3:30 a.m. There were clear signs of her being strangled to death. Her torn underwear with bloodstains on it proved that she had been raped.
The watchman duly reported it to the police. Subsequently, Frank testified for the routine investigation but was released.
Frank initially cooperated with the investigators. However, he was not satisfied with the procedure. Hence, he hired a detective of the 'Pinkerton National Detective Agency' for the investigation.
The ‘Pinkerton’ detective collaborated with police detective John Black, who suspected Frank, and this led to a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, the case had become a media sensation and was eventually politicized. Frank faced a lot of public rage.
He became one of the prime suspects after Phagan's friend testified that Frank had intimidated her and had made flirtatious advances toward her in the past. According to watchman Lee's statement, Frank seemed nervous on the day of the murder. Two other workers, however, disputed the statement.
On April 29, a blood-stained shirt was retrieved from Lee's residence. However, the police later realized that the shirt had been planted. They subsequently interviewed Frank regarding the lead. His nervous behavior throughout the interviews made the detectives believe that Frank himself had planted the evidence.
On May 1, another suspect, a black janitor at the factory, Jim Conley, was arrested. He was seen rinsing a stained shirt in the basement. He later claimed that the red stains were of rust. His trial began on May 18.
On May 8, the coroner's jury (first held on April 30), announced Lee and Frank as the murderers. On May 23, as requested by Solicitor Hugh Dorsey, A grand jury indicted Frank, while the charges against Lee were dropped.
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On May 26, Conley admitted to writing the notes found near Phagan's body and said that Frank had ordered him to do so. In July, Frank's wife publicly claimed her husband's innocence and accused Dorsey of torturing witnesses to obtain false evidence.
The prosecution's case against Frank was heavily based on Conley's statements. Each of his new statements, however, contradicted the last. Even though most of the circumstantial evidence and testimonies favored Frank, the prevailing prejudice against Jews and blacks gave the case a racial angle and ultimately affected the trial.
Several of Frank's young female colleagues testified against him, stating that he was a sexual offender and that he had been involved in several sexual relationships. On the other hand, the female employees that the defense interviewed stated that Frank was of good character.
A factory worker, Helen Ferguson, testified to the prosecution that Frank had not allowed her to collect Phagan's pay and had asked Phagan to come in person instead. However, other employees who were present to collect the payment that day disputed the statement.
On August 18, 1913, Frank stood up in his defense. The final argument began on August 21. Conley's statements were rejected due to his race. On August 25, after a couple of hours of argument, the jury found Frank guilty.
The following day, he was sentenced (by Judge Leonard Roan) to be hanged till death. The sentence was to be carried out on October 4. However, an improved motion for a new trial, which Judge Roan had declined, rescheduled the execution on April 17, 1914.
On February 17, 1914, the ‘Georgia Supreme Court’ rejected an appeal for a new trial that the defense had filed on December 15, 1913. On February 24, Conley was sentenced to a one-year imprisonment for assisting the murder.
On April 6, 1914, Frank's attorneys filed a motion in the ‘Fulton County Superior Court’ to overturn the verdict. A stay order was applied to his execution, and the hearing reopened on April 23.
On June 6, the ‘Fulton County Superior Court’ rejected the motion. The defense then appealed to the ‘Georgia Supreme Court,’ but the appeal was declined there, too. The motion was then taken to the ‘United States District Court of North Georgia,’ which rejected it in December.
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Frank's execution was rescheduled to January 22, 1915. When the ‘U.S. District Court’ declined the defense's appeal to alter the verdict, the appeal was taken to the ‘Supreme Court of the United States,’ which postponed the execution.
A conflict between Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Chief Justice Hughes again postponed the execution to June 22, 1915.
On April 22, 1915, the defense appealed to a three-person ‘Prison Commission’ in Georgia, requesting them to commute the death sentence, but the appeal was rejected due to low votes.
The defense then filed a mercy appeal to the 'Pardons and Paroles Board of the Georgia Prison Commission,' which was also rejected.
On June 20, which marked Governor John Slaton’s last day in office, he altered Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment. The decision led to a huge protest, and a mob in front of his home demanded declaration of martial law.
The following day, Frank was moved from the Fulton County jail to the ‘Georgia State Penitentiary’ in Milledgeville. This was done to save Frank from a possible act of mob lynching. The violence was said to be planned by attorney Tom Watson, as Tom himself had published his support for lynching in his weekly newspaper, 'The Jeffersonian.'
Frank's execution, scheduled on June 22, 1915, was again postponed.
On July 18, a fellow prisoner slit Frank's throat, but he was saved. He was then kidnapped from prison on August 16. Around 25 armed men from Marietta, Georgia (Mary Phagan's hometown), carried out the abduction.
The armed men drove Frank to the outskirts of Marietta in the early hours and hanged him from an oak tree in a grove.
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On August 20, Frank was buried in the 'Mount Carmel Cemetery' in Queens, New York.
Phagan's murder was highly condemned worldwide. Hence, after Frank's public execution, Georgians celebrated, while postcards and artefacts symbolizing the lynching were sold.
The identities of the people involved in the lynching were kept secret, and they were spared from any punishment.
A website called 'The 1913 Leo Frank Case and Trial Research Library' accused the Jews of using Frank's case to propagate a racial war against European–Americans.
On March 4, 1982, Alonzo Mann, who was interviewed during Frank's trial, signed an affidavit claiming Frank's innocence.
On January 4, 1983, the 'Anti-Defamation League,' formed in 1913 in Chicago, appealed for a posthumous pardon for Frank. Another such appeal was filed on March 11, 1986, by the 'Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles,' but it did not succeed in officially giving Frank a clean chit.
In 2008, ‘Temple Kol Emeth’ was erected in Marietta, the place where Frank had been lynched.
In 2015, the 'Atlanta History Center,' the 'Georgia Historical Society,' and the 'Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation' established a 'Georgia Historical Society' marker to honor John M. Slaton at the 'Atlanta History Center,' for considering life imprisonment for Frank.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard established the 'Conviction Integrity Unit' in 2019, to reinvestigate Phagan's murder.