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“It’s a double murder mystery and a social history,” Oney added. “For some reason, these two cases were so charged with deeper implications that the entire country ultimately got caught up in it.”
Phagan took the trolley from her home near Marietta for the 20-mile ride to Atlanta on April 26, 1913, bound for the Confederate Memorial Day parade. On her way into town, she stopped by the National Pencil Factory, in Atlanta, to pick up her pay.
It was a Saturday, and Frank, the factory’s superintendent, was at work as usual. He paid Phagan the $1.20 she was owed and, according to his later testimony, she went on her way. No one recalled seeing her again that day. During the early hours of the following morning, the night watchman found her body in the factory basement.
The girl’s hair and face were covered in soot and cinders; her dress had been pulled up above her knees, and her $1.20 was missing. There was a large gash on the side of her head, and she had been strangled with a piece of cord. Two garbled notes found next to the body implicated a “long, tall, black Negro” in the murder.
Over the following weeks, the Atlanta police botched the collection of evidence and arrested several suspects, including the black night watchman and a black factory sweeper. Eventually they turned their attention to Frank, who was arrested April 29. As the drama unfolded, the city’s newspapers competed for scoop after scoop to bring the Atlanta public and, soon the rest of America, a string of often embellished and sensational stories.
There was plenty of copy to go around. The murder of Mary Phagan and the trial of Leo Frank contained all the ingredients of a blockbuster story.
Phagan, the young, pretty child of a typical lower-class Georgia family, represented all that was innocent and pure among the exploited and downtrodden families of the South. Fifty years after the Civil War —known to Georgians as the War of Northern Aggression — many families were still scrambling to get by. The pencil factory, like many Atlanta mills and factories of the day, profited off child labor.
Frank, 29, represented much of what locals despised about the North. Awkward and effete, he was born in Texas and raised in New York. Frank had a degree from Cornell University. He moved to Atlanta in 1908 to work at the pencil factory, which was part owned by his uncle, Moses Frank. In 1910 he married Lucille Selig, daughter of a prominent German-Jewish family, and together they enjoyed the fruits of Atlanta’s privileged world.
During the trial of August 1913, the star witness against Frank was the black factory sweeper, James Conley, who had initially denied to police that he knew anything about the murder. Following weeks of imprisonment and interrogation, and after changing his affidavit four times, Conley told police that Frank had murdered the girl after she resisted his advances and that Frank had asked Conley to help him move her body. Conley testified that Frank dictated the murder notes to him to throw police off Frank’s trail.
Conley gave convincing testimony and withstood three days of cross-examination. A reader of the Forverts, on August 26, could have been forgiven for suspecting that Frank was guilty. “Several witnesses testified that Frank had a corrupt and immoral character and that he consistently harassed the women and girls who worked in the factory, and these stories very much stirred public opinion against him,” the Forverts reported.