Thursday, 26 April 2012

On This Day in Murder... April 26th, 1913

The Brutal Murder of Little Mary Phagan

Mary Phagan, photo taken shortly before her death

WARNING! There are graphic photos included at the very end of this post!

This is a story about the shocking and tragic murder of a 13-year-old girl who was beloved by a community, but it is about even more than that; it's also a story about accusations, lies, threats, rage, innocence, and vigilante justice.

Mary Ann Phagan, known affectionately as "Little Mary" was born in June of 1899 in Alabama. Her father passed away in 1900, before Mary was even a year old, and her family moved back to Marietta, Georgia, where they were originally from. Mary had a fairly large family; her mother remarried shortly after their move back to Georgia, so in addition to her 4 older siblings, Mary also had 5 younger half-siblings as well. Unfortunately, that move back would prove to be fatal for Mary, when she was found murdered 99 years ago on this day.

Mary Phagan (right) with her older sister Ollie, approximately 1903 (photo courtesy of Michael McKinney; from the personal photo collection of Rebecca "Rebie" Lutz McCollum)

It was noon on Saturday, April 26th, 1913 when Mary Phagan, only 13 years old, went to pick up her wages from the National Pencil Company factory in Marietta, where she had been working. Having been discharged from the factory earlier in the week, these were to be her final wages. Unfortunately, that was the last time she was seen alive; she never made it home again. Mary was found brutally murdered in the basement of the National Pencil Company's factory the next morning. Her head had been struck with a hard, blunt object, and she had been strangled. Two notes, purportedly crudely written by Mary Phagan herself prior to succumbing to her death, identified the killer culprit as a black man who worked in the factory.

The scene of the crime: the National Pencil Co. factory where Mary worked & was found murdered.

The town was understandably in the an uproar after Mary Phagan's body was found. Suspicions, rumours and accusations started immediately. There was a coroner's inquest launched right away, and the fact that it was murder was obvious. Suspects were easy enough to round up; the scene of the crime itself gave the investigators the answer as to who could have done it. The boys and men who worked at the factory were immediately brought in for questioning, including Leo M. Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the factory, and James Conley, a black man who worked as a sweeper in the factory.

Mary Phagan's family at her funeral
The police needed to solve this case, and they needed to do it quickly. People in the community would not settle for anything less; this horrible, evil killer must be caught right away, and he must be punished severely for his crime. Leo Frank, when questioned, stated that he had seen Mary that day. She came in to the factory to collect her final wages, up this office on the third floor where he was alone. He said that he paid her the wages owed, and she left. He worked for the rest of the day, leaving only to go out for lunch, and then spent the evening at home with his family.

James Conley gave a much different story (with many different variations) to the police when he was questioned; he admitted he was at the factory that day, but he claimed that he was asked by Leo Frank to assist him in moving Mary Phagan's dead body from the third floor of the factory to the basement while he was there, after Frank had killed her. He also claimed that Leo forced him to write the notes that were found beside Mary's body. When all was said and done, Conley's story was believed, and Frank's was not. Leo Frank was charged with Mary Phagan's murder, and James Conley was set to be a star witness for the prosecution. A wave of antisemitism fell over the town, everyone seeming to believe immediately that Frank was guilty. The sentiment of the masses, both thought and spoken aloud throughout the trial was "kill the Jew!".

Leo Frank & his wife listening to testimony during his trial

On July 28th, 1913, Leo Frank went on trial for the murder of Mary Phagan. During the murder trial, testimony was heard from both defense and prosecution witnesses who had worked at the factory with Leo and Mary. Some of it was complimentary to Leo and his character, but unfortunately for Mr. Frank, most of it was damning and painted him as a pervert and villain, even the witnesses called by the defense. The defense called nearly 100 factory workers to the stand to prove the good character of Mr. Frank. In some cases, their plan backfired.  One girl put on the stand to testify to the good, upstanding character of Leo Frank instead testified that Frank often looked into the women's dressing room when employees were changing, and that the women were afraid of him. Another girl stated dramatically that she would die for Frank.

The prosecution, for their part, presented witnesses and evidence with the intent to prove that Leo Frank had been with Mary that day, and therefore had not only the opportunity to commit the crime, but that he was also known as a deviant, creepy man, who scared the women and girls who worked for him, and had a history of immoral conduct; he must therefore have been the one who killed Mary Phagan. The crux of their case relied immensely on the testimony of James Conley though; without him, they really had no case against Leo Frank at all.

Frank's defense strategy was simple; he was a decent upstanding citizen of good character, and he didn't murder Mary; James Conley, the man who was employed as a sweeper in the factory, and the person who had initially implicated him in the crime was the real person responsible for her demise. The women and girls who worked in the factory did not only have damning comments to make about Leo, but also about Jim, who had a bad reputation, as the witnesses would testify. Not only that, but witnesses that flat out contradicted various aspects of Conley's story were brought to the stand on behalf of the defense, and their testimony showed that James Conley was a liar, and was considered strong evidence of Frank's innocence.

A photo of the courtroom during Leo Frank's murder trial

Both sides having presented their cases, it would seem that once again, despite the inconsistencies and outright lies that had been told by James Conley, his story was believed. On August 25th, 1913, nearly 4 months to the day having passed since she was killed, Leo M. Frank was found guilty of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, and was sentenced to death.

After numerous failed appeals of his conviction and death sentence, Frank finally received some good news on June 21st, 1915; his sentence had been commuted from death to life imprisonment. It wasn't an acquittal or a new trial, but at least it meant that Leo Frank would not hang for murder. It meant that he would be able to live and fight to prove his innocence, or so he must have thought.

The fact that Leo Frank had been convicted of murder was not enough for the community. Filled with rage over the murder of the beloved young girl, the only acceptable sentence was death, and if the court would not carry it out, the citizens would do so on their own. On August 16th, 1915, Leo Frank was taken by force from the state prison where he was serving his life sentence by a large group of armed men, and by the following morning, Leo Frank had been hanged. The men called themselves "The Knights of Mary Phagan". No one was ever arrested or charged with his lynching, despite the identities of the purportedly 75 men in the lynch mob being common knowledge. Photos of Leo Frank's lynching can be viewed below at the end of this post.

That is not quite the end of the story though. In 1982, a man who nearly 70 years earlier had testified against Leo Franks during the trial, came forward to change his story. At the time of Mary's murder and during the subsequent trial, Alonzo Mann was a scared fourteen year old boy. He said that he had seen the real killer carrying Mary Phagan's body to the basement on the day of her murder, but unfortunately, the murderer also saw him, and threatened to kill him as well if he ever told anyone. The man that Alonzo Mann claims he saw carrying Mary's body that day was James Conley. Conley had passed away twenty years earlier in 1962.

Mary Phagan's murder and the lynching of Leo Frank have been credited as not only the driving force behind the formation of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, but also instrumental in the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, said to have re-emerged from The Knights of Mary Phagan.

Alonzo Mann, who came forward nearly 70 years after Mary's murder


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