Southern Cultures 11.4 (2005) 28-46
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And the Dead Shall Rise
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The 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish factory manager convicted of murdering thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, captivated the public's imagination. Steve Oney, author of the definitive history, revisits the infamous events—and the troubling question of Frank's guilt or innocence. The lynching of Leo Frank (bal051), Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Archives.
Journalist Steve Oney offers a first-person account of the research and writing of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (2003), the definitive work on the sensational 1913 murder of a factory girl in Atlanta and the subsequent trial, conviction, and lynching of her accused killer.
On April 26, 1913, a thirteen-year-old child laborer named Mary Phagan was brutally murdered in a downtown Atlanta pencil factory. The girl was strangled and probably raped, her body then dragged across the plant's coal-slag carpeted basement floor to a dark recess, blackening it beyond recognition. Not
until responding officers pulled down one of her stockings did they determine that she was white. Near her corpse, the police discovered two cryptic notes that pointed to an unnamed "long tall black negro" as the culprit. The notes were written in such a way as to suggest that the victim composed them in her death throes, but from the outset, their strange wording ("i write while he play with me," read one) raised doubts. From this terrible and puzzling start, a bizarre and tragic sequence of events ensued.
In short order, Leo Max Frank, a Cornell-educated Jew who managed the factory where the murder occurred and Mary Phagan worked, was arrested and charged with the crime. Suspicion focused on Frank because he was the last person to admit seeing the girl alive and because he reacted with what seemed to be undue anxiety when officers informed him of the murder. He shook uncontrollably. He couldn't tie his necktie. He repeatedly demanded a cup of coffee.
The next day, the Atlanta Georgian, a flamboyant daily newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst, deluged the city with extras. Atlanta had never seen anything like it—new editions every hour, gigantic red headlines. To put it in contemporary terms, it was as if jumbotron televisions stood on every downtown corner blaring one of the cable news networks twenty-four hours a day. In such an atmosphere, the police were under tremendous pressure to firm up what was initially a flimsy case against Frank.
Ultimately, officers found their salvation in the person of Jim Conley, a black janitor at the pencil factory. After weeks of professing ignorance of the murder and claiming illiteracy, Conley—upon being confronted with samples of his handwriting—confessed that he'd lied. The truth was he knew how to write. Leo Frank, he told the authorities, had killed Mary Phagan and then dictated those peculiar notes to him in an attempt to pin the crime on yet another black man.
For a month during the summer of 1913, in a cramped and airless temporary courtroom, the best lawyers in Atlanta contested Frank's fate. Imagine it: No air conditioners, over 90 degrees inside, packed galleries, throngs of curiosity seekers gathered in the streets, the more aggressive among them peering through open windows at the proceedings. Representing the state was Fulton County Solicitor [End Page 29] Hugh Dorsey. Standing up for the defense were Luther Rosser and Reuben Arnold. Day after day, the battle surged back and forth. Hundreds of witnesses testified about scores of topics, among them allegations that Frank had been guilty of what today would be called sexual harassment; from the first to the last, however, the fight was only about one thing—Frank's word versus Conley's, a white man's word versus a black man's. In the end, the all-white jury, following just two hours of deliberation, decided that it was the black man who had...