The grotesque murder of a child laborer more than one hundred years ago exposed irreconcilable fault lines running through American society. Fear, hatred and populist menace are persistent themes in this horrific tale. And it continues to be discussed today because it’s so pertinent to America’s present condition.
Rifts between North and South, Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, rural and urban America – all were laid bare by the case. In fact, the murder of 13-year old Mary Phagan in 1913 sparked a sickening chain reaction that conclusively demonstrated that the United States of America was anything but united.
The story began in Atlanta – the capital of Georgia and gateway to the “New South.” In 1913 the city was experiencing social and economic transformation due to the growth of its manufacturing industries. Inward migration from rural areas was commonplace and life in the factories often entailed low wages, long working weeks and poor workplace safety. Child labor was common as well.
Mary Phagan, for example, was just ten years old when she left school to work in a textile factory. Born in the town of Marietta, Georgia, she arrived in Atlanta with her mother at the age of 12 and found a new job in the National Pencil Company. Operating a device that put erasers into pencils, she worked 55 hours per week for 10 cents an hour.
Phagan visited the factory at about midday on April 26, 1913, to collect her paycheck of $1.20. It was Confederate Memorial Day and she was planning to go to a party at her neighbor’s house in East Point. She never made it to the gathering, however. And what happened next sent the state of Georgia into turmoil.
During his shift as the factory’s night guard, at around 3:00 a.m. on April 27 Newt Lee stumbled across Phagan’s dead body. He found it close to an incinerator in the basement. It was bruised, scratched and covered in filth. A wrapping cord was buried one quarter of an inch deep in Phagan’s neck. Her underwear was torn and bloody.
Police investigators soon discovered two hand-scrawled “murder notes” near the body that appeared to have been written by Phagan – and the letters pinned the crime on Lee. He was consequently arrested and questioned but released after the police deduced that the notes were fake. The officers instead focused their investigation on the factory’s boss, Leo Frank.
Leo Frank was a Jewish American, born in Texas and raised in New York. He started work at Atlanta’s National Pencil Company in 1908, earning $180 each month as its superintendent. In 1912 he became president of the Jewish fraternal group B’nai B’rith’s Atlanta chapter. At the time, Atlanta’s Jewish community was the largest in the South.
On May 24, 1913, Frank was indicted for the murder of Mary Phagan. According to Jim Conley, a black janitor who worked at the factory, Frank had killed Phagan and then enlisted Conley to help him cover up the crime. Conley admitted to writing the “murder notes,” but said he’d done so under Frank’s orders.
Frank’s subsequent trial was sensationalized by the media. Journalists scrambled to publish new “evidence,” regardless of its reliability. Passions ran high. Defenders of Frank included prominent east coast Jews. Among his detractors were a motley crew of white supremacists headed by Georgia politician Tom Watson.
Watson was a newspaper editor as well as a political leader and he used his racist publications to whip up public anger against Frank. “Hell, we can lynch a n***er anytime in Georgia,” Watson reportedly told Frank’s prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey. “But when do we get the chance to hang a Yankee Jew?”
On October 10, 1913, Watson got his wish: Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Despite numerous character witnesses attesting to Frank’s innocence, the jury appeared to have been swayed by the testimony of Jim Conley, who’d stuck to his story despite seven hours of cross-examination.
However, Frank’s sentence was commuted to life in jail after the governor of Georgia, John Slaton, conducted his own investigations. In fact, he concluded that Frank was innocent and hoped that he would be set free once the public furor settled down. Watson, however, would have none of it.
“This country has nothing to fear from its rural communities,” wrote Watson in 1915. “Lynch law is a good sign; it shows that a sense of justice lives among the people.” And so, with Watson’s encouragement, the so-called “Knights of Mary Phagan” were founded – a mob of 28 prominent local men with a thirst for blood.
On August 16, 1915, the Knights of Mary Phagan cut the telephone cables to the Midgeville penitentiary where Frank was being held. They subsequently stormed the building, handcuffed the guards and abducted Frank. The mob then took him to Phagan’s hometown of Marietta and hanged him from an oak tree. Thousands came to take photos and souvenirs.
Inevitably, Frank’s lynching forced a mass exodus of Georgia’s Jewish community – indeed, half of its 3,000 members fled. Most of the country was sickened by the episode, however, although Watson himself applauded it. “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” he wrote just two weeks afterwards. Indeed, his local popularity was undiminished and in 1920 he was subsequently elected to the senate.
Meanwhile, several members of the Knights of the Mary Phagan went on to participate in a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Under the leadership of William Joseph Simmons, they met on Stone Mountain near Atlanta on Thanksgiving in 1915, recited verses from the Bible and burned a cross.
Most modern researchers assert that Frank was innocent and that the real murderer was Conley, the janitor. Indeed, in 1982 another employee at the factory, Alonzo Mann, went on record as having seen Conley carrying Phagan’s dead or unconscious body. He was alone and threatened Mann to keep him quiet. Four years later Frank received a posthumous pardon.
Today it might seem like the murder of Mary Phagan is old news, but white supremacists refuse to let it rest. The Leo Frank Case Research Library is an extensive online “resource” pertaining to the case. It contains voluminous anti-Semitic ravings and its domain name is registered to one Kevin Strom, a prominent neo-Nazi who was convicted for possessing child pornography in 2008.
Meanwhile, populist demagogues continue to weaponize hatred for their own political ends. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-governmental organization dedicated to tracking hate groups, there were 867 recorded hate incidents in the ten days following Donald Trump’s election. In that respect, the case of Mary Phagan offers a timeless warning about the dangers of unchecked bigotry – and the politicians who encourage it.