Who Killed Mary Phagan? 


After it's burning by Union General William T.Sherman on his famous "march to the sea," Atlanta, Georgia had slowly rebuilt to become one of the major cities of the South by the beginning of the 20th century. But the irony and chagrin was not lost on Southerners that much of the phoenix-like rise was due to Northern money and entrepreneurs. The National Pencil Factory had been built in Atlanta early in the twentieth century and become a vital part of the economic growth of the city. The factory was northern owned and run by Jews. Atlantans tolerated such a business because the Jewish community had a history in the city. In fact, a high governmental official in the Confederate government had been a southern Jew. Inspite of their "bizarre" religious beliefs and practices these early Germanic Jews assimilated into society, or at least were not obtrusive, and were largely accepted. Besides, the factory provide lots of jobs to people like Mary Phagan.

Mary Phagan was just a month shy of 14 years old in April, 1913. She had all the appropriate elementary education for a southern girl of her age. Her father had died earlier but her mother quickly remarried. The entire family were simple but hard working Southern folk. She was a small girl of 4'11", but, in keeping with early 20th century's standard of beauty, she was a hefty 125 pounds. She was quite and conscientious. There were some flirtations with an operator of the street car she used to go to work but formal dating was unheard of in Atlanta society. She attended church regularly and even starred in a Church play. But most of her time was spent coming-and-going to the Pencil factory and working there putting erasers into the metal cases on the pencils. For this she usually made 12 cents an hour. Pay checks were available late on Friday nights or on Saturdays. Mary Phagan left home hurriedly--generally wolving down her breakfast of cabbage and bread--on Saturday morning, April 26th 1913. She took the streetcar into town which was already filling up people because it was to be Confederate Memorial Day with picnics, parades, and political speeches. She was to go to it all but first she needed to go to the National Pencil Factory to pick up her pay envelope. The plant manager, Leo Frank, was there working on his weekly financial report. He did not know Mary Phagan and asked for her employee number. He then gave her the pay envelope and returned to his tasks in hopes of making the holiday festivities.

On the following morning--3:20am, April 27, 1913--a night watchman went to the dark and dirty basement to use the "colored" toilet. In fact, very few people, even the blacks who cheated and used the white toilets upstairs, ever went into the basement. There in the filth he found the body of Mary Phagan. She had been beaten and strangled to death. There was some suspicion and expectation that she had been raped as well.

The scene was mean and menacing. It was dark and the body so covered in dirt and dust that the police did not know at first that it was a white girl. Drag marks from the elevator shaft suggested that the body had been thrown into the basement and the assailant than dragged the body towards a furnace expecting to burn it up at a later date. By 9am when the forensics people

arrived rigor mortis had not set-in completely as yet. A search failed to find her purse and the cash she received the day before. The envelope in which the pay money came, however, was found upstairs near the machine area in which she worked. In addition, several strands of hair which "look very similar to those of the victim" were found clinging to a lathe machine in the vicinity she worked. There were tiny droplets of blood stains on the floor as well, though officers were told by workers that many of the girls cut and pricked their hands at work. This machine room was close to the office work area of Leo Frank. Two notes were found in the basement near the body. One read: he said he wood love me land down like the night witch did it but that long tall black negro did buy his slef." Another read: "mam that negro here down here did this i went to make water and he pushed me down that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it wase long sleam tall negro i wright while play with me." Both notes seemed incredible. They were far below the penmanship and grammar knowledge of Phagan. Furthermore, it was very dark in the basement making it hard for anyone to compose such notes. Finally, there was a neatly plopped pile of excrement lying underneath the elevator in the elevator shaft, something that would have been squashed if the elevator had been used. This indicated that the elevators had not been used and that the body had been brought down a shaft. There were found bloody finger prints on some boards in the basement. There were bloody prints on the corpses jacket as well.

Shortly after the discovery of the body several suspects emerged. It was of no surprise that several of these were blacks. The South in general, and Georgia in particular, had just finished a wild generation of "Jim Crow" segregation laws to put the black population "in it's place." When this failed there was lynching. For example, from 1890 to 1900 there had been 1665 persons, predominately black, lynched in the South. In the next decade the number slipped to 921; and from 1910 to 1920 to 840. Georgia was second only to Texas in the number of lynchings throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century. Perhaps such a decline might suggest that through intimidation and death the Southern black had indeed been put in his place and was considered less a threat than a generation earlier. Nonetheless several black suspects emerged in this case.

One suspect was Newt Lee, the nightwatchman. He had worked at the factory for about three weeks. Many wondered why he had gone to the "colored" toilet in the basement at all since other watchmen had always broke the colored line and used the white toilets upstairs. Also it was rumored that he had a liking for little girls. Further investigation revealed additional incrimination for Lee. During each night of his duty at the factory he was to punch a time clock every thirty minutes. This was a supervisory check to see that the watchmen did not sleep on the job. On the night of the murder Lee did so up to 9:30. Then between 9:30 and 3:00am there were irregularities in the punch tape of the clock. In addition, police found a blood stained shirt at Newt Lee's home but he claimed not to have seen that garment for over two years. Furthermore, Lee said he found the body "face up" but police officers said it was face down. Also, when Lee called the police he said: "I want to report that a white girl is dead." But when the police arrived the body was so dirty they had a hard time making out the race.

John Gantt, a former timekeeper and chief clerk at the factory, was a suspect too. A cash shortage had been discovered and he refused to take blame and make it right--a common practice of clerks in those days--and he had been fired. Gantt admitted to knowing Phagan. In addition, he was in the factory on the Saturday of the murder to collect a pair of shoes he had left behind when he was discharged. Leo Frank, who never finished his work in time to go to the Confederate memorial activities, corroborated Gantt's story of being at the factory at 6:00pm. In fact, Frank was just leaving as Gantt arrived which, he told later, prompted him to call the factory later and ask Lee if "everything were alright."

Arthur Mullinax was a twenty eight year old streetcar conductor in Atlanta. He had been well acquainted with Mary Phagan, often seen talking and flirting with her on her rides home from work. One person even testified that Mary Phagan was seen with Mullinax about midnight on Saturday.

James Conley, a twenty-seven year old black sweeper at the factory, also became a suspect when he was discovered washing a shirt that looked to have blood on it. He claimed that they were rust stains. Conley's history was colorful. His police record was extensive. He had worked for the National Pencil Company for about two years, during which time he had been in jail three times. In the five years prior to coming to the factory he had been in prison 8 times. Frequently, he was drunk at the factory. And several females complained that Conley tried to borrow money from them particularly on pay day. Under grueling interrogation Conley admitted that he had written the two notes found on the scene on Friday night under the orders of someone else.

Now Leo Frank Became a suspect as well. Frank had been raised in the north. Brooklyn had been his home and he studied at Cornell University. After an apprenticeship in Germany he came to an uncle's factory in Atlanta to act as superintendent. He made $120 per month, a respectable salary for the time, and moved with his wife comfortably into Jewish middle class society. Frank was a slight and frail man barely weighing 125 pounds, the same as Mary Phagan. Bad weather and the press of deadlines on his work compelled Frank to forego attending the Confederate celebration.

Instead he worked at the factory until evening. In fact, he had told Lee who had come to work at 4pm to leave and return at 6pm.

The Atlanta police and the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the William Burns Detective Agency were called in to investigate and answer the question, "Who Killed Mary Phagan?"

Questions to Ponder

1. Who killed Mary Phagen?

2. Use DOPE analysis..D=desire, who had the greatest desire?

O=opportunity, who had the greatest opportunity?

P=personality, who had the likely personality to do this crime?

E=evidence, who does the evidence point to?

3. How is race and ethnicity involved in this case?





Suggested Further Reading

Leonard Dinnerstein. The Leo Frank Case (1987).