The Mystery of the Pencil Factory
by Sidney Sutherland
AS an example of national hysteria, sectional
fury, distortion of judicial processes, racial
hatred, and bewildering uncertainty as to just
exactly what was truth and justice, the ease of
Leo Frank stands unparalleled in American criminal
Looking back after the passage of sixteen years
has helped to assuage the rancors and recriminations
of that lurid two-year sensation in Atlanta and
throughout the country, it is possible now to consider
the atrocious murder of little Mary Phagan,
the prosecution of Frank, the maze of contradictory
testimony, the extraordinary battle to save his neck,
and his eventual assassination by a Georgia mob,
with impersonal calmness based on a mere recital of
the facts as shown by the record.
Leo Frank was born in Cuero, Texas, on April
17, 1884. His father was Rudolph Frank, his
mother's name was Rhea. The year of Frank's
birth marked the departure of the family from
Texas to Brooklyn. They lived at 152 Underhill
Avenue. Mr. Frank died in 1922; his widow
followed him in 1925; and they are buried in Brooklyn
beside their son, whose body was given to Leo's
widow by a judge who retrieved it from the
Leo attended the public schools of Brooklyn,
completed his preparatory studies at Pratt
Institute, and then matriculated at Cornell University,
where he was graduated with the class of 1906.
Character references from his instructors were used
by the defense at his trials.
Leo specialized in engineering at Cornell; and for
several months he worked as a draftsman for the
B.F. Sturtevant Company of Hyde Park, Massachusetts.
He was then engineer and draftsman
with the National Meter Company of Brooklyn.
In 1907 he came to terms with a delegation of
Atlanta citizens to establish a pencil factory in that
thriving Dixie city. He spent nine months in
Europe studying that business, and in 1908 he
opened the National Pencil Company factory on
Forsythe Street; and in that same year he married
Lucy Selig of Atlanta. She still lives with her
family in Atlanta.
Leo was small, frail, bespectacled. His black
eyes were bright and alert; his hands slender and
thin; his weight probably never topped 120 pounds.
He was president of the local B'nai B'rith, popular
in his small Hebrew circle, and generally liked by
Most of these employees were young white
women. Though several were to be quoted as
reflecting on Leo's character, a far larger number were
witnesses to his genial and inoffensive relations at
Among these working folk was Mary Phagan, a
pretty little blonde girl, fourteen years old, who
lived in Marietta, a suburb now engulfed by
Atlanta. She lived with her mother, Mrs. J.W.
Coleman, about half an hour's trolley ride from the
plant. Her work was to operate a machine that
fastened the metal clips which held the erasers to
the pencils. It was a simple task and her wages
were proportionately small.
Another worker at the factory was Jim Conley,
who wielded a broom and mop after the others left.
He was a lazy, unreliable Negro oaf, about three
jumps out of the jungle, and his record bore seven
arrests in eight years for drunkenness and disorderly
conduct, for which he had been jailed and fined.
Until he was spotlighted on the witness stand and
uttered the words that condemned his employer,
not a human in Atlanta would have believed him
Other employees were Newt Lee, the Negro night
watchman; Arthur Mullinar, a white man; and J.M.
Gantt, a former bookkeeper.
From October, 1912, until April, 1913, there had
been fifteen murders in Atlanta, and Chief of
Detectives Lanford and his men had solved none
of them and nobody had been punished. Atlanta
was in a terrific turmoil over these homicides and,
given the racial identities of the principals in our
drama, the soil was ripe for a frightful harvest of
excitement and blind vengeance.
About the 20th of April, 1913, Mary Phagan was
laid off work pending the arrival of the stock from
which her metal bands were made. She had $1.80
coming to her, and she was told to return to the
factory on pay day, Saturday, April 26.
It so happened that this was Confederate Memorial
Day, an occasion observed solemnly throughout
Leo saw in this holiday a chance to clean up some
accumulated work, and he went to the factory that
morning about 10 o'clock. There was nobody in
the building save two workmen two floors above.
In Marietta, Mary Phagan prepared to go to the
plant to collect her $1.80 and then go downtown to
watch the Memorial parade. She left her home
about 11:30 o'clock, and half an hour later walked
into Leo's office. She was not again seen alive.
Leo said that she asked for her money, that he gave
it to her, and that she left the room, her footsteps
echoing along the hall of the silent and empty
building. Leo's further assertions will be related presently.
At 4 o'clock in the morning of Sunday, April 27,
Lee, the watchman, reached the cellar of the factory
on his rounds. He found the body of a white girl
lying on a pile of cinders near the furnace. He
backed away from it--a dangerous discovery for a
Negro to make in Dixie--and at once notified the
The police came at once. They found the body
black from cinders and dirt. A piece of cloth had
been torn from her skirt and tied about her face.
One eye had been blackened by a blow. Over both
eyes was a slight abrasion. The left side of the
head bore a two-inch wound, and there was a cut
below the left knee. Drawn tightly about her neck
was a cord buried in the flesh. The girl had been
beaten and strangled; and she had been raped.
Fifty feet from the body her hat and one of her
shoes had been tossed back of a pile of clinkers.
Beside the body were two notes. One of them was
penciled on a faded yellow order blank; and with
asterisks to indicate certain unprintable words, it
Mam, that negro fire down here did this***** he push
me down that hole***** a long tall negro black that who
it wase long sleam tall negro I write while********
The second note, in the same semiliterate chirography
and Southern darky dialect, was penciled
on a scratch-pad sheet. It said that the accused
(the above description being that of the factory's
fireman) would pretend that the night watchman
had committed the crime, but that the "long tall
black negro did [it] by himself."
The police promptly arrested Lee, and took the
body to the morgue. A little later, the corpse being
made presentable, they went to Leo's home and
asked him to come down and identify the girl. He
went willingly enough, but said he did not know the
child. During the morning a young woman, fellow
worker of Mary's, identified her little friend.
Leo was questioned again, and Mullinar and
Gantt were arrested, Leo having stated that Gantt
had liked Mary Phagan. The next day, Monday
the 28th, Leo was arrested after the police had
questioned Conley, the Negro janitor. Conley also
was placed in a cell.
Atlanta received the news of this sixteenth murder
with frenzied demands, editorial and pedestrian,
that this rape and assassination of the "flower of
Dixie's womanhood" be avenged. It was only when
the detectives and reporters began to delve into the
background of the case that the customary and
normal demands rose to a crescendo of racial hatred
Coroner Paul Donehoo's jury bound Leo over to
the grand jury after it listened to Conley's story,
and held Conley as an accessory. The other prisoners
were released, their alibis sustaining a searching
While waiting for the grand jury to act, Thomas
E. Watson, Populist candidate for President, author
and journalist, and rabid professional Southerner,
proceeded in his newspapers to try, convict, and
execute Leo Frank, Yankee Jew and employer of
Dixie's white womanhood.
Yet even in the wake of Watson's scathing
pogrom Atlanta kept its head, angry but confident
that legal measures would take care of the atrocity.
It was not until the Atlanta Constitution printed an
interview--a scoop which it probably regrets
today--with Mrs. Nina Formby that the tornado of
Juden-Hetze got out of control and swept the city
and state and the South.
Mrs. Formby was well acquainted with the
detectives of Atlanta. She ran a brothel, and she
later swore--from the safety of distant New York
City--that the sleuths got her drunk and made her
accuse Leo. The Constitution carried a story that
on the evening of the murder Leo had telephoned
her, frantically demanding a room in her house for
himself and a young girl. "It's a matter of life
and death," she said Leo told her. And though Leo
proved by many witnesses that he was at that time
entertaining friends in his home, the story got out
that Frank was a pervert--and the town went mad.
Tom Watson seized avidly this added fagot for
the pyre he was building about the young Hebrew,
and tales of indescribable orgies in Leo's office were
circulated and believed. Several girls were produced
to tell of such affairs, but none of them went
beyond assertions that Leo had tried to become
familiar with them.
Newspaper extras were tossed into the streets on
so trivial a story as the reported remark of Minola
McKnight, Mrs. Frank's colored cook, that Mr.
Frank was nervous that Saturday evening, and that
Mrs. Frank told her mother the next morning that
Leo had tried to kill himself during the night. Both
Mrs. Frank and Minola denied this story a hundred
times, but scant heed was paid the denials.
Before we proceed with a summation of the life
and death of Leo Frank, let us study the testimony
of Harry Scott, an important witness for the
"We got Conley's affidavit after a lot of trouble,"
said Scott, a detective in Lanford's bureau. "At
first he told a wandering story that didn't mean
anything. We saw him again in Lanford's office
on May 27. We talked to him and swore at him
for six hours. Frank couldn't have written the two
notes on Friday, as Conley insisted, because that
showed premeditation, and wouldn't do. Conley
wouldn't make another statement.
"On May 28 we grilled him six more hours, telling
him his statement was far-fetched and wouldn't
fit. He made another long statement. On May
29 we talked to him all day and told him some of
his story was improbable and he would have to do
better than that. So then he made his final
statement and we didn't wish to make any further
suggestions to him."
On May 24, 1913, the grand jury indicted Leo
for the murder of Mary Phagan, largely on the
testimony of Conley, and held the Negro as an
accessory. There were five Hebrews on this grand
On July 28 the trial began; and whether Frank
killed the girl or didn't, surely it has been seldom
in our jurisprudence that a trial was conducted
under such one-sided circumstances. Judge L.S.
Roan tried, but vainly, to preserve decorum, but the
tide was now running too swiftly against all sanity
and impartial procedure.
The courtroom was packed, and the spectators
clapped their hands and cheered each sally of the
prosecution, conducted by Solicitor General Hugh
M. Dorsey; and hissed and booed each maneuver
of the defense, headed by Reuben Arnold and Luther
Z. Rosser, leaders of the Atlanta bar. Bailiffs
gaveled fruitlessly for silence and order; and the
yard outside was jammed with screaming men who
pressed their faces against the window sills and
shrieked: "Hang the Jew or we'll hang you!"
Conley was the ace of trumps for the People--an
incongruous spectacle, a slant-headed Ethiopian
ape drooling and mumbling his story on a stand
high above the heads of a Caucasian throng whose
loathing for him and his race was only equaled in
this instance by their abhorrence for the prisoner.
Summarized, Conley's story was to the effect that
he had often sat outside Leo's office as a sort of
watchdog while Leo staged his perversions behind
the locked door. When anybody would approach,
Conley would whistle or cough to warn his employer.
No female participants in these wanton parties were
On the day of the murder, Conley went on, he
came into the office and found Leo crouching over
the unconscious girl. Leo told him that Mary had
resisted his advances, and when he grabbed her had
fallen and struck her head. When he had finished
with her he decided to kill her. So he strangled her
to death with the cord.
He then promised Conley $200 to burn the body,
and did, in fact, give him that sum, the Negro said.
They carried her together to the elevator, found it
would not work, and so passed her down through a
trapdoor and on into the cellar. Then, fearing the
smoke from the furnace would attract attention on
the holiday, Leo dictated the notes which Conley
wrote, and they left them beside the body. But, said
Conley, Leo made him return the $200 because he
hadn't burnt the body. If Conley came down early
the next day and burnt it Leo would then give him
Conley was unshaken by a severe two-day
cross-examination, deviating, as might be expected from
his mentality, in minor points, but sticking firmly to
his main account. He never varied from his statement
that all this took place between 12:56 and
Watchman Lee was a sinister witness, from Leo's
viewpoint. He said, he came to work at 4 o'clock
and that, contrary to custom, Leo told him to go
away and return at 7 o'clock. Leo said he merely
tried to give the Negro a little rest on the holiday.
The state also contended that certain scarlet
stains on the floor of a room next to Leo's office
were blood. But the prosecution refused to have
these stains analyzed.
The state made the detective theory largely its
own: that Mary tried to run after Leo made an
improper proposal; that he caught her, struck her,
and that she fell, breaking her neck against a lathe
in a nearby room, that strands of her hair were
found on the lathe, that Leo carried her back to
his room and then to the wash-room in an effort
to revive her there; that he feared she would talk
when she became conscious; and that he then tied
the cord about her neck, and got Conley to help
him get rid of the body.
The state saw something significant in the fact
that, in a letter which Leo said he wrote to his
father that Saturday, he told him that "there was
nothing startling" in Atlanta to report--thus
preparing his alibi in advance of the discovery of the
Leo's case was hurt still further, if that were
possible, when his mother leaped to her feet in court
and cried out to Mr. Dorsey: "You Christian dog!"
This was printed in the pamphlets which, in verse
and prose, assailed Frank and all Jews, and which
were hawked among the crowds outside the courtroom.
Leo was his own chief witness. His defense was
simply an alibi. In a remarkable statement he
accounted for every minute of his time on that
celebrated Saturday. His story showed him to have been
at home at luncheon at the time Conley said they
were taking the body down. He did not deny that
Mary came to his office, and that nobody else saw
her enter or depart. His theory was that Conley
met the girl on her way out, accosted her, struck her,
raped her, and then slew her. The dialect of the
notes, Leo maintained, was beyond his capacity to
know or employ. The prosecution insisted that
Leo's memory of his activities was too minutely
positive to be genuine, since he was vague on
incidents before and after that Saturday.
Mrs. J.B. Simmons, aged sixty-five, was a valuable
witness for the defense. She said she had
passed the factory at 2:30 o'clock that afternoon
and heard screams. Dorsey tried to make her say it
had been after 3 o'clock, when it was known that
Frank had returned to his office from luncheon.
But what was the difference--if Mary was dead
at 12:56 o'clock?
Other witnesses told of seeing Leo on the streets
at 1:20, the time he said he was going home for
luncheon, the time Conley said they were in the
basement with the body.
There were more than 300 witnesses in all, and
the trial ended on August 25. Messrs. Rosser and
Arnold spoke to the jury for two days, and Solicitor
Dorsey was bitter in his denunciation of Rosser
for mentioning racial hatred in his closing address.
Judge Roan might have charged the jury and
sent them out on Saturday morning, but the mayor
and the governor and the Chamber of Commerce
and the newspapers asked him to wait until
Monday, fearing the half-holiday might end in a
riot if by any chance Frank were acquitted.
Monday morning the Fifth Regiment, Georgia
National Guard, was posted throughout the city, and
Judge Roan gave the jurors their instructions. Both
sides have admitted that the charge was impartial
and fair. To avoid a riot, at Roan's suggestion
neither Frank nor his lawyers were in court when
the jury retired. It remained secluded for forty
minutes. There were two ballots; one, as to Leo's
guilt, which was unanimous; and the second, as to
recommendation for mercy, which would mean a life
sentence. The first vote here was 11 to 1 against
leniency, and the solitary juror then joined the
The next morning, August 26, Judge Roan sentenced
Leo to hang on October 10. A motion for
a new trial failed, and the crowd in the courtyard
carried Dorsey on its shoulders and hissed the
But in the next few months Frank's counsel
gained a series of delays. An appeal stayed the
execution; the trial court was sustained; State Supreme
Court Justice Hill sentenced Frank again, and a
further delay ensued. Meanwhile Conley was convicted
as an accessory and sentenced to a year in
the chain gang.
On May 6 Justice Hill denied Frank's extraordinary
motion for a new trial, refusing to consider
the validity of new evidence which defense attorneys
said would free their client. This evidence,
mainly, was that one of the notes found by Mary's
body bore a faint carbon tracing of the signature of
H.F. Becker, a former master mechanic at the
factory, who had used a pad of the sort in 1909.
The defense contended that Leo would not have
had access to such a pad, but that it unquestionably
would have been among old papers in the basement,
where Conley could have found it.
On October 3 W.M. Smith, Conley's lawyer,
said he believed that Conley had killed the little
girl. Eleven days later the Supreme Court of
Georgia, all members sitting and concurring,
affirmed Judge Hill's decision denying the
extraordinary motion. Frank's lawyers then announced
that they would appeal to the court on the ground
that Leo's rights had been invaded, because neither
he nor they had been in court when the trial jury had
reported to Judge Roan.
On November 11 the court upheld the prosecution's
demurrer to the defense motion to set aside the
verdict of guilty. Nine days later Justice Lamar
of the United States Supreme Court denied the
written application of Leo's counsel for a writ of
error for a review of the case. A week later,
however, Chief Justice White of the highest tribunal
accepted the papers.
On December 7 this august court denied the
motion, and two days later Judge Hill sentenced
Frank for the third time to hang, this time on January
On December 17 a petition for a writ of habeas
corpus was sought from United States District
Judge W.T. Newman, who turned it down. Two
days later Newman announced that he would allow
an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, but
declined to issue a certificate of "probable cause."
By this time, and during all this time, the Leo
Frank case had upset the whole nation. Adolph
Lewisohn, Samuel Untermyer, Louis Marshall, Rabbi
Wise, and other leading Hebrews had interested
themselves earnestly in the matter; and prominent
Gentiles were active. There were mass meetings all
over the country, and petitions containing hundreds
of thousands of names were finding their way to
Georgia urging clemency or a new trial or commutation.
Senator Borah, Philander C. Knox, Myron T.
Herrick, Senator James Reed, Mayor Rolph of San
Francisco, governors of many states, editors, and
business men joined in the flood of appeals deluging
Georgia furiously resented this invasion of its
sovereignty and the direct accusation or subtle
implication that a pogrom and not a program of
justice was animating the state's citizens.
On December 24 Louis Marshall, saying he had
taken the case as a professional duty and without
retainer, appealed to Supreme Court Justice Lamar,
and four days afterward the Supreme Court
promised to review the case. Nothing came of this,
however, and the issue was once again in Georgia.
On May 10, 1915, Judge Hill sentenced Frank
to hang on June 22. It was the fourth deathwatch
set on the young Hebrew.
Every possible judicial recourse to save Leo's
neck had been exhausted. On May 21 the Prison
Commission accepted his plea for a commutation,
and promised to examine it. While the full tide of
national appeals was inundating the state, Conley
was released from prison chain-gang servitude.
On June 9 the prison board voted 2 to 1 against
commutation--and only Governor John M. Slaton,
going out of office in a few days, stood between
Leo and the hangman. On the 12th a tremendous
mass meeting was held on the Capitol grounds and
loud outcries directed to the governor against
interfering with the laws of Georgia at the demand of
At midnight of June 20 Leo with a heavy guard
of armed deputies was secretly spirited out of the
Atlanta prison, taken in automobiles to a Central
of Georgia railway car, and rushed to Milledgeville,
where the state penitentiary is located. The next
two days were hectic ones in Atlanta. Not knowing
of the prisoner's departure, but fearing Slaton
was planning to commute his sentence, mobs swirled
and eddied throughout the streets.
Before noon of June 22, Governor Slaton announced
the commutation from hanging to life imprisonment
for Leo Frank--and hell broke loose in
The militia was called out and thrown around
the governor's mansion, seven miles from the heart
of the city, and martial law was declared.
Hundreds of automobile loads of armed men
raced through the streets to the executive home,
where the mob trampled the grounds, screamed at
the curtained windows, and hurled itself vainly
against the militia's bayonets.
Leo Frank now was a side issue, though his secret
smuggling out of town had become known.
The issue was now "Georgia's traitor governor
who sold out to sheeny gold." Slaton was hanged
in effigy; and the rumor that he and Mrs. Slaton
were leaving at once for New York caused the
throng to scream imprecations.
Sheriff Mangum was hauled bodily into the Senate
chamber at the Capitol and made to swear that
the governor had not actually pardoned Leo, but
that he was at that moment in a Milledgeville cell
as Convict No. 965.
But vocal fireworks constituted the sole total of
the mob spirit. The commander of the troops tired
of the display presently, and he waved his arms
for silence. When he got it he pulled out his watch
and announced grimly to the mob that in five minutes
he was going to give the order to charge. There
was a tense three minutes and the mob went back
to Atlanta, cursing and yelling.
Slaton went to New York and there retaliated in
an interview against Georgia's threats. "I know
it means political oblivion for me," he said. "But
I did what I thought was right. Conley had the
same opportunity and much more disposition to
and murder Mary Phagan. As to the mob--well,
every city has its riffraff and Atlanta's mob
was composed of men whose wives support them by
running boarding houses, whose children are in
factories instead of schools, and who loaf on corners
talking of the inequalities of opportunity and law
The pale, slender, little Hebrew was now but a
number in a penitentiary dormitory. Pending his
restoration to full health, he was made a prison
clerk. On July 18, 1915, William Creen, doing
life for murder, attacked Leo from behind and
slashed his throat with a dull butcher knife. Creen
said the command to do so came from on high in a
At midnight of August 16, while Frank was
recovering from his wound, a mob of twenty-five
armed men raided the prison; overpowered Warden
J.T. Smith after cutting all wires leading to the
prison, which is three miles out of town; handcuffed
Captain J.M. Burke, prison superintendent; forced
a trusty to unlock the gates; and seized Leo where
he lay sleeping on his cot.
With a man at each arm and leg and one grasping
a handful of his hair, he was carried swiftly down
the steps and placed in the caravan of automobiles
which had brought the raiders. It was all done
silently, swiftly, efficiently, and it was all over in
The next morning, a farmer driving his team and
wagon of produce into Marietta, 170 miles away,
saw a man dangling from a tree near the roadway.
He alighted and examined the figure twirling gently
around in the breeze from the end of a rope. He
recognized Leo Frank, hanging in his silk nightgown,
a hangman's noose beside his tilted jaw.
He had been dead for several hours.
The farmer whipped up his horses and a little
later a mob of 6,000 men and boys was crowding
the highway for a look as the famous prisoner.
Somebody of course suggested that they cut the
body down and burn it, but Judge N.A. Morris, an
old man, stood beside the motionless form and
announced that he was going to take the body into
Atlanta and turn it over to the widow.
There was some argument, but the veteran had
his way, and he left the throng to fight over the
souvenir rope, while he put the stiff corpse in his
flivver and ran into the city.
Everybody in Marietta knew who comprised the
lynching party, but nothing came of it.
On August 24 a coroner's jury answered the
country-wide protest of horror by paraphrasing the
original trial jury's verdict, "that Leo Frank came
to his death by being hanged by the neck till dead
by parties unknown to this jury."
Two further quotations, a bit of reporting, and
the story is done. Just before Judge Roan died
in New York City on March 23, 1915, he stated:
"I gave that case more consideration than any
other I ever sat on. Though I heard evidence and
arguments for thirty days, I don't know this
morning whether Leo Frank is innocent or guilty. But
I was not the one to be convinced. The jury was
convinced and I must approve the verdict. Therefore,
I overruled the motion for a new trial."
The Macon Telegraph replied editorially to
America's condemnation of the pre-dawn lynching:
"The men who lynched Leo Frank went ahead with
clear consciences. It would never have happened
had the rest of the nation left this state to mind its
Not long ago the Negro Conley was shot while
staging a burglary. When he recovered he was
sentenced to twenty years in prison.