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Reigniting a cold case

And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank; Steve Oney; Pantheon: 742 pp., $35

October 05, 2003|David J. Garrow | David J. Garrow is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bearing the Cross," a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan was found strangled in the dark basement of the National Pencil Co. in downtown Atlanta early Sunday morning, April 27, 1913. Two handwritten notes, ostensibly written by the dying girl but obviously authored by her killer in an effort to focus suspicion on the building's night watchman, were found near the body.

Phagan had worked 55 hours a week, at 10 cents an hour, putting erasers on pencils. Her employment reflected what working-class families who migrated to the big city from rural areas encountered. "The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor," exclaimed Coca-Cola Co. President Asa Candler, and "as early as he may get at labor the more beautiful, the more useful does his life get to be."

National Pencil employed dozens of young girls like Phagan. The day before her body was found, she had visited the second-floor office of the company's 29-year-old superintendent, Leo Frank, to collect her week's pay. Frank's uncle was part owner of the company, and soon after Frank's arrival in Atlanta five years earlier, the young Cornell University graduate had married Lucille Selig, the daughter of one of the city's leading Jewish families.

Atlanta's Hearst-owned newspaper, the Georgian, gave Phagan's killing banner-headline play, and the publicity deluge impelled the city's less-than-competent police detectives to make a quick arrest of a most unlikely suspect: Superintendent Frank, the last person to admit having seen Phagan alive. Frank's nervous manner and inconsistent comments about the night watchman had piqued detectives' interest, and when they discovered a bloody linen shirt at the watchman's home, they concluded that it had been planted by the actual, savvy killer. When one of Phagan's young male friends said she had talked about Frank flirting aggressively with her, the police decided they had outsmarted their suspect's efforts to shift the blame elsewhere.

Steve Oney's "And the Dead Shall Rise" tells this fascinating and complex true-crime story in impressively thorough detail. Oney worked on the book for an astounding 17 years, and while the facts of the case sometimes make for an inescapably dense account, Oney's definitive recounting is a major achievement.

Following Frank's arrest, the belief that he was a "sexual predator" who had forced his attentions upon the factory's young working-class girls rapidly spread. Frank's character became "the central issue," distracting attention both from the death-scene notes and from credible testimony by visitors who had called on Frank soon after Phagan and found the superintendent hard at work at his desk.

Before Frank went to trial, however, another decisive figure entered the drama. Jim Conley, also 29, was a black factory sweeper with a serious drinking problem and a long arrest record who drew suspicion when he was caught washing out an apparently bloody shirt four days after the discovery of Phagan's body. But Conley appeared illiterate, and only when private detectives working for Frank's lawyers discovered written contracts that Conley had signed and compared his handwriting with the murder notes did police tardily realize that Conley was their all-but-certain author. Under intense police grilling, Conley conceded that he could read and write, and after a week in solitary confinement he further admitted that he had indeed penned the two notes. But, he insisted, the notes had been dictated to him the day before the murder by Frank. After more grilling, Conley revised his story yet again to assert that Frank had dictated the notes early Saturday afternoon, following Phagan's killing, and that he had helped Frank lower Phagan's body to the basement in the building elevator.

Conley's claims made him the star witness when local prosecutor Hugh Dorsey put Frank on trial for his life at the end of July. One Atlanta newspaper described Conley's testimony as having "a recitative air," but Frank's lead defense lawyer, Luther Rosser, "made little progress" in shaking Conley's story during cross-examination. Conley regaled the jury with detailed accounts of how he repeatedly had stood watch while Frank engaged in sexual misconduct with various women in his office. By the conclusion of Conley's testimony, Oney reports, "Atlanta's sympathies had turned overwhelmingly against Leo Frank" because of the prosecution's success in painting him as a "sexual deviant."

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