“That negro hire doun here”
At around noon on 26 April 1913, a public holiday known as Confederate Memorial Day, 14-year-old Mary Phagan went to the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked to collect her $1.20 wages before going to watch the parade. Also working that day was the manager Leo Frank, a 29-year-old, married, Jewish, university graduate. At 3am the next day, Mary Phagan’s body was found in the basement by the black night watchman, Newt Lee.
She had been strangled and beaten but not sexually assaulted. Next to her body was a note that read in part, “That negro hire doun here”. Lee and Frank were both arrested and charged with her murder. The case against Frank was dependant on the testimony of a 29-year-old, black factory janitor called James Conley. He accused Frank of sexually abusing the factory girls.
The trial, which began on 28 July 1913, was anti-Semitic and for the first time in America, a white man was convicted on the word of a black man. According to Georgia law, Frank gave a statement in which he refuted all the allegations against him — cross-examination of the four-hour statement was not allowed. Such was the hostility surrounding the trial, that the judge ruled that Frank and his lawyers not be present in court when the verdict was read in case Frank was found not guilty and the courtroom erupted.
The jury found him guilty and Frank was sentenced to death. Public opinion rallied to his aid and 20 June 1915, John M. Slaton, the governor of Georgia, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. On 17 August 1915, a gang calling themselves The Knights of Mary Phagan broke into the jail and kidnapped Frank, taking him to Marietta, 386 km (240 mi) away, where he was lynched.
The mob featured several prominent citizens including Joseph Mackey Brown, the ex-governor of the state, Judge Newt Morris, a doctor, three lawyers, and the former sheriff of Cobb County. Frank asked that he be allowed to write a note to his wife, that his wedding ring be returned to her and that his lower body be covered before he was hanged since he was clad in only a nightshirt.
National Pencil Factory, Forysthe Street, Atlanta, Georgia; Marietta, Georgia, USA
Saturday 26 April 1913; Tuesday 17 August 1915
On 11 March 1986 Leo Frank was pardoned for the crime he did not commit.