Six things to know about the Leo Frank case 100 years later

The grave of Mary Phagan in Marietta, Ga. (Photo by Todd DeFeo)

MARIETTA, Ga. — One century after a mob lynched the Jewish superintendent of National Pencil Co., the Leo Frank case still resonates and intrigues people.

Frank was convicted of the April 26, 1913, murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee of National Pencil. One century ago today, a mob lynched Frank at Frey’s Gin, located near where Interstate 75 today crosses State Route 120 in Marietta, Ga., near the famed Big Chicken.

Frank was convicted following a controversial and highly sensationalized trial and originally sentenced to death. However, Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton believed Frank might be innocent and subsequently commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison.

“In the end, the trial and execution of Leo Frank is more than a cautionary tale because it really happened,” Fred Gordon, department chair of Politics, Philosophy and Public Administration at Columbus State University, wrote in a guest column published by the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. “Mary Phagan’s life was cut brutally and tragically short. However, Frank’s trial and execution demonstrate what happens when an angry populace tries to take the law into its own hands.”

Here are six things to know about the case:

  1. No one knows for certain who killed Phagan, though many people believe Jim Conley, the janitor at the pencil factory, may be culpable. “It still remains a mystery, though, and ultimately we will never know exactly what really happened,” ArtsAtl quoted Steve Oney, author of “And the Dead Shall Rise,” a 2002 book about the case, as saying.
  2. A mob calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan traveled from Marietta to Milledgeville, Ga., to kidnap Frank from the State Prison Farm on Aug. 16, 1915.
  3. Phagan was also a victim of the child labor laws of the day (or a lack of such laws). She worked as many as 55 hours per week, making about 7 cents per hour (roughly $1.69 in 2015 dollars). On the day she was murdered, Phagan was at the factory to pick up her $1.20 in pay.
  4. Some of Marietta’s most prominent citizens — such as Cobb County Sheriff William Frey and former Gov. Joseph Mackey Brown — are said to have participated in the lynching.
  5. In 1982, 83-year-old Alonzo Mann said he saw Conley carrying Phagan’s body on the day she was killed, but said he remained quiet after Conley threatened to kill him.
  6. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1986 pardoned Frank, but the agency did not claim Frank was innocent. “Without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the State’s failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the State’s failure to bring his killers to justice, and as an effort to heal old wounds, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, in compliance with its Constitutional and statutory authority, hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a Pardon,” the board said.

Many museums such as the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Ga., Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and the Marietta Museum of History in Marietta, Ga., are hosting events to commemorate the centennial of the lynching.

About the author

Todd DeFeo

Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits The Travel Trolley and Railfanning.org.