The murder of Mary Phagan

April 26, 1913


On April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan, an employee of the National Pencil Factory, went into the business office to pick up $1.20 in pay from business manager Leo Frank. Mary, who was thirteen, earned twelve cents an hour running a machine that put metal caps on pencils. Frank, a Cornell graduate, had supervised National Pencil for five years.

That night, Mary was murdered. Her bloodied and bludgeoned body was discovered by night watchman, Newt Lee. In the days following, Lee was a prime suspect in her death, along with former streetcar driver Arthur Mullinax. Later, pencil factory janitor Jim Conley was taken in for questioning.

But by the time of Mary’s April 29 funeral, police attention and public sentiment swayed, putting Frank, the last person known to have spoken with Mary, under the spotlight.

Fueled by growing anti-Semitism, media coverage of the case became frenzied. The Atlanta Constitution sponsored a campaign to raise funds to bring a famous detective over from England. When Frank went on trial in the summer, crowds camped out around the courthouse. They celebrated raccously when the jury found Frank guilty (largely based on Jim Conley’s testimony).

Throughout the fall and into the next year, Frank’s lawyers tried to appeal the case, but multiple efforts to get before the Georgia Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court were thwarted. Out of options, they urged governor John Slaton to commute the case. After examining reams of documents and visiting the factory, Slaton declared Frank innocent, and changed his sentence from death to life in prison, hoping that the sentence could eventually be changed and Frank freed.

In response to the ruling, Atlantans rioted, marching on the governor’s residence. Frank was moved to a prison in Milledgeville. In August 1915, vigilantes broke into the jail, removed Frank, and lynched him.

The Frank case has inspired books, plays, movies, a TV mini series, and a Broadway musical (Parade, by Atlanta native and Driving Miss Daisy playwright Alfred Uhry). The definitive account is Steve Oney’s And the Dead Shall Rise, a 750-plus page history of the murder, trial, lynching, and aftermath. 

 >> Read an excerpt from Oney’s book

>> Browse the Digital Library of Georgia’s timeline of the trial

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  • MarkC_1078

    “Mary, who was thirteen, earned twelve cents an hour”

    Oney made a typo in his book concerning Mary Phagan’s pay in his book. Actually according to paymaster JM Gantt who testified at the Coroner’s Inquest in May of 1913, Mary Phagan made $4.05 a week for 55 hour shift, or 7 and 4/11 cents an hour.

    “That night, Mary was murdered.”

    Mary Phagan was murdered around noon on Saturday, April 26, 1913, not at night. The State’s prosecution believed the murder occurred between 12:05pm and 12:10pm (Leo Frank made a statement to the Atlanta Police on Monday, April 28, 1913, saying Mary Phagan came into his office between 12:05pm and 12:10pm), and the defense believed the murder occurred around 12:12pm to 12:17pm (Leo Frank made a statement to the Jury on August 18, 1913, and said Mary Phagan came into and left his office sometime between 12:12pm and 12:17pm).

    “Fueled by growing anti-Semitism”

    Can you talk more about the anti-Semitism in the days immediately after the murder, like give examples or explain it in non vague terms?

    “(largely based on Jim Conley’s testimony).”

    Can you talk about or explain what other testimony besides the testimony of Jim Conley that built a case to convict Leo Frank? or was it all Jim Conley?

    “Throughout the fall and into the next year, Frank’s lawyers tried to appeal the case, but multiple efforts to get before the Georgia Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court were thwarted.”

    What do you mean by tried and twarted? The Georgia Supreme Court and United States Supreme reviewed the defenses appeals, considered them, before making decisions.

    “Slaton declared Frank innocent”

    If Slaton believed Leo Frank was innocent, why didn’t he pardon him? What did Slaton say about the guilt of Leo Frank in his 29 page commutation document?

    “Frank was moved to a prison in Milledgeville in August 1915.”

    Leo Frank was moved to the Milledgeville State Prison Farm on June 22, 1915, not August 1915.

    “a 750-plus page”

    Close, but the hardcover version of Oney’s book is 742 pages including the index.

    My advice to you is to read the Leo Frank Trial Brief of Evidence (1913).

    • RebeccaBurns


      Thanks for all the thoughtful feedback.

      Thanks in particular for catching my mistake about the date Frank was transferred to Milledgeville. I had originally ended the sentence at Milledgeville with a new sentence starting “In August 1915, vigilantes broke…” Deleting that period changed the whole thing. My bad.