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An American Tragedy

These days the city of Atlanta lifts to the eye a panorama of shimmering office towers indistinguishable from the Everycities of America’s corporate civilization, with the same surrounding suburban plain of toy-neat houses innumerably ranked along a maze of cul-de-sacs. It seems now wholly translated beyond the old furies and sulfurs of its region’s past, famously hailed by its mayor even during the South’s racial convulsions of the Fifties as “the city too busy to hate.”

That in fact was hardly ever the case. Steve Oney, an Atlanta native and journalist, has evoked in And the Dead Shall Rise a grim and teeming ghost story of one such infamous instance: beginning in 1913, the arrest, conviction, and eventual lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of a pencil factory, after the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who worked in his plant. From seventeen years of research, Oney’s prodigious excavation of that distant dark episode is, like most efforts of its ambitious scale, not without its excesses—an overpopulous cast of accessory players and a kudzu-like proliferation of peripheral circumstances, along with a certain tendency to employ the melodramatic phrasings of the period as if from too deep an immersion in its voices and papers. But what ultimately emerges is a monumental folk parable of innocent suffering and a blind, brutal urge for retribution that passes finally into the simple, stark awe and pity of tragedy.

Mary Phagan was a country girl, her family part of the haggard Southern yeomanry that, with the onset of industrialization in post-bellum Georgia, had forsaken the land for the bleak mill villages around Atlanta. She was auburn-haired and blue-eyed, with ruddy cheeks, and was said to have an eager and sprightly nature. Little more is known of her beyond, as Oney reports, the fact that she was entranced with the new glamour of the movies. She had been working since the age of ten, most recently for about a year in the National Pencil Factory. On the morning of the day she was to die—Saturday, April 26, 1913—“after eating a breakfast of cabbage and wheat biscuits,” in Oney’s striking opening line, she had dressed and boarded a trolley car for downtown Atlanta to pick up her pay envelope of $1.20.

The streets would be filled that Saturday with a Confederate Memorial Day parade, a celebration with a certain ironic import for Atlanta. Largely effaced by Sherman’s campaign through Georgia, the city had been left free to recreate itself virtually whole into a robust hive of commerce proclaimed by Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady in 1886 the capital of a brave New South of business. But many of its factories were flourishing on child labor, Georgia law allowing ten-year-olds to work as long as eleven hours a day. The dispossessed country folk like Mary Phagan’s family, from whom those child laborers came, felt a sullen resentment at their desperate dependence on that license. It was a rancor, with many of the factories owned by Jewish entrepreneurs, that would smolder throughout the trial following Mary Phagan’s death.

Also arriving at the factory that Saturday morning to catch up on paperwork was its twenty-nine-year-old superintendent, Leo Frank—a slight, bespectacled figure, raised in Brooklyn and educated at the Pratt Institute and Cornell, and endowed with an unremittingly shy and self-contained reserve. Though he had married into one of Atlanta’s diligently assimilated German-Jewish mercantile families, he remained something of a stranger in a strange land, his tight and almost primly fastidious manner disguising an interior uncertainty that, according to his relatives, gave way at times to seizures of a private dread.

While Atlanta had long shown an unusually easy and hospitable acceptance of the Jewish families settled in its midst, neither they nor Frank could have been unaware that they made their home in a region of raw racism. Though the Klan with its anti-Semitic vituperations had been fairly dormant since the 1870s, lynchings continued at a brisk pace—in Georgia, there would be 508 of them between 1882 and 1930, twenty-two in 1915 alone. But this readiness for vigilante execution had seemed almost exclusively occupied with African-Americans, and Atlanta’s Jews maintained a resolute cheerfulness about the comfortable normalcy of their own place in the community.

It was in the early hours of Sunday morning that a night watchman at the pencil factory found the body of Mary Phagan lying in the rubbish and cinders of the basement. She had been strangled to death, the twine still wound around her neck, her face battered, and her underdrawers ripped and bloody. Soon discovered in the debris beside her were two curious notes, scrawled on company paper, that seemed a crude, barely intelligible effort at pretending to have been written by the victim herself:

he said he wood love me land down play like the night witch did it…. he push me down that hole …i wright this while play with me.

However bizarre and unlikely these notes seemed, police suspicions quickly settled on Leo Frank, principally owing to his behavior when they arrived at his house early Sunday morning to notify him of Mary Phagan’s murder. It was a time when much melodramatic import was placed on particulars of manner, and police would later testify that Frank paced about his front parlor “nervous” and “excited,” blurting questions as he twisted his hands, his voice “hoarse and trembling.” Being aroused early on a morning to receive such macabre news from two bluff and baleful Atlanta police officers might have been enough to unnerve anyone. But it was to be presented as additionally incriminating that when Frank was taken to the factory site, he answered detectives’ queries with explanations that struck them as too elaborately voluble and that, on being taken to a mortuary, he had turned away from the sight of Mary Phagan’s body lying on the concrete slab. On little more evidence than this, he was formally arrested a day later and put in Atlanta’s city jail.

The murder notes, though, remained something of a puzzle until the factory’s twenty-nine-year-old black sweeper, James Conley, was also arrested when seen at the factory’s water cooler trying to wash out red stains from a work shirt. Having been frequently jailed before for drunk and disorderly conduct, once for attempted armed robbery, with two terms on Georgia chain gangs, Conley now offered up a succession of contradictory avowals—including, initially, that he couldn’t read or write. But under the sort of strenuous interrogation Southern lawmen could apply to a black subject, he finally professed that Frank, after killing the girl on the factory’s second floor in a ravishment attempt gone awry, had enlisted his aid in transporting her body in the elevator down to the basement, and then dictated to him the murder notes, with the rather improbable remark to him, Conley claimed, “Why should I hang, I have wealthy people in Brooklyn.”

Meanwhile, public fevers had already begun gathering. On the afternoon of Frank’s visit to the funeral home, some ten thousand local folk had also collected there to shuffle past an open casket holding Mary Phagan’s body, and Frank’s subsequent arrest was announced by a local paper, above a photo of him, “POLICE HAVE THE STRANGLER,” in what had become a free-for-all among the city’s three newspapers of clangoring headlines like “NEIGHBORS OF SLAIN GIRL CRY FOR VENGEANCE.” This rising clamor stirred no little unease among those in Atlanta’s Jewish community sensitive to the precariousness of their position in a society into which they had assiduously strived to absorb themselves. After a somewhat raffishly opportunistic local attorney was found to have offered money for stolen police documents that might compromise the case against Frank, he simply counter-blustered that the police had “sold out to the Jews for big money” to humiliate him in order “to protect this damned Jew.” Thus, only a month after Frank’s arrest, what Atlanta’s Jews feared most—an outbreak of anti-Semitic antipathies lurking in the populace—was loosed into the air.

The trial proceeded in the late summer, with electric fans whirring over the crammed and sweltering courtroom—which, at procedural points scored by the prosecution, would detonate into cheers and applause, with word of the stroke just delivered whooped through the open windows to the crowd mobbed in the street outside. This second audience greeted the prosecutor’s arrivals and exits from the courtroom with roaring ovations, which, along with the eruptions inside, hardly escaped the contemplation of the jury.

For the prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey—who had lost a mortifying series of previous trials—the fundamental difficulty was that the brief against Frank was never to consist of any physical evidence directly connecting him to the slaying. Dorsey was thus obliged to construct a complex of circumstantial indicators—blood on the floor where Mary Phagan worked, the digestive time of the cabbage in her stomach, an alleged fifty-minute gap in Frank’s account of his whereabouts that midday—which, in combination, might be enough to convict.

But mainly shaping his case was the proposition that Frank had fancied Mary Phagan, would “try to flirt with her” and “often winked at her,” and had in fact been a covert rampant libertine who “rubbed up against” other girls at the factory and had engaged in dalliances in the woods of an Atlanta suburb. Conley himself maintained that he had often stood watch in the factory lobby as Frank conducted trysts upstairs with assorted easy women. To explain what would have seemed the garish disparity between this satyr-like behavior and Frank’s supremely staid comportment, the prosecution proposed a “Jekyll and Hyde” notion of his character: “This defendant,…when the shades of night come, throws aside his mask of respectability and is transformed….”

Frank indeed maintained throughout the trial a particularly taut, impassive, almost detached composure that did little to invite sympathy. This seeming abstraction from the awfulness of the crime of which he was accused was owing, Frank indicated in a letter to a friend, to a lasting daze at the “outrageous trouble” that “overtook me like a bolt from the blue. The charge was so preposterous…so foreign and far removed from my most fantastic conception.”

Frank’s defense would contend that it was Conley, meaning to rob Mary Phagan of her pay envelope, who had wound up killing her and disposing of her body down a chute, which was one of two other accesses to the basement, and then had written the murder notes alone. But the trial unfolded mostly as a phantasmagoria of mutually refuting perceptions of guilt and innocence, multiple retractions of testimony and then retractions of those retractions, counteraccusations of bribery and intimidations of witnesses. In all this, one detail only glancingly mentioned—though emblematic in its own way of the whole rank and squalid affair—was a deposit of human feces found at the bottom of the elevator shaft on the police detectives’ first visit, which during their subsequent visit with Frank was flattened by the elevator they took to the basement, emitting an unmistakable reek. Conley had readily acknowledged defecating at the bottom of the elevator shaft the morning of the murder. But if, as he had also sworn, he and Frank had later brought Mary Phagan’s body down in the elevator, “it would have smashed the excrement then,” as a Frank lawyer would eventually point out. But this seemingly definitive inconsistency in Conley’s testimony, almost certainly meaning he had not delivered the body to the basement by using the elevator, was somehow never really addressed during the trial itself.

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