• This article is presented in two parts; this being Part I. Click here to go to Part 2.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

America, 100 years ago, was on fire, a fire of industrialization and urbanization, and a fire which smoked pride, prejudice and hate.

Leonard Max Frank was born in Paris, Texas in 1884, but had been raised in Brooklyn. He received a degree from Cornell University as a mechanical engineer in 1906 and briefly worked in Boston, Massachusetts.

He moved to Atlanta, Georgia to manage the National Pencil Factory owned by an uncle, and in which Leo invested his own personal money. By 1910, he seemed well-settled, marrying a local girl, Lucille Selig, and was president of the Atlanta chapter of B'nai B'rith.

The quiet still of Leo Frank's life and that of burgeoning Georgia was forever smashed when the sawdust-covered body of a child laborer, 13-year old Mary Phagan (photo below) was found by a night watchman at 3 AM on Sunday, April 27, 1913, with a cord around her neck, apparently strangled. Near her body were two little paper notes, ostensibly written by the victim, and on factory stationery, in which she refers to a "negro hire" as having assaulted her.

Leo Frank, circa 1915These were the keystone cop days of police work and bumble this murder, the local police certainly did, so much so that private detectives were later called in to undo the damage but to no avail. There never was any conclusive evidence to establish the guilt of any particular murder even though such evidence existed at the scene or elsewhere at the time of the murder.

In any event, the murder made front-page news and riled up the citizens of the American South. The local newspapers covered the story daily: the Atlanta Constitution, the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Georgian.

Mary had entered the factory at noon on the day before her body was discovered to pick up her wages. Leo Frank later vaguely recalled being aware of her presence in the executive office but not of actually seeing her.

One of the first arrests was that of Jim Conley, an eccentric black man who was a janitor at the factory. The arrest occurred because of information the local police had received that Conley had been seen washing blood off his shirt. Under interrogation, Conley implicated Leo Frank directly by saying he paid Conley to write the notes found near Phagan's body. But Conley kept adding to his story, and by his third affidavit, he affirmed that he had helped Frank hide the body in the factory basement.

At the same time, some witnesses came forward at a coroner's inquest to suggest that Leo Frank had sexually harassed some of his female employees, which was later adamantly denied by Frank and stated to be preposterous by his wife.

But then a rooming house owner came forward saying that on the day of the murder, Leo Frank had tried to book a room for himself and "a young girl". She was followed by a policeman who claimed that a year earlier he had found Leo Frank in the woods with a young girl. The policeman later recanted but the dye was cast.

There was another element to this story: Frank was Jewish and anti-Semitism was rampant in the American South. Atlanta had no allegiance to this seemingly rich, remote Brooklyn Jew, a man who used child laborers, as the suggestions of sexual perversion found a receptive audience.

The world itself was coming to grips with anti-Semitism. France, some 15 years earlier, had wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfuss, a Jewish member of their armed forces, of spying. In 1911, the world followed, spell-bound, the trial and eventual acquittal of Mendel Beiliss, a Jewish employee of a Russian factory accused of murdering a young boy as part of a religious ritual. Beiliss was acquitted when his jury was split 6-6 in late 1913, after spending two years in prison.

Mary Phagan, earlier in the year of her deathMeanwhile, every local Atlanta newspaper tried to undo the other in the Phagan story, some hiring detective firms such as Pinkerton. The Atlanta Constitution used the murder to suggest that a lesson could be drawn from it for all young girls. The headline:

Every Woman And Girl Should See Body Of Victim And Learn Perils

To this mad mix was added the local district attorney, Hugh M. Dorsey. Dorsey had lost his last two murder trials and his prospects of re-election did not look good … until the case of Leo Frank landed on his desk. He convened a grand jury and secured a murder indictment against Leo Frank on May 24, just as the Conley statements were being revealed in the local press. Atlantans woke up to this headline in the now defunct Atlanta Constitution:

Conley Says He Helped Carry Body Of Mary Phagan To Pencil Factory Cellar

Another noted the rest of Leo Frank under this headline above his picture:

Police Have The Strangler

1913 Leo Frank trialLeo Frank hired two well-known Atlanta lawyers but they would let him down. The four-week trial began on July 28, 1913, mostly highlighted by the evidence of Conley. The jury of 12 was presided over by Justice Leonard S. Roan (1849-1915). The public galleries were crammed full and crowds gathered outside the courthouse. Occasionally, the chant of "Hang the Jew" could be heard through the open windows.

It was not Atlanta's best moment.

To legal observers, the critical error of the defense team was to cross-examine Conley for 16 hours over three days during which time, Conley managed to appear more rather than less credible. At the end of the cross examination, they made a shallow request to the trial judge to strike from the record some of Conley's evidence. But it was too late and the application was denied. This backfired in the minds of the jury and added further credence to Conley's evidence.

When the judge announced the dismissal of the defense's application, an ominous event occurred: the public gallery burst into applause.

The state's case was that Leo Frank had a Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde personality and that he had killed Mary Phagan. But there was more. In his closing submissions, Dorsey referred to several Jewish criminals such as the San Francisco lawyer Abe Ruef recently sentenced to 14-year for bribery, concluding that Jewish people:

"… rise to heights sublime, but they also sink to the lowest depths of degradation."

• This article is continued - click here to go to Part II.