The Stains on the Metal Room Floor
From the beginning Newt Lee seemed an unlikely suspect: why would the killer call police to report a murder? After a forensic investigation of Mary Phagan’s stomach contents, Dr. Henry Harris concluded that Phagan had died between 30 and 45 minutes after eating her lunch of cabbage and bread at 11:30 am. Since Newt Lee did not report to work until 4:00pm that day — and was told by Frank to come back and return at 6:00pm — this placed him away from the building at that time.
Jim Conley, the National Pencil Company’s janitor, appeared a more likely candidate. Conley had multiple arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct: coworkers found him quick to ask for loans and slow to repay them. Conley also gave multiple sworn affidavits, each of which provided a different account of where he was on the day of Phagan’s murder. After being shown handwriting analysis which suggested he had written the Phagan notes, Conley gave his fourth and final statement. He said had written the notes, and moved Phagan’s body into the basement, on Leo Frank’s orders.
As Conley — and, later the prosecution) told it, the janitor had acted as lookout on many Saturdays while Frank entertained women. He sat downstairs and saw various people coming up on company business. After “Miss Mary Perkins, that’s what I call her, this lady that is dead” arrived Conley heard them head toward the metal room where Mary worked. A short while later he ” heard the lady scream, then I didn’t hear no more.” Dozing off for a moment, Conley was awakened by Frank: when he came upstairs
Mr. Frank was standing up at the top of the steps and shivering and trembling and rubbing his hands like this. He had a little rope in his hands and a long wide piece of cord. His eyes were large and they looked right funny…
he says “[Mary Phagan], she come into my office awhile ago and wanted to know something about her work in my office and I went back there to see if the little girl’s work had come, and I wanted to be with the little girl, and she refused me, and I struck her and I guess I struck her too hard and she fell and hit her head against something and I don’t know how bad she got hurt… He asked me if I wouldn’t go back there and bring her up so he could put her somewhere, and he said to hurry that there would be money in it for me. When I came back there, I found the lady lying back flat on her back with a rope around her neck. The cloth was also tied around her neck and part of it was under her head like to catch blood… She was dead when I went back there.
Conley said they moved Phagan’s body to the cellar, then came back upstairs. Frank gave him $2.50 and promised more money when they came back to work on Monday. He wanted Conley to return to the cellar and “take a lot of trash and burn that package that’s in front of the furnace” but Conley refused to go alone, saying “Mr. Frank, you are a white man and you done it, and I am not going down there and burn that myself.” Frank grudgingly agreed, informed him “You keep your mouth shut, that is all right,” then looked at him and said “Why should I hang, I have wealthy people in Brooklyn?”
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The Monday after Phagan’s body was discovered, machinist R.P. Barrett reported a strange new spot near a machine in the metal room. It was approximately five inches in diameter with smaller spots surrounding it. Someone had covered it with Haskoline, a soapy white lubricant used throughout the factory, but it had soaked through and turned the Haskoline pink. Barrett also reported finding several hairs on a lathe handle, which several co-workers identified as being of the same length and color as Phagan’s hair. (Henry F. Harris compared the hairs found on the lathe with a lock taken from Mary Phagan’s body and stated that he did not believe they were the same, though he could not be certain).
The identity and origin of the stains and hair would remain hotly contested throughout and after Frank’s legal proceedings. Today modern forensic science could easily determine if the evidence was indeed Mary Phagan’s blood and hair. In 1913 these questions were not so easily resolved. Frank’s defense claimed the spots might be paint, and pointed out that in only one spot could a pathologist find “a few corpuscles” that might have come from an injury or from menstrual blood. Frank’s prosecutors could argue these stains were consistent with Conley’s testimony that he had dropped Phagan’s body and needed Frank’s help carrying her to the elevator. Today those stains raise questions which we can neither answer nor ignore.
The stains were fresh enough to color the Haskoline thrown over them. If they were paint, who was carrying paint through the metal room when the factory was closed? If they were blood planted to entrap Frank, who planted that blood then subsequently tried to hide it? If they were Mary Phagan’s blood, who injured Phagan besides Frank, the only other person on the floor? If it were someone else, how did Frank not hear the struggle or see the guilty party carrying her from the room? And if we have difficulty finding innocent explanations in 2018, can we be surprised a 1913 jury found these stains compelling evidence pointing to Frank’s guilt?
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From his jail cell, Frank expressed astonishment that anyone would suspect him. “No white man killed Mary Phagan. It’s a negro’s crime, through and through. No man with common sense would even suspect that I did it.” In the North a Jew was a Jew. In the South a Jew was a White man: an assimilated, educated Jew like Frank differed from his Gentile peers only in spending his Sundays at Rabbi David Marx’s Reform Temple rather than a Christian house of worship. Frank had, and expected, all the privileges a prosperous White man in 1913 Atlanta could expect. As both sides prepared for trial, it was clear that he intended to use those traditional privileges, and traditional prejudices, to his advantage.