The Body in the Basement
In the predawn hours of April 27, 1913 Newt Lee stumbled over Mary Phagan’s body when leaving the Colored toilet in the National Pencil Company’s basement. The frightened night watchmen called the Atlanta police at 3:25am. Upon their arrival detectives found the corpse laying face down before the furnace. At first they thought the victim was Black, then realized her golden-brown hair was matted with blood and her face blackened by the cord tied tightly around her neck. They also found two notes on company stationery:
Mam that negro hire down here did this I went to make water and he push me down that hole a long tall negro black that hoo is wase long sleam tall negro it wright while play with me
He said he would love me, lay down play like the night witch, did it, but that long, tall black negro did boy hisself.
Lee was taken to jail and held for questioning. On April 29 Detective John R. Black and Harry Scott, a Pinkerton agent hired by the company, searched Lee’s home and found a bloody shirt in his laundry barrel. Lee’s timecard revealed several missed “punch-ins” suggesting he had run home to hide the incriminating evidence. It would appear the mystery was solved, until Black and Scott noticed that the work shirt appeared clean save for the bloodstains which were heaviest on the inside of the shirt. Someone had planted this shirt in Lee’s home — someone who wanted very much to see that Lee was found guilty.
Suspicion fell on the last person known to have seen Mary Phagan alive, plant superintendent Leo Frank. Detective Black recalled that when Frank examined Newt Lee’s time card on Sunday he told detectives it was “in order:” the next day he changed his story and gave detectives a time card with missing punches. (An April 30, 1913 article in the Atlanta Constitution notes an unnamed source saying “[T]he watchman clock’s evidence is flimsy and openly crude. The date, April 27, is apparently stamped upon the register sheet with a stamp detached from the timepiece’s mechanism.”)
Frank was arrested. On May 8 a coroner’s jury ordered Newt Lee and Leo Frank held over: on May 23 a grand jury of 21 men (including several Jews) did:
In the name and behalf of the citizens of Georgia, charge and accuse Leo M. Frank, of the [Fulton] County and State [of Georgia] aforesaid, with the offense of Murder, for that the said Leo M. Frank in the County aforesaid on the 26th day of April in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and thirteen, with force and arms did unlawfully and with malice aforethought kill and murder one Mary Phagan by then and there choking her, the said Mary Phagan, with a cord place around her neck contrary to the laws of said State, the good order, peace and dignity thereof.
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Atlanta was never known for its anti-Semitism. When Jews began moving to the city after the War for States’ Rights, they were largely welcomed. One local paper proclaimed in 1875 that “nothing is so indicative of a city’s progress as to see an influx of Jews…because they are thrifty and progressive people who never fail to build up a town they settle in.” Stylish Atlantans shopped at Rich’s (founded by the Hungarian-Jewish Rich brothers). In 1886 Jacobs’ Pharmacy, owned by Jewish pharmacist Joseph Jacobs, was the first establishment to offer a mixture of seltzer and John Slith Pemberton’s French Wine Coca syrup (soon to be known as Coca-Cola). A century before people talked of “Hotlanta,” Jews moved from up North to the prosperous Southern metropolis. Among them was a bookish young man from Brooklyn who came to supervise his uncle’s pencil factory.
Recently elected president of his local B’nai Brith chapter, Leo Frank was well-known and well-liked by his peers. His wife, Lucille Selig Frank, was from a prominent local family: her grandparents helped establish the city’s first synagogue. There were other concerns at play as well. In 1913 Mendel Beilis was awaiting trial in Kiev for the ritual murder of 12 year-old Andrei Iushchinskii and only a decade early 49 Kishinev Jews had died in a pogrom sparked by accusations of child sacrifice. The prosperous well-assimilated Jews of Atlanta knew how quickly blood libel hysteria could rise up: they had practical as well as sentimental reasons for supporting a Jew accused of a Christian child’s murder.
And support Frank they did. Frank was represented by Luther Rosser, one of Georgia’s most renowned and expensive criminal attorneys: later Reuben Arnold, another top-notch trial lawyer, joined the team. (Frank’s $150 a month salary — $3,800 in 2018 dollars — was enough to ensure a comfortable middle-class life in 1913 Atlanta, but hardly enough to pay for that kind of legal artillery). National Pencil, on Frank’s request, also brought in detectives from the Pinkerton Agency to assist with the investigation. (Some more skeptical observers pointed to Pinkerton’s history as strike-breakers and union infiltrators and suggested NPC was more interested in quelling any potential scandal).
But as the Jews were influenced by history, so too were Atlanta’s working-class Whites. Over 40 years after Reconstruction’s end Yankee businessmen were still mistrusted as carpetbaggers looking to exploit a downtrodden populace. These misgivings were not entirely unfounded. While many states required workers to be at least 14 or even 16, Georgia had no child labor laws. On April 26 Mary Phagan was five weeks shy of her fourteenth birthday and had been working at National Pencil Company for over a year. Atlanta’s wealth was generated on the backs of the poor and their laboring children.
Hundreds of mourners attended Mary Phagan’s funeral. Feelings were high: upon Lee’s arrest police were forced to disperse a mob waiting outside the jail to lynch him. As it became increasingly clear that Lee was not the culprit, their anger moved elsewhere. Anti-Black sentiment, long part of Southern life, were replaced by other equally powerful but less infamous tensions between social classes. Long simmering beneath the surface, they boiled over as attention turned away from the National Pencil Company’s night watchman and toward its superintendent.