The British judicial tradition from whence Georgia law derives hearkens back to the Germanic Holmgang, trial by combat. Champions for each side present their case. Rules determine what modes of combat are permitted and which forbidden, just as a knight battling for his client’s honor would be expected to avoid chicanery like poisoned blades. Much as our Ancestors believed the Gods would favor the righteous, we believe a properly-run court trial will expose the guilty and exonerate the innocent. And much like our Ancestors, we realize that well-armed injustice will not infrequently triumph.
Jim Conley’s testimony was by far the best weapon in Prosecutor Hugh M. Dorsey’s arsenal. As weapons go, it was not the sharpest he might hope for. Conley had changed his story several times before settling on his final affidavit; he admitted to moving Phagan’s body and to writing the notes found beside it; he had a criminal record and a generally poor reputation. These would be serious problems for any witness. For a Negro testifying against a prosperous, respectable White man in 1913 Atlanta, they would seem well-nigh insurmountable.
To prepare their witness for trial, Dorsey and his team spent weeks coaching Conley on how to respond to the defense team’s inevitable attacks. This would lead to an accusation often heard then and today: that the prosecution coached Conley to convict Frank. This charge gains weight when considering the story of Minola McKnight, the Frank family’s Negro cook. After a night in jail and hours of grueling interrogation McKnight signed an affidavit claiming she had heard Mrs. Frank saying that Leo had been drinking Saturday night; that Leo told her he was in trouble and that he didn’t know the reason why he would murder; and that he asked her to get his pistol so he could kill himself. Yet almost immediately after release McKnight repudiated her statement and claimed she had been coerced into signing a paper she did not even read.
Even today there is a fine line between interrogating witnesses and coaching them into giving false testimony. Even today police officers browbeat (or just beat) confessions out of innocent people. It is not surprising to see police in 1913 Atlanta becoming overly enthusiastic in their pursuit of evidence. It is not surprising to see prosecutors preparing their star witness for trial in ways that might raise eyebrows today. What is surprising is the way the State honed in so quickly and so intently on Leo Frank.
Dorsey was coming off several humiliating courtroom defeats: losing the Phagan case would likely spell the end of his career. He also had a tense relationship with the Atlanta Police: immediately after the Frank arrest the Prosecutor’s Office involved itself in the case to a degree that rankled detectives and top brass: things were already crowded enough with National Pencil’s Pinkerton Detectives snooping around. Dorsey’s attempts to control the investigation smacked of condescension and a lack of trust. But despite personality clashes police and prosecutors agreed Leo Frank, not Jim Conley, was the most likely killer.
It would have been easy enough to charge Newt Lee with the crime and close the case once the bloody shirt was found. It would have been even easier to hang Jim Conley once he admitted writing the notes. Black men had been hanged officially and unofficially on far shakier evidence: in 1913 few White Georgians would have trouble believing a Negro was overcome with bestial urges in the presence of a pretty White girl. Yet Dorsey was willing to stake his case — and his career — on the word of a poor Black man he could easily convict. From this vantage point in history we cannot assess whether Dorsey’s belief in Frank’s guilt was accurate but we can safely say it was heartfelt. And, as the investigation and trial progressed, Dorsey would find his quest for justice played out before a national audience.
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In February 1912 the Atlanta Georgian was purchased by the Hearst Newspaper Corporation. The Georgian immediately began producing the yellow journalism which had made Hearst’s other papers so successful. When Phagan’s body was found Georgian editor Foster Coates (who wrote the notorious REMEMBER THE MAINE! headline which helped spark the Spanish-American War) milked the murder for all the lurid publicity he could squeeze out of it. Soon after the murder a Georgian headline proclaimed LEE’S GUILT PROVED!: police were forced to disperse a lynch mob seeking to drag the innocent Newt Lee out of jail. Then, upon Frank’s April 29 arrest the Georgian‘s front page declared POLICE HAVE THE STRANGLER. The Georgian found many of Atlanta’s prominent Jews calling the front desk to protest: even more troubling were the Jewish store owners registering their displeasure with the advertising department.
The Georgian would go on to run many articles sympathetic to Frank and critical of the prosecution. But any passions those editorials might have quelled were soon stirred again by their endless sensational coverage of the proceedings. (Writing in 1926 Herbert Asbury, who had worked for the paper at the time, asserted “Had Hearst not owned the Georgian the story probably would have died a natural death.”) When Hearst bought the Georgian it had a 38,000 circulation: during the Frank trial its circulation increased to over 100,000. And since there were only so many newspaper buyers in Atlanta, the Journal and Constitution joined the fray with their own bosom-heaving coverage.
Minola McKnight’s affidavit made all the Atlanta papers: her subsequent retraction went unmentioned. The papers also published multiple statements from National Pencil Company workers claiming Frank had a history of propositioning young women working at the plant. George Epps, a friend of Mary Phagan, claimed Phagan had told him that Frank regularly flirted with her and that she wanted him to come down to the factory when she got off to “escort her and kinder protect her.” Many column inches were dedicated to Conley’s claims that Frank was given to “sodomy” and “unnatural vice.” (Taken at face value Conley’s testimony suggests Frank was fond of cunnilingus: while widely accepted today, this sort of unnatural congress was a criminal offense in 1913 Georgia). All this ensured that by the time Frank’s trial began on July 28, 1913 everybody in Atlanta knew who Leo Frank was — and most believed him guilty before jury selection started.