Why Should I Hang? Leo Frank and the Murder of Mary Phagan (pt. 5)

Featured image, clockwise from top left:
Luther Rosser, Reuben Arnold, Leo Frank, Rhea Frank, Lucile Frank
image from Atlanta Constitution, July 30, 1913


Whatever else may be said about Leo Frank’s trial, it is difficult to deny that Frank had a spirited, aggressive and (for the most part) thorough defense team.  Luther Rosser and Reuben Arnold hammered at every aspect of the state’s physical evidence. They brought in medical experts who examined Mary Phagan’s stomach contents and came to different conclusions than Dr. Harris regarding the possible times of Phagan’s death.  They summoned witnesses who stated that bloodstains were frequently found on the metal room floor.  They hired a civil engineer to determine how long it would take to walk from the trolley stop to National Pencil Company by the different available routes.  They pointed out Mary Phagan might have been killed on the first floor and thrown down the elevator chute without Frank ever knowing a thing.  They did everything in their power to instill reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds.

They felt, not unreasonably, that their best hope lay in convincing the jury Frank was not the sort of man to rape and murder a 14 year-old girl.  To that end they brought in nearly two hundred witnesses, all White and most from Atlanta.  Factory girls who had worked at National Pencil for years testified they had never been approached by Frank nor heard talk of him making advances toward the young ladies working there.  And Daisy Hopkins, whom both Dalton and Conley had testified visited Frank’s office for immoral purposes, indignantly noted:

daisy hopkinsI am a married woman. I worked in the factory from October 11 to June 1st, 1912. I worked in the packing department on the second floor. Mr. Frank never spoke to me when he would pass. I never did speak to him. I’ve never been in his office drinking beer, Coca-Cola, or anything else. I know Dalton when I see him. I never visited the factory with him, I never have been with him until I went to his to see Mrs. Taylor, who lived with him then. That was the only place I have ever seen him. I have never been to the factory on Saturday or any other day.. I never introduced him to Mr. Frank. There isn’t a word of truth in that. I have never gone down in the basement with this fellow, Dalton. I don’t even know where the basement is at all. I have never been anywhere in the factory, except at my work.

(The impact of this was somewhat mitigated upon cross-examination, when Dorsey was able to get a grudging admission from Hopkins that she had been arrested but not tried for “fornication”).

The defense called trolleymen Hugh Matthews and W.T. Hollis: both testified that Mary Phagan had ridden to National Pencil Company alone, thereby calling into question George Epps’ claim that he rode in alongside her.  More importantly, they both testified that Phagan did not get off the car until 12:10pm. Monteen Stover had testified she came to the office at 12:05 and waited there until 12:10 but Frank was nowhere to be found. If Mary Phagan did not arrive until after she left, this would refute Conley’s claim that Stover came and left before Mary Phagan’s arrival.

To blunt ill feeling about Frank’s wealth, his mother Rhea testified that Leo’s father was a traveling salesman who was unable to work or even to attend his son’s trial.  The elder Franks lived on the interest from a $20,000 nest egg and their $6,000 Brooklyn home was encumbered with a $3,000 mortgage.  It is debatable whether this disproved the common feeling that Frank was trying to buy his freedom: to factory workers earning $10 a week or less, $20,000 (a bit over $500,000 in today’s dollars) was a great deal of money.  Perhaps more impressive to bystanders was her outburst upon Dorsey asking a witness if he had ever heard of Frank “taking a little girl to Druid Park, setting her on his lap and playing with her?”  Outraged, Rhea Frank leapt to her feet and screamed at Dorsey “No, and you either, you dog!”

leo-frank-on-the-witness-standIndeed, Frank might have fared better had he been prone to emotional outbursts.  Throughout the trial he sat impassively with his arms and legs crossed.  When it came time to deliver his final statement Frank stultified the jury with a four-hour speech in which he went into the intricacies of preparing a balance sheet and how it occupied his entire time on the Saturday of Mary Phagan’s death.  He intended to show how he had no time to kill Mary Phagan and move her body by describing exactly what he did at that time.  Many witnesses, and presumably the jury, saw his performance as off-putting and wooden. Today we might look at a bookish, introverted young engineer with a love of detail and a curiously flat emotional affect and think he had Asperger Syndrome.  A jury of 12 red-blooded Southern men watching that man testify at his 1913 trial would more likely see a cold-blooded killer.

But most troubling was a brief comment made in passing wherein he noted:

Now, gentlemen, to the best of my recollection from the time the whistle blew for twelve o’clock until after a quarter to one when I went up stairs and spoke to Arthur White and Harry Denham, to the best of my recollection, I did not stir out of the inner office; but it is possible that in order to answer a call of nature or to urinate I may have gone to the toilet. Those are things that a man does unconsciously and cannot tell how many times nor when he does it. Now, sitting in my office at my desk, it is impossible for me to see out into the outer hall when the safe door is open, as it was that morning, and not only is it impossible for me to see out, but it is impossible for people to see in and see me there.

This would place Frank in the bathroom where Phagan was murdered during the time the prosecution claimed Mary Phagan was murdered.  Though Frank had chosen to give his statement, he refused cross-examination as was a defendant’s right under Georgia law.  But because the defense had brought over one hundred witnesses to testify to Frank’s good character, the prosecution exercised their right to counter with witnesses who testified to Frank’s lascivious nature at the factory.  Twenty former employees so testified: Judge Roan refused to allow the testimony of three who were currently residing in homes for unwed mothers. With that the defense phase of the trial was concluded and both sides prepared for their final appeals to the court.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 6, Part 7, Part 8Part 9

8 thoughts on “Why Should I Hang? Leo Frank and the Murder of Mary Phagan (pt. 5)

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