Why Should I Hang? Leo Frank and the Murder of Mary Phagan (pt. 6)

4e7f23374aa8c69314f99ca1a53a0c1c-august-leoIn the defense’s opening gambit, Reuben Arnold stated that Leo Frank was the victim of prejudice.  “I’ll tell you right now,” Arnold asserted, “if Frank hadn’t been a Jew there would never have been any prosecution against him. I’m asking my own people to turn him loose, asking them to do justice to a Jew, and I’m not a Jew, but I would rather die before doing injustice to a Jew. ”  He then went on to note that the Phagan murder was not the sort of crime  a respectable White man would commit.  In their zeal to persecute Frank the police and prosecutors had missed the obvious killer:

This crime is the hideous act of a negro who would ravish a ten-year-old girl the same as he would ravish a woman of years. It isn’t a white man’s crime. It’s the crime of a beast—a low, savage beast!…

Gentlemen, right here a little girl was murdered, and it’s a terrible crime. The Phagan tragedy, the crime that stirred Atlanta as none other ever did. We have already got in court the man who wrote those notes, and the man who by his own confession was there; the man who robbed her, and, gentlemen, why go further in seeking the murderer than the black brute who sat there by the elevator shaft?…

Well, the little girl entered, and she got her pay and asked about the metal and then she left, but, there was a black spider waiting down there near the elevator shaft, a great passionate, lustful animal, full of mean whiskey and wanting money with which to buy more whiskey. He was as full of vile lust as he was of the passion for more whiskey, and the negro (and there are a thousand of them in Atlanta who would assault a white woman if they had the chance and knew they wouldn’t get caught) robbed her and struck her and threw her body down the shaft, and later he carried it back, and maybe, if she was alive, when he came back, he committed a worse crime, and then he put the cord around her neck and left the body there.


Three weeks of hard interrogation in an overheated courtroom had taken its toll on Luther Rosser. His usually booming voice was reduced to a rasp as he apologized to the court, saying “My condition is such that I can say but little ; my voice is husky and my throat almost gone. But for my interest in this case and my profound conviction of the innocence of this man, I would not undertake to speak at all.”  He then went on an old Testament-style denunciation of the prosecution’s  witnesses.   Of C.W. Dalton, the ex-convict who swore he procured women for Frank, Rosser declared

Dalton disgraced the name of his race, and he was a thief and worse, if there can be, and yet he joined the church. He joined the church and he’s now a decent, believable man. Well, you remember how brazenly he sat here on the stand and bragged of his “peach,” how indecently he bragged of his fall; how he gloated over his vice. He was asked if he ever went to that miserable, dirty factory basement with a woman for immoral purposes, and he was proud to say that he had. Gentlemen, it was the first time Dalton had ever been in the limelight; it was the first time decent, respectable white men and women had ever listened to him with respect, let alone attention.

Then Rosser came to Jim Conley:

Who is Conley? Who was Conley as he used to be and as you have seen him? He was a dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying nigger. Black knows that. Starnes knows that. Chief Beavers knows it. Who was it that made this dirty nigger come up here looking so slick? Why didn’t they let you see him as he was? They shaved him, washed him and dressed him up…

And so they went on and got first one affidavit and then another out of him. Well, Scott and Black had him there, and Conley was only in high school. I don’t know whether to call Scott and Black “professors” or not. Scott says, “We told him what would fit and what would not.” And it was “stand up, James Conley and recite, when did you fix those notes, James?” and James would answer that he fixed them on Friday, and then the teachers would tell James it was surely wrong, that he must have fixed them on Saturday, and James would know what was wanted and would acknowledge his error. Then it would be, “That’s a good lesson, James, you are excused, James.” I’m not guessing in this thing. Scott told it on the stand, only in not so plain words. So it was that when this negro had told the whole truth they had another recitation.

Was it fair for two skilled white men to train that negro by the hour and by the day and to teach him and then get a statement from him and call it the truth? Well, Professors Black and Scott finished with him, and they thought Conley’s education was through, but that nigger had to have a university course!

While Arnold and Rosser did their best for the defense, Solicitor Hugh T. Dorsey scored a home run for the prosecution.  The Atlanta Constitution called Hugh Dorsey’s closing statement  “the most remarkable speech which has ever been delivered in the Fulton County courthouse — a speech which will go down in history stamping Hugh Dorsey as one of the greatest prosecuting attorneys of this age.” Over three sultry days Dorsey spoke in the sweltering courthouse. In his opening he addressed the charge of anti-Semitism.

I say that the race [Leo Frank] comes from is as good as ours; his forefathers were civilized and living in cities and following laws when ours were roaming at large in the forest and eating human flesh. I say his race is just as good as ours, but no better. I honor the race that produced Disraeli, the greatest of British statesmen; that produced Judah P. Benjamin, as great a lawyer as England or America ever saw; I honor the Strauss brothers; I roomed with one of his race at college; one of my partners is is of his race… [T]his great race is as amenable to the same laws as any others of the white race or as the black race is. They rise to heights sublime, but they also sink to the lowest depths of degradation!

For nearly three days the court heard Dorsey argue eloquently and vehemently for Frank’s conviction.  In response to the defense witnesses who swore to Frank’s good character he noted:

But suppose that [Frank] had a good character; that would amount to nothing. David of old was a great character until he put old Uriah in the forefront of battle in order that he might be killed,–that Uriah might be killed, and David take his wife. Judas Iscariot was a good character, and one of the Twelve, until he took the thirty pieces of silver and betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ… Oscar Wilde, an Irish Knight, a literary man, brilliant, the author of works that will go down the ages,–Lady Windemheere’s Fan, De Profundis,–which he wrote while confined in jail … the effrontery, the boldness, the coolness of this man, Oscar Wilde, as he stood the cross examination of the ablest lawyers of England,–an effrontery that is characteristic of the man of his type,–that examination will remain the subject matter of study for lawyers and for people who are interested in the type of pervert like this man.

Then, on August 25, 1913 Dorsey concluded his statement.

Gentlemen, every act of that defendant proclaims him guilty. Gentlemen, every word of that defendant proclaims him responsible for the death of this little factory girl. Gentlemen, every circumstances in this case proves him guilty of this crime. Extraordinary? Yes, but nevertheless true, just as true as Mary Phagan is dead…

Your Honor, I have done my duty. I have no apology to make. Your Honor, so far as the State is concerned, may now charge this jury,—this jury who have sworn that they were impartial and unbiased, this jury who, in this presence, have taken the oath that they would well and truly try the issue formed on this bill of indictment between the State of Georgia and Leo M. Frank, charged with the murder of Mary Phagan; and I predict, may it please Your Honor, that under the law that you give in charge and under the honest opinion of the jury of the evidence produced, there can be but one verdict, and that is: We the jury find the defendant, Leo M. Frank, guilty! guilty! guilty!

As he reached his final line the bells of a nearby Catholic church chimed noon.  Twelve times, in sync with each sonorous ring, Dorsey repeated his final word.  “Guilty.”  Leo Frank heard those chimes from the Fulton County Tower cell which had been his home since April 29.   Fearing mob violence should Frank be acquitted, Judge Roan had requested, and Rosser and Arnold had agreed, that Frank not be present during deliberations.   With the last bell, and the last “Guilty!” the jury retired to consider Frank’s fate.  As Dorsey left the courthouse the crowds outside greeted him with a roaring cheer and hoist him aloft on their shoulders.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 7, Part 8Part 9

8 thoughts on “Why Should I Hang? Leo Frank and the Murder of Mary Phagan (pt. 6)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s