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Photo of the murder victim, Mary Phagan, taken sometime before 1913. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University via Digital Library of Georgia.

Crime and Arrest

Confederate Memorial Day fell on Saturday, April 26, 1913. The National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia, was closed, but superintendent Leo Frank was in the office working on a financial report and handing out wages. Thirteen-year-old employee Mary Phagan collected her pay around noon; she did not return home.

In the early hours of April 27, African American night watchman Newt Lee discovered Phagan’s body in the factory basement and immediately called the police. Phagan had been strangled and dragged across the floor. Two crudely written notes implicating “a negro” were found nearby. Initial suspicion fell on Lee. When Leo Frank was contacted about the murder, the police noted he was very nervous. But when he was brought in for questioning, Frank denied knowledge of the crime.

The National Pencil Company’s sweeper, an African American man named Jim Conley, was discovered washing a bloody shirt and was also questioned by police. He denied any involvement, claiming he could not read or write. But after intense interrogation, Conley’s story changed. He admitted writing the notes, but claimed that he did so upon orders from Leo Frank. Despite the inconsistencies in Conley’s story (which changed four times), the police and solicitor general Hugh M. Dorsey believed him. Leo Frank was arrested and indicted for the murder of Mary Phagan. Jim Conley was the primary witness.