By Christopher C. King | February 4, 2016
OXFORD AMERICAN ISSUE 91, WINTER 2015
On Tuesday, August 17, 1915, the black soil of Frey’s Grove in Marietta, Georgia, became blacker after greedily lapping up the blood that slowly trickled down the leg of the recently lynched Leo Frank. A Jewish businessman, educated in Brooklyn, Frank had been found guilty two years before of murdering Little Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old girl who worked at his National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta. After what could be regarded as the first trial of the twentieth century that was wholly propelled by the conjoined twin juggernauts of political populism and media sensationalism, Frank had been sentenced to death by hanging, but this punishment had been reduced, upon an appeal, to life behind bars. Shortly after this commutation by Governor John M. Slaton, Frank was rushed secretly to the Milledgeville prison, flanked by a sheriff and two deputies. Even before the decision was made to spare Frank, a violent impulse of indignation and retribution had risen from the white, mainly Protestant population in and around Atlanta. Governor Slaton tasked a special police detail with both protecting Frank and detecting plots to exterminate him before he could be transferred. But several weeks after his transfer to the countryside jail and almost two weeks before the rope was slipped over Frank’s head, his neck was slit from left to right by a vengeful fellow prisoner, almost severing the trachea. The deeply sutured wound had almost healed when Frank was seized from the prison by an exceptionally well-organized posse of Ku Klux Klansmen—self-named “The Knights of Mary Phagan.”
If a coroner was present among the “brave and loyal men who took into their own hands the execution of a law that had been stripped from them,” as the Atlanta Constitution proudly reported the next day, the autopsy would have likely determined the cause of death as one of strangulation due to a hangman’s noose, not by the profuse blood loss from the reopened knife wound to the neck nor from the repeated kicks to his head with cleated boots. Among the “brave and loyal men” were doctors, former governors and mayors, sheriffs, electricians, preachers, telephone operators: a white-bread “A-Team” of Christian professionals with a tacit mandate to assume the reigns of earthly justice. As Frank’s body swung wildly from a branch in Frey’s Grove—the childhood playground of Little Mary Phagan—the tightly sewn wound in his neck opened into a jagged gape, a yawning crimson bloom that was photographed and reproduced widely. Images of his lynching were sold in sets of picture postcards to the thousands who thronged to the execution scene.
Death from strangulation, death from blood loss, death from cerebral trauma—all of these would have been superficial readings of Frank’s life force being taken away. In truth, he was killed neither by a man nor by the force of men. He died in the raging flames of hatred and the resulting smoke which obscured the impartial vision of justice. A murder, a botched and terribly obfuscated trial, and a tinder box of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and “white rights” in post-Reconstruction Atlanta had resulted in yet another murder, the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, and the first strong resurgence of a then-dormant Ku Klux Klan since the group had disbanded in 1869. In this time, frame-ups, coercion, forced confessions, bribery, and political corruption came into sharp focus for the “grift-ridden” people of Atlanta. And it was all set to music.
Before Georgia-born “Fiddlin’ John” Carson became the first “hillbilly” musician ever to etch his playing onto the 78 rpm disc in the South, which he did in Atlanta in June of 1923 (the Texas fiddlers A. C. “Eck” Robertson & Henry C. Gilliland recorded exactly a year earlier, but in New York City), he was known as a high-profile entertainment fixture in the city and the surrounding environs. In medieval England he would have been regarded as the court jester or the village idiot, depending upon the status of the audience and the mood of the ruler. Carson worked in the cotton and textile mills of Atlanta until a union strike rendered this stout linthead unemployable, and he turned to music as a full-time profession. At the turn of the century he became a bard skilled at extemporizing songs and rasping out melodic lines on his fiddle in an archaic fashion that mimicked the motions of chickens scratching for feed. What he lacked in technical skill he compensated for in roughly hewn yet evocative balladry.
Carson was in the forefront of composers and publishers of contemporary murder ballads—true crime tales rendered awkwardly, sometimes artlessly, but with sweet sentimentality that were then grafted onto a three-chord form. They were not song-catchers. They were death-chasers. Any event that claimed a life (or many lives) and was receptive to a moral lesson (no matter how forced) was fair game and fresh meat. And nothing was fairer or fresher than Little Mary Phagan.
In the records we have describing the twenty-five men who abducted and lynched Frank there is no mention of Fiddlin’ John. However, he must have been in the pocket of one of these respected crackers, as he turned up almost immediately after the press advanced upon Frey’s Grove to witness their “reclaimed justice.” He wrote multiple songs about the case, in fact “turned up with his fiddle at every Frank development within a radius of thirty miles . . . since the day Mary Phagan’s body was discovered,” as the Atlanta Constitution reported in the August 18th, 1915, edition. That same article gives a rare narrative of how music intersects with death:
“Fiddlin’ John” Carson swayed the crowds when they were deprived of the picture of the slain man swinging in the heart of the woodland. “Fiddlin’ John” is a lanky mountaineer, who lacks a number of teeth, which doesn’t seem to impair his vocal aspirations. In his repertoire of folk songs, he has one that is adapted to a quaint, rural hymn, and has for its words a narrative of the murder of Mary Phagan “by Leo Frank, the president of the pencil factory.” “Fiddlin’ John” would fiddle and sing his song in a typical nasal twang, and he could be heard to the center of the square, around which were grouped hundreds of automobiles, buggies and mountain transports of the “schooner” variety, which were wagons covered with canvas over arched framework. The crowd would cheer and applaud him lustily, and, inspired by this show of appreciation, he would repeat his song, over and over again. Presently, when his hearers began to tire of the same tune, he deserted it, and replaced it with such well-known selections as “Little Old Log Cabin By The Lane,” “Annie Laurie,” “That Good Old-Time Religion” and “Mr. Shirley, The Furniture Man.” “Fiddlin’ John,” the troubadour of the mountains, basked in “reflected glory,” and it was not until the courthouse crowds began to tire of his songs and fiddle that he departed, reluctantly.
Despite onerous searches for printed lyrics of the songs that Fiddlin’ John sang and no doubt published, the only remains lie with the 78 rpm recordings made by Carson, his daughter Rosa Lee, Vernon Dalhart, and one of John Carson’s musical compatriots, Earl Johnson. Two songs were composed by John Carson: “Little Mary Phagan” was published in 1925 and “Grave of Little Mary Phagan” was registered in 1917. Based on the reportage of the Atlanta Constitution in 1915, Carson must have been singing the crowds the version of “Little Mary Phagan” that Rosa Lee recorded in 1925. Within the tight confines of three minutes, she compresses the twenty-seven months from Mary’s murder to Frank’s condemnation:
Little Mary Phagan, she went to town one day.
She went to the pencil factory to get her little pay.
She left her home at eleven. She kissed her mother goodbye.
Not one time did the poor child think she was going there to die.
Leo Frank met her with a brutely heart we know.
He smiled and said “Little Mary, now you’ll go home no more.”
He sneaked along behind her till she reached the metal room.
He laughed and said “Little Mary, you’ve met your fatal doom.”
As with any “folk art” rendering, the criticisms are almost always from the outside, rarely from within. A highfalutin Northerner would point out that the rhymes are tortured, that the environs of a pencil factory are difficult to render in a lofty manner, and that the metrical parsing of the verses is all wrong. But from the inside, from the context where the song grew from two pools of blood—Little Mary’s and also Frank’s—the story holds together as does the moral. The ballad conveys the whole narrative but lacks the details. That is where the Devil is.
Nowadays most historians agree that Frank was innocent, that his trial was a pitiful sham, and that the guilty verdict was an expediency designed to preserve the integrity of the political powers in Atlanta. Someone had to be found guilty, and without any irony, the citizens of Georgia demanded an Old Testament exchange of blood for blood. The broad details of the crime allowed for such machinations.
Here are the fixed points in the narrative. Thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan left her home on Saturday morning, April 26, 1913, at 11:50 A.M. to collect her meager paycheck from the pencil factory. It was Confederate Memorial Day—a high holiday in the South. Around fifteen hours later, at 3:20 A.M. on Sunday, April 27, her body was discovered in the factory’s dirt-floor basement. A rope was drawn tightly around her neck and she had a deep gash on the back of the head. Within twenty-four hours, four suspects had been picked up: Newt Lee, the black night watchman who discovered the body; Arthur Mullinax, a streetcar conductor who knew Little Mary; and John Gantt and Gordon Bailey, former and current employees of the National Pencil Company.
At the height of the initial roundup, Leo Frank employed the Pinkerton Agency—a legion of flat-footed and heavy-handed private detectives who counted Dashiell Hammett as one of their own—to assist the city policemen with the murder investigation. This would ultimately prove to be an unwise move for Frank since the district attorney and all the cronies in the mayor’s office would interpret such a hiring as a strategy to protect himself. As the private detectives sought to collect evidence and gather interviews that led suspicion away from Frank, city officials began to worry that they might have an unsolved crime on their hands—an unwanted burden when elections were looming.
Thirty-six hours after the discovery of the body, Leo Frank was arrested and charged on suspicion of murder based almost solely on the fact that he was one of the last people to see Little Mary Phagan alive. There was and is no other evidence that suggests Frank had anything to do with her murder. Like a portentous dream from Aeschylus, one could perceive a rope slowly taking on corporeal form and dangling in a far-off tree.
Two days later, on Thursday, May the 1st, this shadowy noose tightened around Frank’s neck when police also arrested James Conley, a black janitor at the pencil factory. As Frank’s lawyers had been illegally barred from the third-degree interrogations of Conley and were never allowed access to the results of these “interviews,” it is impossible to verify the variety of changing stories that James Conley presented to the police and the district attorney. We do know this: Conley, who would also be tried, would move back and forth between implicating himself and implicating Frank, giving five different versions of the event in affidavits. His Janus-faced story hinged upon the existence of two bizarre notes found with Mary Phagan’s body.
Handwritten with stubs of National Pencil Company graphite, the short statements are almost illegible and unintelligible. The first reads, “That negro hired down here did this. He pushed me down that hole. A long, tall, negro, black, that did the work. Long, lean tall negro. I write to people with me.” The second note reads, “He said he wood love me and lay me down to play. The night witch did it but that long tall black negro boy did his self.” Naturally these were not written by Phagan—a point belabored by various handwriting experts brought into the trial. Conley would assert at various times that Frank transcribed these notes to him to put blame on Newt Lee, the night watchman, or any long, tall, black, lean negro other than himself.
One meaning of the term “wolf ticket” is a false lead or a clue designed to throw off the scent from the bloodhounds, to obfuscate a true pursuit. The notes left with Little Mary’s body are classic wolf tickets, but were eagerly exploited by the prosecution against the defenseless defense team. (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb famously employed a similar wolf ticket with their murder in 1924 of Little Robert “Bobby” Franks. They typed a ransom note after they had murdered Little Bobby in order to hide their true motive—that as Nietzschean Übermenschen, they could kill with impunity from an intellectual impulse.)
Very few minority communities in Atlanta escaped the vindictive and suspicious eye of the police, the mayor’s office, the loony detective agencies, and the sensational newspapers during the indictment, trial, and appeals of Frank. A Jew of German descent and a black man were being tried for a brutal murder. In the atmosphere of Atlanta, anyone deemed “foreign” or nonwhite could be viewed as guilty by association. Jewish businesses were shunned, if not publicly denounced, German restaurants were boycotted, and black neighborhoods were systematically cordoned off and raided. Even the Greeks of Atlanta were targeted. Demetris Vafiada, the city’s Greek leader, complained about the implication that the rope found tied around Mary Phagan’s neck had been fashioned by a Greek because of its unique knot. The small Greek citizenry of Atlanta protested on Whitehall Street the day after this nugget appeared in the Atlanta Journal. This did little to undo the Gordian knot. It was a bad time to not be a Scot-Irish ofay.
Political corruption, grift, and bribery were so rife in Atlanta during the trial as to almost be comical. Accusations and cross-accusations of bribing witnesses, detectives, and officers were cast about daily in all the local papers. Neighbors of the Phagans even attempted to retain their own lawyer to pursue more thoroughly a guilty conviction of Frank since the public fretted openly that the fractures in the district attorney’s office would cancel out the efforts of the prosecution. However, the lawyer in question, Thomas B. Felder, was so inept that he ended up being accused of bribing the bereaved parents of Little Mary, an event that created a journalistic tsunami in the May 25th, 1913, papers.
History places perhaps an unfathomable chasm between the generations that lived within a system of open racism and “fear of the other” and the generations that follow, those who learn about the experiences but never witnessed their darkest depths. I recall in the now-fading Technicolor hues of the 1970s my brother being horsewhipped on the street with a chestnut brown leather belt, buckle gleaming gold in the sun, by our grandfather—a Southerner who would have followed the Mary Phagan murder in the daily paper as a youth himself—for putting his hand in a bag of potato chips that he shared with a young black man. Fear of the black, fear of the Northerner, fear of the “other” was not merely programmed—it was instinctual, primal, and native.
Even Little Mary’s corporeal remains suffered. Her body was exhumed twice for further forensic testing. But perhaps the greatest victim of those two years was earthly justice—common decency. Balance was not sought and equilibrium was not maintained, neither by most of the city officials nor by many of the citizens. The political and judicial powers had their version of the murder—they worried that this rich Northern Jew, whom they saw as a depraved sexual predator, could murder an innocent Southern white Christian girl and get away with it due to his connections with organizations established north of the Mason-Dixon line.
The sad, predictable trope—the dichotomy between the powers of Northern industrialism pitted against the powers of Southern agrarianism—claimed Frank as its victim and served as an underpinning for all future bloodletting. Once these Atlantans determined that they could make James Conley tell their version, Leo Frank was doomed and no other suspect or story would suffice. Though he would be found guilty, sentenced to death, appeal his sentence, and be granted commutation, in the end he had to be consumed by the earth—the people of Atlanta had cried out for blood and they saw Frank as the only suitable sacrifice.
The May 15th, 1913, edition of the Atlanta Constitution contained a discovery, a nascent theory that never took root. Perhaps the prosecution cast it aside since it muddied the waters of the case against Frank. Maybe the mayor or the Pinkerton Agency or any of the dozens of people who had their hands in the pot decided that it was irrelevant. The headline read: VICTIM OF MURDER PREPARED TO DIE. The article focused on a slip of paper found inside of Little Mary Phagan’s metal pocketbook—a small satchel that she carried with her at all times except for that fateful morning. On this tiny note was written “April 20, 1913—My name is Mary Phagan. I live at 146 Lindsey Street, near Bellwood and Ashby Streets.” Solicitor Hugh M. Dorsey believed that folded piece of paper implied that “she had already been threatened with death or had a premonition of an early demise.” He stated for the record:
Looks as though she expected an accident of some kind. By George! She must have. This slip was written only six days before she was killed on Confederate Memorial Day.
Perhaps briefly, solicitor Dorsey entertained the notion of an alternative explanation, a different killer with a different motive. Possibly he even realized that Frank had no motive, no reason to kill Little Mary Phagan or anyone else. A reason: it helps to have one.
Although forensic science was still in its infancy, the two coroners, Dr. Hurt and Dr. Harris, did maintain that Little Mary Phagan had not been sexually violated prior to her death. Therefore, rape was not a motive. Further, the $1.20 pay that Mary collected was no reason for her murder. Everything rested upon James Conley’s coached testimony. It was enough for the jury to convict Frank of the crime that “startled the entire Southland.”
Part of seeing anything is apperceiving that which is not present—everything has a context and flow just as our actions have a meaning, either explicit or tacit. That Frank had no reason to murder Little Mary Phagan mattered little to the court. He was painted as a one-dimensional caricature, a beast of wantonness with “abnormal” desires. Conley testified that Frank made him write those notes and move the body to the basement. For his admission as an accessory to the crime Conley served only a year in jail. Almost seven decades after the trial, Alonzo Mann, at the time of the murder just a fourteen-year-old employee of the pencil factory, gave a sworn statement that he saw Conley drag Little Mary Phagan to the basement. This testimony by Mann, along with the Anti-Defamation League’s constant pressure to characterize Frank’s trial as unfair, led to a posthumous pardon of Frank in 1986.
Frank never confessed, not in court nor in the minutes before he was strung up by the Ku Klux Klan. As I read descriptions of the scene immediately after he was lynched, my mind went back (or perhaps it went forward) to the aftermath of the Charlie Lawson murders. On Christmas Day 1929, outside of Danbury, North Carolina, Lawson killed his wife and six of his seven children (aged seventeen years to four months) before shooting himself. No note was left behind and no one could advance a theory as to why he did it. Just as the crowd rushed under the oak tree in Frey’s Grove to pull at Leo Frank’s tattered clothes, to tear away buttons, shoes, tufts of hair, most of his nose, so too did the “morbidly curious” snatch raisins from a cake baked by Charlie Lawson’s wife, untouched since that Christmas morning. Everyone wanted to have a memento mori, either out of fear or out of vengeance. And, as with Little Mary Phagan, a murder ballad grew from the blood of the slain Lawson family and was performed extensively in North Carolina.
This murder, like so many violent crimes, was labeled “senseless” (later it was revealed that Lawson’s oldest daughter had told her best friend that she was pregnant with her father’s child and that both her mother and father knew the truth—a reason in this case). But after we wrestle with the “senselessness” in which these things occur, something curious emerges from within us, something which could very well be weaved into our way of negotiating with the world. Our mind moves from that which is senseless to that which is sensical. What is bewildering eventually becomes comprehensible, primarily because we uncover the motive or the motives for a killing.
Perhaps these old murder ballads serve a deeper function, to help us traverse the liminal stage between the inexplicable and the understandable—much in the way that the older, more elaborate and lengthy periods of mourning help ease us from the acknowledgement of death to the finality of burial. There is a shared misery, a communal notion of lamentation contained within Carson’s ballad:
The astonished asked the question, the angels they did say.
Why he killed little Mary Phagan upon one holiday.
Come all of you good people, wherever you may be.
Supposing little Mary belonged to you or me?
Who killed Little Mary Phagan? Can any sense be made one hundred years after the murders of both Phagan and Frank? Conley cleaned up the mess so that he wouldn’t get in trouble. But why frame Frank then? Perhaps someone close to Mary, her stepfather or a relative, had carnal knowledge of the young girl and threatened her life. It is the case that J. W. Coleman, her stepfather, first suggested that Newt Lee, the black night watchman, was the murderer. We do not know, for instance, if Coleman was interrogated, if he had anything approaching an alibi, or if he knew Conley prior to the murder. It could have been the perfect frame-up. Perfect sense.
Not far from the prison in Milledgeville where Frank was seized was someone who had a seamless answer for the senselessness of it all. In a world where a burning bush symbolized both a covenant and a power outside of the corporeal sphere, where a man would sacrifice his son to prove his loyalty to his God, and where “Jesus thrown everything off balance,” Flannery O’Connor would likely point to our fall from grace as the underpinning for all this evil.
In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor paints the senselessness vividly as a whole family is offed by The Misfit and his gang during a vacation drive. The Misfit is part me, part you, part everyone. We wrestle with what is understandable, what is inexplicable, what is right and what is unjust and we are no wiser than when we started out. The Misfit says, “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”