Posted in Crime, History

Two Spirits in Georgia

The city of Marietta has its own ghosts. It has been haunted by in particular, two souls that cast a long shadow over this state and leave a mark that has never been erased even a century after these two souls were stolen from the world all too soon. To know their story is to remember a dark side of Georgia’s history, one that is rooted in to the very land we now stand on.

In the spring of 1915, The murder of Mary Phagan hit the city of Atlanta and Mary’s hometown of Marietta like a ton of bricks or a plague. Police searched frantically for the culprit while the public’s grief turned to rage. When one final suspect remained, he was attacked from all sides, yet when the alleged killer was set free, this would be the catalyst for such a furious uproar that someone else would loose their life before the night was out and the history of the South would change for the worst. No one at the time could have guessed that the murder of thirteen-year-old girl would cause such a bloody stain over Georgia’s history, nor could anyone have predicted that the city’s search for revenge would shatter many lives and bring about the second coming of America’s most infamous terrorist group: The Ku Klux Klan.

At the turn of the century, Mary Phagan was born to a widowed mother with an already large and struggling family. Yet Mary was her mother’s special girl—a pretty young woman with reddish hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. Her relatives would go on to describe her as a warm and caring person with a “bubbly” personality.

Once she turned eleven though, Mary ceased to be a little girl and had to work like the rest of her siblings. She placed her education on hold to earn money for her tired family, as was normal at the time. The Phagan family had moved to the big city of Atlanta and here, unlike in the countryside where she had been born, it was not uncommon to see married women and children working in factories along with fully grown men. Mary obtained a job at the National Pencil Factory attaching metal on to the end of pencils for a measly paycheck in horrible work conditions where the floor was dirty, the hours were long, the rewards were few, and hazardous machinery made work painful for employees, especially unsuspecting young ones like Mary. Yet, despite the danger, Mary liked working. She liked feeling mature and helpful and, better yet, she liked talking to her fellow employees and made several friends there.

Life in the state capitol of Atlanta must have been exciting for a pubescent girl like Mary. Even though few residents owned cars in the years before the first World War, Atlanta was still a growing city that would have seemed foreign compared to working on a farm in the country. Not everyone had electricity, or gas, but the city was filled with people—people from all over the country, people from different corners of the world, of all ages and beliefs. A few months in the city would have opened Mary’s eyes to the world more than her previous years in the country. Horses were still a popular mode of transportation, but now they carried not only wagons but steam engines—the closest most Atlanta citizens would come to an automobile for the next several years. Here in the city milk was delivered to each family from a milkman and his wagon, instead of taken from the family cow. Over there a man sold ice to the overheated citizens. Vendors sold fruit and vegetables in the streets. A relatively new drink, Coca-Cola, was catching the public’s eye (and taste-buds). Perhaps after receiving her week’s pay, Mary might have taken a few sips of the popular soft drink as a reward for all of her hard work.

The busy city was the place where Mary enjoyed working, but her home life was a different story. Her mother, Frances (“Fannie”) married J.W. Coleman in the early months of 1912. The family moved to Coleman’s home in Marietta, which was a relatively small town at the time. With a stepfather to watch out for her, Mary didn’t have to keep working, but she decided to stick with her job since she enjoyed it (and her friendships with the other workers) so much.

However much she enjoyed work, Mary’s paycheck depended on the factory’s supplies and the limited availability of work to be done for such a low-level job as hers was. In April of the following year Mary faced several days worth of disappointment when no new metal was shipped to the factory, thus forcing her and other employees to be laid off for a few days until the new shipment came in. It was thought that she would pick up her check on Friday evening since the following day was a state holiday, Confederate Memorial Day (this was Atlanta in 1915 of course), but since the family did not own a telephone and did not know she was asked to come in a day early, Mary went to the factory that Saturday afternoon anyways.

The factory was nearly empty when she arrived, save for a few employees that darted in and out of the large, gloomy, and windowless building. Everyone was excited for the parade that would occur down the street: Mary even had plans to join the crowd once she had picked up her pay.

But Mary never saw the parade. She never even left the building. Instead her body was found at 3 am the following morning.

The night watchman, Newt Lee, found the thirteen-year-old’s body in the early hours of Sunday April 27th, 1915. At first he thought it was a pile of rags, or that one of his co-workers was playing a prank on him, but as he stepped closer Lee realized this was not a light-hearted prank. Mary’s body was covered in dust and lead, her hair lay sprawled around her head, her clothing was torn, and her skirt was hiked around her legs, leading to the belief that she was raped. Her little pink tongue stuck out of her mouth, a cord bit into the skin around her neck, and blood poured from a wound in the back of her head.

Lee immediately ran to the closest telephone and rang his boss to tell him what happened and found there was no answer, and then he phoned the police. The police arrived shortly after by horse (there were few cars to be found in Fulton County at the time), viewed the body, and immediately became suspicious of the watchman. Lee, it should be mentioned, was a black man in his fifties in the segregated and racist state of Georgia. It wasn’t long before the police decided to arrest their only suspect: Newt Lee.

Lee was questioned by the police and then beaten and then questioned again, but still Lee’s story remained the same: he was innocent. The police called in Lee’s boss, the factory superintendent, Leo Frank. Frank was a skinny man in his late twenties—police found he was twitchy and nervous when they visited his house that morning. Of course, anyone would be nervous and twitchy if a group of stone-faced policemen paid you a visit early in the morning to deliver the news that one of your workers was murdered. At first Frank couldn’t recall who Mary Phagan was until he saw her body, but then he realized that this was the young woman who had collected her paycheck the day before. He decided to cooperate with the investigation and followed the police back to their headquarters to answer more questions, at this point Lee was still the prime suspect.

Yet over the next few days Lee was found innocent and released, while other men were arrested under the suspicion of murder. As potential suspects were weeded out, two men stood out to police in particular: a black Janitor with a history of drunken and disorderly conduct, Jim Conley, and the superintendent himself, Leo Frank. The case was essentially solved when Conley confessed that Frank had murdered the girl and made him hide the body.

Suddenly the word spilled over the state of Georgia and suddenly several workers and former employees of the factory popped up to say that Frank was a dangerous man with a reputation for lechery, used to preying upon young female workers at the factory. But for as many witnesses that said Frank was a pervert, an equal amount of citizens were quick to defend him, ready to say that Frank was a kind and decent man without a blemish on his name. The only person that could convince the public—and later a jury—of Frank’s innocence or guilt was Conley, the supposed accomplice (or supposed killer).

Conley’s story changed several times when he talked to the police, but when he finally told the jury about the day of the murder that following summer, he told a vivid story that no one could ignore, a story that never changed, even after several hours of cross-examination. Conley claimed that Mary had visited Frank’s office—whether by choice or by force he could not say—just like several other young women had: for sexual purposes. The former janitor revealed that Frank had a history of inviting women to his office for sexual liaisons and that Conley was in charge of keeping lookout during these sessions. Mary Phagan was supposed to just be another notch in Frank’s belt of sexual conquests, until Conley heard a scream coming from the superintendent’s office. Conley raced to see what was wrong and found Mary crumbled in the corner with Frank standing frantic nearby.

According to Conley, Frank then claimed that she fell and hit her head, that it was an accident. Then Frank bribed Conley to write some notes (notes that were eventually found near the body). The notes were written to throw suspicion off of Frank and on to other black employees. These notes were made to look like Mary had written them herself; they use the n-word repeatedly while referring to a certain someone, as if the writer was hoping suspicion would fall upon the factory’s black workers (this was what helped get Newt Lee arrested after finding the body in the first place). Conley then proceeded to drop the body and the notes in the factory’s basement.

This story disgusted the jurors and the visitors of crowded courtroom. When Leo Frank took the stand in self-defense, the court seemed to have already made up their mind about him. Frank testified that he had given Mary Phagan her pay on that fateful day back in April and that she had left—never to be seen again. He denied any sexual involvement with the girl, much less involvement in her murder. Despite his genuine pleas, the jurors made up their minds and Frank was found guilty of murder.

Now here’s where the story gets tricky. Mary Phagan was a young white woman. Jim Conely was a black man from the South. Leo Frank was white, but he was Jewish, he was a northerner, and most of all: he was an outsider.  Frank’s defenders at the time and over the past several decades have claimed that Frank was not given a fair trial and that the jury was biased against him—not from any real evidence (most of the actual police evidence had mysteriously vanished before the trial, leaving only Conley’s and other character-related-testimonies) but that he was convicted because he was Jewish and that he was a scapegoat to an anti-semetic population.

Frank tried for several appeals, but lost them all. It wasn’t until Governor John M. Slaton reviewed the case, that Frank’s luck began to change. Slaton found enough reasons to change Frank’s death sentence to that of life imprisonment. The general public was furious. In their minds a convicted murderer was going unpunished. A fellow inmate tried to murder Frank in his sleep, but failed. A few days later a forceful mob would prove more successful.

A lynch mob abducted Frank during the night of August 16th, 1915. He was taken from his cell at the Milledgeville Prison Farm surprisingly easily. The twenty-eight men that made up his party of abductors and future murderers were not local riff-raff or violent criminals: many were politicians, former and current sheriffs, and community leaders—otherwise respectable men at the time. Yet these same “respectable gentlemen” were not above breeching the law as they scurried away in to the night with Frank held hostage in the backseat of a car.

The party road from Milledgeville to Marietta with little interference. Since only a few people had automobiles in that part of Georgia at the time, it’s surprising that this vigilante mob was able to find eight cars that could stand the journey with few stops for gas. This idea alone shows how the group had thought through their actions and planned carefully. It is very well possible that they brought gas with them or perhaps even received help from local citizens along the way. They had no difficulty at all the entire time.

The original plan was to hang Leo ‘ in Mary’s hometown of Marietta, but the sun rose earlier than they had anticipated, so the group quickly made plans to kill him as soon as possible. They stopped near the corner of Frey’s Gin and Roswell Road. Frank was continually asked during the ride if he had killed Mary Phagan, but Frank remained nearly silent, speaking only to deny his involvement in the murder of the Phagan girl two years prior. Though a few of the men felt sorry for him, it was much too late to turn back now.

A table was placed under a tree and a noose was tied to one of the branches. Frank was escorted to the tree without a struggle. His last words concerned his family and his wife, Lucille, and how he wanted someone to give his wedding ring to her after his death. Then the noose was placed around his neck and the table was kicked out from under him. Within minutes he was dead.

For years the whole story of Mary Phagan’s murder and Leo Frank’s subsequent trial and lynching has focused on the men involved. Yet, even a hundred years later, I can’t help but wonder how the silent women that were impacted by these events felt.

In every portrayal of this story, Mary Phagan is portrayed as a silent victim, a footnote in her own story. The grief of Mary’s mother and of the other females in Atlanta and Marietta is swept under the rug in favor of describing Leo Frank’s supposed innocence or guilt. Yet somehow one woman is not been completely ignored and the public’s interest in her has only grown over the years. The key figure in question is Lucille Selig, Leo Frank’s wife.

She has always been portrayed as the supportive and grieving wife that stood by her husband, completely convinced of his innocence. She is seen as a heroine of sorts. But think of modern parallels. Today wives of convicted murderers are looked down on and seen as foolish and blind women who can’t accept the obvious truth about their spouse even in the face of a conviction and evidence. Still, place yourself in Lucille’s shoes for a moment. How would you react if your loved one was accused of such a crime and found guilty? Would you believe the press and the courts over your love for your spouse? This is not an easy question with an easy answer, and this would have affected Lucille immensely. She never married again after Frank’s murder, perhaps out of loyalty to her dead husband, or maybe the whole ordeal left a sour taste in her mouth. Lucille decided to have her ashes buried–not next to her husband–but with the rest of her family in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta: the city that had so willingly convicted Frank.

Another woman impacted by the death of Mary Phagan and the subsequent death of Leo Frank, was Governor John Slaton’s wife Sarah Frances Grant, known by her friends as Sally. At first glance Sally’s life seems to be the complete opposite of Mary Phagan and Lucille Selig Frank’s lives. Dan Childs, who researched Sally’s life for Oakland Cemetery’s Capturing the Spirit event, described Sally as “attractive and charismatic.” Unlike Mary, Sally grew up in comfort. She was a member of the prestigious Grant family (for whom Grant Field at Georgia Tech is named after). She was born five years after the Civil War ended, so she would have grown up constantly hearing stories of the war, exaggerated legends of a era that had all but been destroyed. While these same stories would have been turned in to myths by the time Lucille and Mary were born, Sally would have been constantly aware of the damage the war inflicted upon the south, even decades after it ended. Still, her family retained their status and beautiful young Sally was happy.

Like Lucille, Sally married young, but also like Lucille, her first marriage was short lived and ended in tragedy. Sally’s first husband, the aristocratic young lawyer Thomas Cobb Jackson, was involved in a “financial scandal of some sort.” Dan Childs also found in his research that Jackson suffered from depression and that once the scandal broke, “he committed suicide.” This financial scandal can be explored further in Laurel-Ann Dooley’s 2014 book Wicked Atlanta: The Sordid Side of Peach City History, published by The History Press in Charleston, South Carolina. The death of her husband would have hurt Sally deeply, a pain Lucille would later share twenty-two years later when her own husband became involved in an even more shocking Atlanta scandal.

A few years later Sally married another Atlanta lawyer, John Slaton. The two remained happily married until her death early in 1945. Slaton would die ten years later. Yet, from 1913 onwards, their marriage was tested by the same challenge that had harmed so many other lives: the deaths of Mary Phagan and later Leo Frank.

1913 was an important year for the Slaton’s, as it was an important year for the whole of Atlanta. While spent most of the year focused on the murder of Mary Phagan and the subsequent trail of Leo Frank, 1913 was a good year for Sally. Her husband took office as governor that summer. Then one of her relatives was John W. Grant, became the benefactor of a stadium that was then currently being built at Georgia Tech. The stadium, now known as the Bobby Dodd Stadium at Grant Field, was named after his son, Hugh Inman Grant back when it was originally known as Grant Field. The stadium was later renamed in the 80’s after the successful coach Bobby Dodd. Still, 1913 held more pleasant surprises for Sally. Even Polly Peachtree, a gossip columnist for the Atlanta Journal, complimented her that year, writing: “I frankly and freely confess myself her ardent admirer. Her beauty and wit will make the executive mansion during her husband’s administration the most brilliant state court in all these United States.” This high praise, in Dan Childs’ opinion, only goes to show Sally and her husband’s popularity.

Atlanta’s love for the Slaton’s did not last much longer. Two years later, John Slaton made the controversial decision to commute Leo Frank’s sentence from that of the death penalty to life imprisonment. The citizens of Marietta and Atlanta were appalled by this action. Not only did they hang Leo Frank, citizens nearly rioted, making life so dangerous for the Slaton’s’ that their house had to be protected by martial law and guarded constantly due to the threat of rioters storming the house. That summer Slaton’s term as governor had ended, now the former governor, once loved by the city of Atlanta, fled the state of Georgia with his wife in toe a mere week after the Frank incident. His career was effectively finished and their lives never quite recovered from the scandal. Sally stood by her husband the entire time, never wavering in her opinion that Slaton’s decision was the right one.

Both Sally and Lucille left Georgia for several years, but once the entire ordeal died down, both returned to Atlanta. Lucille went on to work at a clothing store downtown. Even years after her husband’s death, Dan Childs found that, “she wore a name badge at work that identified her as ‘Mrs. Leo Frank.’”

In one final coincidence, John Slaton, Sally, and Lucille are all buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. Even now, fifty years after Slaton’s death and a full century after Frank’s lynching, Sally and Lucille are still linked together in both life and death.

Atlanta historians’ interest in these two women has only grown these past hundred years, especially considering the way their lives mirror one another before finally being laid to rest in the same location. Oakland Cemetery commemorated these two women in the previous month during the Capturing the Spirit tours. The Capturing the Spirit tours occur every year at Oakland around Halloween. During this event tour guides take visitors on a walk around the cemetery. Each year a handful of people buried in the cemetery are selected to be portrayed during the tour. Workers and volunteers at the cemetery research the lives of those chosen. Then during the tour actors and actress stand in front of the deceased’s graves and portray their chosen spirit as they have come back from the grave to tell tourists their tale. Actors deliver a speech for five and a half minutes, introducing visitors to their life story, all while dressed in period appropriate costumes. This October Lucille Selig Frank and Sarah Grant Slaton were chosen to be “resurrected,” most likely due to the fact that this year was the hundredth anniversary of Frank’s death.

The two actresses portraying Lucille and Sally read off of a script written by a professional scriptwriter. While this writer was difficult to track down, Oakland was more than happy to give credit to a fellow volunteer, Dan Childs.

Dan Childs wrote the script for the Leo Frank tour given by Oakland several times a year. His research is what helped bring Lucille and Sally back to life, so to speak, during this year’s Capturing the Spirit tours.

Sally’s husband, the former Governor John M. Slaton, was “resurrected” in the previous years, which stirred Atlanta historians’ interests. While Leo Frank is not buried in Oakland Cemetery, his wife Lucille’s grave is a poignant reminder of the ordeal that shocked Atlanta a century ago. Mary Phagan is buried at the Marietta City Cemetery, a special black information marker tells her story in words, but her spirit remains silent.



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