August 17, 1915
Convicted murderer and rapist Leo Frank is forcibly removed from his cell and lynched
13-year-old Mary Phagan had left school at the age of 10 to work in factories to help support her widowed mother and five siblings. She earned an income of $0.10 an hour, working 55 hours a week, until she was laid off from the pencil factory that employed her due to a brass shortage.
On April 26, 1913, she visited the factory to receive her final pay which was issued by Frank. At approximately 3 am, Phagan’s body was found by a night watchman. She had been strangled with the cord buried 1/4″ into her neck, her dress was pulled up around her waist, and her underwear had been ripped and bloodied.
Frank was not immediately suspected; the night watchman and a friend of Phagan were the original suspects. However, mismanagement of the investigation, including destroying footprints at the scene and intimidation of witnesses saw Frank’s arrest, widely believed to be due to Frank being Jewish.
As well as the poor handling of evidence and witnesses, police seemingly disregarded two men incriminating the factory’s janitor, Jim Conley. One had been playing craps with Conley when he rushed off, saying he planned to rob a girl who walked by. The other, an insurance salesman, was told by Conley to leave him alone and “I have killed one today and do not wish to kill another.” Neither of these men were brought to court to testify.
Frank was convicted based largely upon circumstantial evidence: being the last person to acknowledge seeing Phagan alive, another 13-year-old factory worker accusing Frank of flirting with and frightening the victim shortly before her murder, not answering the phone at 4 am when police called to question him, and acting nervous around authorities while being questioned.
While Frank was originally sentenced to hang, he was granted an appeal and his sentence commuted to life. A group calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, consisting of a U.S. Senator’s son, a judge, and a former governor among others, formed in response. On August 17, 1915, a mob dragged Frank from his cell to a prepared lynching site. Frank, resigned to his fate, put up no struggle and simply requested he be permitted to write a letter to his wife, that his wedding ring be delivered to her as well, and that he be granted some clothing for his lower body (he was only wearing a night shirt). His last words were “I think more of my wife and my mother than I do of my own life.”
Some of those from the lynching mob created a new Ku Klux Klan. Also, after news of the lynching, approximately 1,500 Jews (roughly half of Georgia’s Jewish population) left the state.
In 1982, a man who was Frank’s office boy at the time of the murder came forward claiming to have seen Conley dragging Phagan’s body in the factory. Due to this new evidence and a reexamination of the trial, Frank was given a posthumous pardon in 1986. The pardon reads “Without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the State’s failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the State’s failure to bring his killers to justice, and as an effort to heal old wounds, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, in compliance with its Constitutional and statutory authority, hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a Pardon.”
Phagan’s family continued to believe Frank was the murderer, despite Conley himself confessing to the murder on multiple occasions. A memorial marker was placed near the lynching location in 2008.
Article reporting Frank’s lynching
A photograph of victim Mary Phagan with her friend, printed in the newspapers accompanying articles of her murder
Lynching victim Leo Frank