Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

The Murder

About 3:00 a.m., on Sunday, April 27, 1913,  the night watchman of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia, found the body of a girl.  The watchman, Newt Lee, had gone down to the basement to use the toilet designated for Negroes.  In the dim light of his lantern, he saw a small human form on the floor.  He immediately went up the ladder and telephoned the police.  They arrived within ten minutes.

The rope used to kill Mary Phagan
The rope used to kill Mary Phagan

The police were shocked by the condition of the body.  It was that of a young girl, covered with sawdust, wood shavings, and grime.  Her face was bruised and slashed, and around her neck was a strip of her underdrawers and a length of rope.  Blood caked her head.  She had been raped.  It was clear that her body had been dragged to her final position.  Near the body, two crudely written scraps of yellow paper, torn from an old book of order forms, were found.  The notes read:

Mam that negro hire down here did this
i went to make water and he push me
down that hole a long tall negro black
that  hoo it sase  long sleam tall negro i
wright while play with me


he said he wood love me land down play
like the night witch did it but
that long tall
black negro did buy his slef.

A relative of one of the policemen who worked at the factory was summoned to identify the body, since there was no purse or identification.  It was, the shocked woman said, little Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old employee of the pencil factory. 

Newt Lee, excited and terrified, aroused the suspicions of the police, and was taken downtown for further questioning. The superintendent and part-owner of the factory, Leo Max Frank, was summoned.  He recoiled in horror at the sight of the corpse, and, visibly shaken, said he did not know her.  He checked his employee records, and found that Mary Phagan had been in his office the day before, to collect her pay, $1.20, for ten hours of work at twelve cents an hour.  She had been in his office about noon on Saturday, and (as it was later determined) not seen again.

Newt Lee had reported for work early on Saturday, at the request of his employer, Frank.  When he arrived at 4:00 p.m., Frank told him to leave and report at his usual time, 6:00 p.m, an unusual procedure.  He returned, Frank left, and he began his rounds.  He did not check the basement until early the next morning, when he had to answer Nature's call.

Soon the Atlanta newspapers reported the murder in detail, emblazoning each edition with lurid details, complete with editorials seeking justice.  While the hapless Newt Lee was immediately suspected, Leo Frank, a Jew, was also a handy target.  Two days after the discovery of the body, on April 29, 1913, Frank was charged with murder.  Newt Lee remained in jail under suspicion, held without charges for months.

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