Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

The Investigation

With both Newt Lee and Leo Frank locked up, the police began their investigation.  They were under considerable pressure, for the public demanded that Mary Phagan's murderer be brought to justice.  No individual felt this pressure more than the Solicitor-General for the Atlanta region, Hugh M. Dorsey.  He needed a conviction to keep alive his political aspirations; aspirations that he hoped would lead him all the way to the governor's mansion.

Solicitor-General Hugh M. Dorsey
Solicitor-General Hugh M. Dorsey

While the police were investigating, concentrating primarily on evidence that would support the contention that Frank was some sort of sexual deviant, other investigative forces were at work.  The Atlanta Constitution started a public subscription to bring "the world's greatest detective," William J. Burns, to Atlanta.  This was a direct assault on the competency of the Atlanta police, who had failed to solve 18 murders of Negro women in the past two years.

Coincidentally, Leo Frank hired the services of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate.  Recognizing the public climate against Frank, Harry Scott, the chief Pinkerton detective, admitted that they changed their efforts and decided to gather evidence against Frank, since the Pinkertons would be chased out of Atlanta if Frank were to be set free.

Despite claims by the newspapers of cooperation between the three investigating bodies, friction and competition among the three groups was intense.

On May 24, almost a month after the murder, a Grand Jury took only ten minutes to return an indictment against Frank.  While they were in session, Jim Conley, a black janitor at the pencil factory, did not tell them of an admission that he had written the two notes found near the body.

Jim Conley
Jim Conley

Jim Conley became the pivotal figure in the case.  He was short, squat, sandy-haired, 27 years old, a man who had been jailed several times for petty thievery and fined for disorderly conduct a number of times.  He gave three depositions, each changing in details from the previous one.  The first, on May 24, said that the day before the murder, Frank called him into his office and dictated the letters to him, during which he alleged that Frank muttered something on the order of "why should I hang?"  Even though Conley lied when he was first questioned when he claimed that he couldn't write, the police, as well as the Burns and Pinkerton agents, were convinced that Conley was telling the truth, and that Frank was guilty.

Four days later, in a second sworn statement, Conley said that the letters had been dictated to him on the day of the murder.

Finally, on May 29, the day after the second affidavit, Conley said that he had helped Frank carry Mary's body to the basement.  His account was that Frank called him into his office, told him that a girl had fallen against a lathe in the machine shop, and died.  After convincing Conley to help him carry the body to the basement, the two returned to Frank's office where the notes were dictated.  Frank, he said, gave him $200, took it back from him, and told him that he would give it to him later.

Conley was held as a material witness in the police jail until the trial, in virtual isolation from any one other than the police or Dorsey, and pointedly unavailable to questioning by the defense lawyers.

After Conley's depositions, Mrs. Maude McKnight, the cook in the Frank household, was grilled for four hours and kept in jail for another twenty-four.  She signed a statement that she had overheard Mrs. Frank tell her mother that her husband had "confessed to a crime."  She repudiated her affidavit after her release.  The questioning of her cook brought an angry protest from Mrs. Frank, who deplored the treatment of Mrs. McKnight.  She further stated that her husband was innocent.  Hugh Dorsey responded to reporters' questions by pointing out that a wife is expected to defend her husband.

In the meantime, the damaging testimony of Mrs. Formby (that Frank had telephoned her rooming house to arrange for a room for him and a young girl) was brought into question by the statement of her maid, who claimed that there had been no phone calls from Frank to Mrs. Formby.  The investigators decided that Mrs. Formby's evidence was of no consequence to the case they had been assembling.

In July, the defense lawyers leaked an affidavit to the press, ostensibly from an insurance agent, who claimed that Conley threatened him with the words, "I've killed a girl today; I don't want to kill nobody else."  No one seemed interested in this information, and Conley remained the chief and most important witness against Frank.

All during the period of the investigation, the newspapers were filled with miscellaneous information, rumors, and speculations.  In general, the Atlanta Georgian and the Atlanta Journal tried to present balanced reporting, but the Atlanta Constitution assumed that Frank was guilty, consistently accepting the police version of the case.

The prosecution was ready with their case.  The defense was sure that the evidence against their client was insubstantial.  All that remained was to test the guilt or innocence of Leo Frank in trial.

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