At the end of February 1978, my coworkers at Griffin CESA jokingly told me I was on the front page! Silence fell over the room. The look in my face must have told them something: it couldn’t be. Why was it on the front page now? It seemed I could never escape. I picked up the newspaper. It was the Atlanta Constitution. The banner headline read: “THE MURDER OF MARY PHAGAN” by Celestine Sibley. A preface before the story indicated that they were doing a series on famous murders in Georgia. My father and I found several inaccuracies in the articles on Mary Phagan and felt we had to voice our opinion to the author. My father called Celestine Sibley, but the call was never returned. He was surprised. Several other Phagans were quite upset by the articles. John Phagan Durham, son of Lizzie Mary Etta Phagan, who made little Mary’s dress, and first cousin of little Mary Phagan, went to Mr. Sears, the Managing Editor of the Atlanta Constitution and asked that the articles be stopped. He said that Mr. Sears replied: “We cannot stop the articles, and if we have caused hard feelings with the Phagan family we apologize. And if you would correct the factual inaccuracies, we would correct them.” Phagan Durham informed Mr. Sears that he, Phagan Durham, would not make the corrections because the series appeared on the front page, and he was certain the corrections would not appear on the front page. People would not see them. He left, frustrated. The series rekindled interest concerning the murder of little Mary Phagan and its aftermath. Principals, teachers, students, optometrists, and ophthamologists in the eight counties my work covered asked me that question: “Are you, by any chance, related to little Mary Phagan?” The questions became more intense: people wanted details on the trial and the lynching and wanted to know if any of the Phagans were involved with the lynching. I wanted the truth to be known. I wanted the inaccuracies corrected. I became more articulate in discussing the case, and I felt a sense of confidence since I knew the story well and could answer most of the questions. I had plans to marry in June of that year. Bernard knew nothing of the story of little Mary Phagan. I had never told him. He, like most, had read the series in the newspapers, and one night he mentioned that a girl was murdered who had my name; then he, too, wanted to know: “Are you, by any chance, related to her?” “Yes,” I said, “I am.” Why, he wanted to know, had I never told him? “You never asked,” I said. Then I told him: I told him the story and why the Phagan family had remained silent. But, I told him, we had something to say now, and my father agreed and was beginning to let it be known that there were close relatives of little Mary Phagan who were still living. Daddy hadn’t gone so far as to publicly acknowledge our existence, but had let certain individuals know in nonchalant ways. Bernard asked if I had ever been to the grave. I hadn’t.
I was bothered that my name was on a tombstone. Right then we determined to go. We drove to Marietta. I was extremely quiet, and Bernard responded with silence. It was time: I felt the desire to go to the grave. It was a beautiful day—sunny, with a light breeze. As we neared the cemetery, I began to feel sick to my stomach. Now I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to see the grave. “We’re here,” Bernard said suddenly. I hesitated. “Are you all right?” he asked. Somehow, I felt inner strength. “I’m ready,” I told him softly. The plot was located in the wealthy section of the cemetery. There, beside little Mary, were other Phagan family members, including William Jackson Phagan and Angelina O’Shields Phagan. Little Mary Phagan’s grave was like none other that I had seen before. It had a marble tombstone which bore her name and an inscription the length of the burial place in marble. It was a beautiful inscription and was written by Tom Watson. I immediately memorized it.
Bernard and I took photos for the scrapbook about Mary I had begun assembling. A middle-aged couple approached us and asked if we knew where the grave of little Mary Phagan was. The articles in the newspaper had once again revived interest in her. A sense of sadness for my relatives, especially those who had lived through the horrible ordeal, came over me. And I admired them for not seeking publicity and wishing to remain anonymous. That year, 1978, proved to be full of beginnings and firsts for me. It was the first time my father had acknowledged our relationship to Mary by contacting a reporter; the beginning of a scrapbook of little Mary Phagan; my first visit to the grave of little Mary Phagan; and my first car accident—which turned out to have a connection to Mary Phagan.
A few days after the accident I decided to check on the elderly lady who had struck my car and to find out if she had turned in the insurance papers. She was a wealthy, prominent member of the community in which she lived. Her house was extraordinarily beautiful. When she answered the door, I explained that I was the individual involved with her in the accident, and I was checking to see if she had turned in the insurance papers. She welcomed me inside her home and told me that she was becoming blind and deaf and did not have anyone to help her fill out the forms. She asked me if I would help. I filled out the paperwork, and, with a magnifying glass, she read it to correct the errors. When she came to my name, she abruptly turned to me and asked me that question: “Are you, by any chance, related to little Mary Phagan?” When I said “Yes,” she hugged and kissed me. Then she related her memories of it. She and her husband drove their horse and buggy to Atlanta and saw the crowd of people waiting to hear the trial. Apparently it had been an overwhelming sight. The majority of the people at that time felt that Leo Frank was guilty, she said, and she believed it too. She still believed it. She excitedly told me about life in that era and how many changes she had seen in her ninety-two years. She liked some of the changes, but others she disliked. I had a wonderful time, and she invited me to have lunch with her. She had found that I listened to her attentively, and nowadays it seemed that no one really listened anymore. The next day, I received another invitation for lunch. For the rest of the school year, I would lunch with her on Mondays. We became very close. In 1980, Bernard and I moved to Cobb County, where my family had begun. Since the travel was too far and too much for me, I resigned my position at Griffin CESA and began employment for the Cherokee County Board of Education in Canton, Georgia as the itinerant teacher for the blind and visually impaired. When school began in August, my supervisor introduced me to the principals for whom I would be working. Several of them asked me that recurrent question: “Are you, by any chance, related to little Mary Phagan?” At one of the schools the principal was not available to meet me, but as we were leaving, he ran out after us and asked me my name and what position I held for the county. He took out his pen from his shirt pocket, and as I told him my name, he wrote it on the palm of his hand. He stared at it and asked me that question. I told him “yes.” He erased my name from his hand and told me he would never forget my name. From that moment on, Mr. Tippens called me “little Mary Phagan,” and introduced me as such. I didn’t mind.
On Saturday, March 6, 1982, Sue Youngblood, one of the secretaries where I worked, called. She was very upset. She had been watching television and heard a promotional late news headline, something to the effect of: “An eyewitness says Leo Frank was not guilty of the murder of little Mary Phagan. More details on the eleven o’clock news. Stunned and bewildered, I waited for the hours to pass. How could there be a witness alive? The local news provided a report from two reporters, Colin Sedor from Georgia, and Jerry Thompson from Tennessee. They discussed the era of the crime and the basic facts of the case. Then they showed an interview with Alonzo Mann, a man who said he had seen Jim Conley with the body of Mary Phagan. Mann, now eighty-three years of age and living in Virginia, appeared calm and competent as he spoke of these events. Alonzo Mann claimed that he had attempted to relate what he had seen for years—and that no one seemed interested. After a while, he told reporters, he had given up. He told reporters of the Tennessean that as a soldier during World War I he’d engendered a heated argument with another soldier—who happened to be from Georgia—when he said that he knew that Leo Frank did not kill Mary Phagan. Over the years he told his wife, his relatives, and his closest friends his story. During the 1950s, he told it to a reporter of an Atlanta newspaper. But, Mann stated, the reporter said he didn’t want to stir up the anti-Semitism that had engulfed Atlanta during the trial and at the time of the commutation. “Mrs. Frank is still alive,” the reporter had also said, “and we wouldn’t want to do anything to cause her any more grief.” At about the time he gave his testimony to the media, Mann agreed to a polygraph test and a psychological stress analysis. The psychological stress analysis electronically measures and charts, with a needle and graph, the stress in the voice in response to questions: the greater stress there seems to be, the greater the probability that the subject is not telling the truth. The polygraph, broadly used by law enforcement personnel across the United States, tests whether the subject is telling the truth by measuring the respiratory rate, blood pressure, skin reaction, and pulse rate. In both procedures, the subject responds to questions and a pattern is printed out on graph paper connected to the machines which are connected to the subject’s body.
Alonzo Mann, according to both tests, told the truth consistently.
Alonzo Mann’s story was a new twist on the facts presented since 1913. He said that Jim Conley had said to him, “If you ever tell anyone, I’ll kill you.” He had gone home and repeated what he had seen and what he’d been told by Conley to his mother. She told him to be quiet, and he had been. Now, after almost seventy years of silence, he decided to come forward to be at peace in his heart. I wasn’t the only one who was stunned. And I could not believe that Alonzo Mann would wait seventy years to reveal his eyewitness testimony. My father and I discussed at length the plausibility of Alonzo Mann’s statements. We decided to remain silent until the sensationalism of the story quieted down. It didn’t. On March 7, 1982 the Nashville Tennessean ran a special supplement which bore the headline, “AN INNOCENT MAN WAS LYNCHED.” The copy began, “Leo Frank, convicted in 1913 and lynched in 1915, in one of the most notorious cases in American history, was innocent, according to sworn testimony by a witness in the case.” The section contained quotations of the letters Leo Frank wrote his family from prison, Alonzo Mann’s statement—and the print-out of the polygraph test he had taken. It contained photos of him at Mary Phagan’s grave. The supplement was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Between the publication of that special supplement and Alonzo Mann’s appearance before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, reporters on the staff of the Tennessean initiated plans for a book, and had even spoken to the producer of the television miniseries, “Winds of War.” Pardon Board Chairman Mobley Howell was quoted as saying that the entire affair had taken on a “showman quality.” Also, on March 7, 1982 Cassandra Clayton, another local reporter, reported an interview with Bernie Dukehart, brother of one of the members of the lynching mob, in which Dukehart said that Alonzo Mann’s statements changed nothing and that his brother always felt that Leo Frank was guilty. On the same newscast there was an interview with Jasper Yeomans, the son of Leo Frank’s defense attorney. The reporter also spoke briefly with Stuart Lewengrub of the Anti-Defamation League, who expressed the desire that a posthumous pardon be granted. It was also reported that the Phagan family members denied the station’s request for an interview and were tired of their name being dragged through the mud. The Phagan family member who denied the interview was John Phagan Durham. Ironically, at this point no one in the media knew that either my father or I existed. And several older Phagans who had lived through the murder and its aftermath had also kept silent, even though the media contacted them. They did not discuss the case with even their closest friends. On March 8, 1982 a review of the story appeared, with the conclusion that a posthumous pardon for Leo Frank was unlikely. Alonzo’s testimony read: IN THE STATE OF TENNESSEE, COUNTY OF SULLIVAN
The undersigned, being duly sworn, deposes as follows: My name is Alonzo McClendon Mann. I am eighty-three years old. My father was Alonzo Mann, who was born in Germany. My mother was Hattie McClendon Mann. When I was a small boy my family moved to Atlanta where I spent most of my life. In 1913 I was the office boy for Leo M. Frank, who ran the National Pencil Company. That was the year Leo Frank was convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan. I was fourteen years old at the time. I was called as a witness in the murder trial. At that time I was put on the witness stand, but I did not tell all that I knew. I was not asked questions about what I knew. I did not volunteer. If I had revealed all I knew it would have cleared Leo Frank and would have saved his life. I now suffer from a heart condition. I have undergone surgery to implant a pacemaker in my heart. I am making this statement because, finally, I want to have the record clear. I want the public to understand that Leo Frank did not kill Mary Phagan. Jim Conley, the chief witness against Leo Frank, lied under oath. I know that. I am certain that he lied. I am convinced that he, not Leo Frank, killed Mary Phagan. I know as a matter of certainty that Jim Conley—and he alone—disposed of her body. Jim Conley threatened to kill me if I told what I knew. I was young and I was frightened. I had no doubt Conley would have tried to kill me if I had told that I had seen him with Mary Phagan that day. I related to my mother what I had seen there at the pencil factory. She insisted that I not get involved. She told me to remain silent. My mother loved me. She knew Conley had threatened to kill me. She didn’t want our family’s name to be involved in controversy or for me to have to be subjected to any publicity. My father supported her in telling me to remain silent. My mother repeated to me over and over not to tell. She never thought Leo Frank would be convicted. Of course, she was wrong. Even after he was convicted my mother told me to keep secret what I had seen. I am sure in my own mind that if the lawyers had asked me specific questions about what I had seen the day of Mary Phagan’s death I would have told the whole truth when I testified at Frank’s trial.
Of course they didn’t suspect what I knew. They asked me practically nothing. I was nervous and afraid that day. There were crowds in the street who were angry and who were saying that Leo Frank should die. Some were yelling things like “Kill the Jew!” I was very nervous. The courtroom was filled with people. Every seat was taken. I was interested mostly in getting out of there. I spoke with a speech impediment and had trouble pronouncing the “r” in Frank’s name in those days. The lawyers put their heads together and said that it was obvious I knew nothing and since I was so young they would let me off the stand. It was not an easy place for a young boy to be, there in court like that. I never fully realized until I was older that if I had told what I knew Leo Frank would have been acquitted and gone free. Instead he was imprisoned.
After he was convicted my mother told me there was nothing we could do to change the jury’s verdict. My father agreed with her. I continued to remain silent. Later, Frank was lynched by a mob from Marietta, Georgia. I know, of course, that because I kept silent Leo Frank lost his life. I have spent many nights thinking about that. I have learned to live with it. I now swear to the events I witnessed that fatal day, Confederate Memorial Day, 1913, when Mary Phagan, who was just about my age, fourteen, was killed. I came to work on time that morning, at about eight o’clock. I rode the streetcar from my home, on South Gordon Street, and when I walked into the building Jim Conley, the janitor, who also was called a “sweeper,” was sitting under the stairwell on the first floor of the building. Although it was early in the morning, Conley had obviously already consumed considerable beer. He drank a lot, even in the mornings. He spoke to me. He asked me for a dime to buy a beer. A dime could buy a good-sized beer in those days. I told Jim Conley I didn’t have a dime. That was not the truth. I had some money in my pocket, but I had let Conley have a nickel or a dime for beer before. He never paid me back. I didn’t like to be around Jim Conley. After I told Conley I didn’t have any money I went up the stairs to the second floor where my desk was located in the office of Leo Frank. My job required that I open the mail, file papers, keep the office orderly, run errands, and the like. Leo Frank arrived in the building that morning shortly after I did. He came into the office and spoke to me. I always called him “Mister Frank” and he referred to me by my given name, “Alonzo.” I do not know whether Leo Frank had seen Jim Conley on the first floor when he came into the building that morning. A substitute secretary worked for Leo Frank that morning. As I remember, it was a routine Saturday morning for me at the office. Because of Memorial Day the factory part of the company was closed. But sometimes on Saturday mornings people who had worked at the factory during the week would come to the pay window in the office and collect their salaries. Girls who worked in the factory made about twelve cents an hour. I did not know Mary Phagan by name, but I had seen her at the factory and knew her face. We were just about the same age. I was supposed to meet my mother that day about noon and go to the Confederate Memorial Day parade. When I left the premises, just before noon, Mary Phagan had not come to the pencil factory. She apparently came to pick up her pay shortly after I left to go meet my mother. Sometime after 11:30, and perhaps as late as quarter to twelve, I told Mr. Frank that my mother wanted me to meet her so that I could go to the parade with her. I didn’t care all that much about seeing the parade, but my mother wanted me to go. Mr. Frank agreed for me to leave at that time. I told him I would return to the office and complete my filing work later in the afternoon. He said he expected he would still be there. When I left the company premises, just before noon, Mary Phagan had not come to collect her pay. When I left the building, down the stairs and out the first floor front door, Jim Conley, the janitor, was sitting where I had seen him when I came to work: in the darkened area of the stairwell. I walked to the point where I was supposed to meet my mother. It was a short distance—perhaps a block and a half. We had agreed to meet in front of a store on Whitehall Street. My memory is that my mother had planned to buy a hat that day. I stopped and bought a hotdog on the way to meet her. However, when I arrived, she was not there. She had told me that if she was unable to come, for me not to worry. I waited for her for a few minutes. Since I didn’t care that much about seeing the parade, I went back to work. I can’t be sure as to exactly how long I was gone, but it could not have been more than a half hour before I got back to the pencil factory. I had no idea that I was about to witness an important moment in a famous murder case—a moment that has not been made public until now; that I was about to become a witness to tragic history. I walked into the building by the front door. Inside the door, I walked toward the stairwell. I looked to my right and I was confronted by a scene I will remember vividly until the day I die. Jim Conley was standing between the trapdoor that led to the basement and the elevator shaft. I have an impression that the trapdoor was partially open, but my eyes were fixed on Jim Conley. He had the body of Mary Phagan in his arms. I didn’t know it was Mary Phagan. I only knew it was a girl. At that moment I couldn’t tell if she was alive. She appeared to be unconscious, or perhaps dead. I saw no blood. He was holding her with both arms gripping her around the waist. I can’t remember the color of her clothes but I have an impression that she had on pretty, clean clothes. She was extremely short and her head was sort of on his shoulder, or over it. Her hair was streaming down his back. Her hair was not in braids when I saw her. It was hanging loose. I saw no blood on the part of her neck that was exposed. I do not know if she was dead, but she was at least unconscious. She was limp and did not move. Her skirt had come up to about her knees. It was as I suddenly barged into the first floor, prepared to go up the stairs to the office that I en-countered Conley with the body of Mary Phagan. Conley was close to the trapdoor that led down into the basement by way of a ladder. I believe that from the direction he was headed and the attitude of the body that he was preparing to dump Mary Phagan down the trapdoor. I have no clear memory of whether the elevator had stopped on the first floor, but if it was not on that floor, the shaft would have been open. Conley could have dumped her down the empty elevator shaft. I believe for some reason Jim Conley turned around toward me. He either heard my footsteps coming or he sensed I was behind him. He wheeled on me and in a voice that was low but threatening and frightening to me, he said: “If you ever mention this I’ll kill you.” I turned and took a step or two—possibly three or four steps—up toward the second floor, but I must have worried about whether the office upstairs was closed. I did hear some movement upstairs, but I can’t be sure who was on the floors above. I was fearful that the office might be closed, and so I turned back toward Conley. I wanted to get out of there quick. He got to within eight feet of me. He reached out as if to put one arm or hand on me. I ran out of the front door and raced away from that building. I went straight home. I rode the streetcar. Once at home I told my mother what I had just seen. I told her what Jim Conley had said to me about killing me. I didn’t know for sure that the girl in his arms was dead. My mother was very disturbed by what I told her. She told me that I was never, never to tell any-body else what I had seen that day at the factory. She said she didn’t want me involved, or the family involved, in any way. She told me to go on about my business as if nothing had happened and that sometime soon I would have to quit working there. From then on, whenever I was at work I steered clear of Jim Conley. I kept away from him and he did the same. When my father came home my mother explained to him what I had seen and what Conley had said to me. My father told me to forget it and never mention it. My mother was a very strong-willed woman who was thirty years younger than my father and he said to me what she wanted him to say. Later on he told me that Frank would never be convicted. I have wished many times that my mother hadn’t taken that attitude and that either she had told the authorities or that she had encouraged me to tell somebody—perhaps Leo Frank—what I had seen. When the detectives later questioned me I told only the part of the story up to the time I left that day to go meet my mother. I did not tell that I had come back into the building and saw Conley with the body. When Frank went on trial and I was called as a witness, my mother told me I would have to go and testify. She told me to keep to myself what I had seen. She said if I were not asked a specific question I did not have to give a specific answer. Jim Conley was the chief witness against Leo Frank. He testified that Frank had called him to his office a little after noon that day and told him that Mary Phagan’s body was in the Metal Room on the second floor. He testified that Frank told him to get the body and take it on the elevator down to the basement. He swore that he tried to carry the body to the elevator but dropped Mary Phagan because she was too heavy for him to carry. According to Conley’s testimony, Frank picked up her legs, while Conley lifted the upper part of her body. Conley said that Frank had pulled the rope to start the elevator down and that they went with the body directly to the basement, past the first floor without stopping there. Conley claimed that Frank dragged the body from the elevator to a point in the rear of the building. Conley contended during the trial that after Frank dragged the body away from the elevator, Conley ascended in the elevator and Frank came back up-stairs by way of the trapdoor to the first floor, and then came on up the stairway from the first to the second floor. I know that all of that testimony was false. It was Conley who had the body on the first floor. He was alone with the body. Frank was not there on the first floor. Conley did not tell the truth when he said the body was taken from the second floor to the basement. He had the body on the first floor. I know from what I read of the case that Mary Phagan had come into the building shortly after I went out to meet my mother. She went upstairs to the second floor. Leo Frank had given her her pay envelope. I understand that she had worked one day that week and she was entitled to about $1.20. I am convinced that she had left the pay window and was coming down the stairs or had reached the first floor when she met Conley, who had been looking for money when I came in that morning. I am confident that I came in just seconds after Conley had taken the girl’s money and grabbed her. I do not think sex was his motive. I believe it was money. Her pay was never found in the building after she died. Many times I have thought since all of this occurred almost seventy years ago that if I had hollered or yelled for help when I ran into Conley with the girl in his arms that day that I might have saved her life. I might have. On the other hand, I might have lost my own life. If I had told what I saw that day I might have saved Leo Frank’s life. I didn’t realize it at the time. I was too young to understand. As the years have gone by I have told this “secret” to a number of other people. I told it when I was in the Army in World War I. In fact, I had a fight with another soldier who became angry when I said Leo Frank did not kill the girl, but that Conley did. I have told other people. I told my late wife. She urged me not to make it public because she felt it wouldn’t do any good. She said it would not bring back Leo Frank and it would not bring back Mary Phagan. And I told other relatives and friends. On one occasion, I believe in the 1950s, when I was operating a restaurant, I discussed this with a reporter in Atlanta. But the reporter said that since Leo Frank’s wife was still alive it was not a matter the newspaper wanted to open up. Leo Frank was convicted by lies heaped on lies. It wasn’t just Conley who lied. Others said that Leo Frank had women in the office for immoral purposes and that he had liquor there. There was a story that he took women down in the basement. That cellar was filthy. It was filled with coal dust. I was in the basement twice and remember the dirt and filth there. That was all false. Leo Frank was a good office manager. He was always proper with people who worked for him. There were witnesses who told lies and I remained silent. Now I am finally making all this public. I have found reporters, Jerry Thompson and Bob Sherborne, who have heard my story and who understand that it is a case that is important to history. I am glad to have it all come out.
At last I am able to get this off my heart. I believe it will help people to understand that courts and juries make mistakes. They made a mistake in the Leo Frank case. I think it is good for it all to come out, even at this late date.
The two Marys as children
Mary Phagan and Alonzo Mann look through the author’s scrapbook.
The grave of little Mary Phagan.
Mary Phagan and Mary Phagan
There will be some people who will be angry at me because I kept all this silent until it was too late to save Leo Frank’s life. They will say that being young is no excuse. They will blame my mother. The only thing I can say is that she did what she thought was best for me and the family. Other people may hate me for telling it. I hope not, but I am prepared for that, too. I know that I haven’t a long time to live. All that I have said is the truth. When my time comes I hope that God understands me better for having told it. This is what matters. On March 19, 1982 my father and I went to the Woodruff Library at Emory University to research the case again and learn more about the role of Alonzo Mann. This was the first time my father and I had gone together to research the case. When we signed in, the librarian observed us curiously as we checked out more information. She asked my father, “What did you think of little Mary Phagan?” My father replied, “Young lady, I wasn’t even a gleam in my father’s eye in those years!” We both laughed, and the librarian relaxed. When we told the librarian what we were looking for, she directed us to a copy of the Tennessean, since one of the Tennessean’s reporters had been instrumental in breaking the story of Alonzo Mann’s confession. From our research, we learned that Alonzo Mann was indeed Leo Frank’s office boy. Mann had begun working April 1, 1913, and had worked two Saturdays before the murder occurred. And he testified that he had left the factory “at half past eleven.” Before we left that day, the librarian gave us the name and address of the Tennessean librarian. On March 23, 1982, I wrote a letter to Sandra Roberts, the Tennessean librarian:
Your name was given to me by the librarian at the Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. My father and I were researching the Mary Phagan/Leo Frank case. She showed us a copy of the Tennessean. We would like two copies if possible. My father and I are very interested in this case because we are direct descendants of little Mary Phagan. My grandfather, William Joshua Phagan, was Mary’s brother. My father is a nephew and I am a greatniece. We would pay for the cost of the newspaper. On March 26 Sandra Roberts called. She told me that the newspaper staff would be in Atlanta on March 31. She asked if they might drop by and hand deliver the newspapers. Before this time, my father was always the one who dealt with anyone inquiring about the Phagans. He had always represented our family’s opinion. I called my father to let him know about the meeting and to see if he could be there to meet the staff, too. I had never spoken any of my feelings about the murder, and I could sense his concern. He didn’t think he’d be able to be there, but he wanted to make sure that either a friend, my husband, or another family member would be.