Chapter 11 – The Phagans Break Their Vow Of Silence

Nervousness, curiosity and excitement all plagued me as I awaited the arrival of the Tennessean staff. My mind flitted back and forth to questions I wanted to ask. I wondered what their response would be to me and whether they would push me to come forward with the statement that Mary Phagan’s convicted murderer was innocent. Why, I thought, was that young girl’s murder never forgotten? My family and I never really fathomed the publicity that continued almost unabated since her untimely death. And the media never once considered what the publicity did to the Phagan family. But Mary Phagan’s legacy is a real part of all our lives— especially mine. It also occurred to me that my father was right in his assessment of the media’s handling of the story: he had told me that the story of little Mary Phagan would never be forgotten and that every three to five years the story would reappear in some form in the media. He had also thought that the story would never be put to rest because the Jewish community would not be satisfied until Leo Frank’s innocence could be established. And, with the Alonzo Mann story, that now seemed possible. The Tennessean had sent two staff reporters and a photojournalist to the house. I introduced myself as Mary Phagan and my confidence returned. We discussed the Mary Phagan/Leo Frank case. They asked no probing questions. One of my questions was how the Alonzo Mann evidence had come to light. One of the reporters, Jerry Thompson, explained that he had been working undercover in the KKK for over a year, developing a story depicting the current KKK. When they discovered that he was a reporter, there were several threats made against his life. The newspaper hired guards to protect him and his house.

One of these guards was Bob Mann, who is Alonzo Mann’s nephew. Bob told Jerry that his uncle had witnessed a murder in Atlanta in 1913, but he knew no other details. Jerry was intrigued. He spoke with his publisher, who agreed to run a series of stories on the convictions of innocent people. At that time the series was considered to be low profile. Jerry had never heard of Mary Phagan or Leo Frank. That began to change when, in working on the series, he called Alonzo Mann. A few weeks later, Jerry met a rabbi who happened to mention Leo Frank and it “clicked.” Armed with what Alonzo Mann had told him, Jerry then met again with his publisher. The story was given top priority. Why did Alonzo Mann wait until 1982? The staff told me that Mann’s mother didn’t want their name involved in the case and feared for their safety. Alonzo Mann liked Leo Frank and had been relieved that Frank’s sentence was commuted. Mann had hoped that the truth would be found out during the appeals process. Leo Frank’s lynching made that superfluous. The newspaper staff asked me to comment on Mann’s testimony. They said they’d be happy to send over any other materials I might need. As they were leaving, they invited me to a press conference to be held at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center on April 1. I accepted, but asked to remain anonymous. The Atlanta Jewish Community Center is on Peachtree Street, the most wellknown street in Atlanta. It is a low brick building that resembles those sprawling public schools I attended when we moved back to the States. But it was months after the night before I saw it that distinctly. My surroundings were a blur the night I at-tended the press conference: for the first time I was participating—even though as an anonymous observer—in a public discussion of my greataunt’s murder. Bernard and I had decided that the best way to retain anonymity was to register as “Mr. and Mrs. Kean” Because of my family’s silence, I was not emotionally prepared to come forward at a news conference. In fact, the Tennessean staff had agreed that anonymity would probably be best since I had doubts about making any sort of statement. And I had no idea what they were going to present to the Jewish community. The room was a typical conference area. Seated around the table were reporters who were either asked to be present or who had an interest in the case. As we entered the room, the Tennessean staff asked me to sit near them. Reporters directed questions concerning all areas of the case to the Tennessean staff for approximately thirty to forty-five minutes. Of foremost interest, of course, was Alonzo Mann’s affidavit and whether a posthumous pardon would be sought for Leo Frank. At the conference, I listened intently and watched the facial expressions of those present. What were these people thinking I wondered, and how did they come to their conclusions?

After all questions were discussed, we were ushered into a huge main room which was filled to capacity. My husband and I sat in the back row; I felt most comfortable there. The Tennessean staff reporters, Jerry Thompson and Robert Sherborne, publicly presented to the Jewish community the review of evidence for Leo Frank’s innocence. Then they answered questions. Most of the questions concerned the effect of Alonzo Mann’s affidavit as the missing link of evidence to finally substantiate Leo Frank’s innocence. One question involved the Phagan family. An individual wanted to know the reaction of my family. Jerry Thompson stated that some Phagan family members upheld their belief in the convicted Leo Frank’s guilt while others “were trying to be objective.” I knew he was talking about me. I had my own opinion, but I wanted to hear what they had to say. I was trying to be objective, but, because of my emotional involvement, it was difficult for me. The meeting adjourned on the thought that the posthumous pardon for Leo Frank was likely to be an issue for the governor’s race. By the time we got to the car, tears were running down my face, and I didn’t know quite why. In thinking over the conference the following day, I realized that while listening to Jerry Thompson and Robert Sherborne present their evidence to the Jewish community, I had thought how strange it was that they had asked me to be objective, since they themselves had decided that Alonzo Mann’s conclusions were true and could not themselves be all that objective.

At the time, all I could see was my grandfather and my father telling me the story of little Mary Phagan, over and over again. They had always told me that Leo Frank was convicted of her murder. How could I not believe them and the evidence? They had never withheld the truth from me. Truth was valuable to them and to me. How could I reconcile the two views? On April 4, just three days after the news conference, my youngest brother, Michael, died. I was the oldest and he the youngest. We were very close. He looked up to me, and I depended on him more than he ever knew. Michael had a lot of difficult times in his life, but he always knew that the family supported him. We didn’t always agree with what he did, but we never stopped loving him. His death devastated me. I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t be around anymore. I couldn’t believe we’d never talk again. Michael was buried next to our grandfather. I placed flowers on each grave. For the first time I began to understand the depth of my grandfather’s grief over his sister’s death—and why he couldn’t talk about it. I wished that I could tell him so; placing the red rose on his grave was my gesture to him that I finally understood. Some griefs can never be overcome. Like my father, I learned there are two things in life you can’t share: grief and pain. On April 6, the following article appeared in The East Cobb Neighbor, a neighborhood newspaper near Marietta: JEWISH LEADERS SEEK EXONERATION FOR FRANK Leaders of the Atlanta Jewish Community say they are seeking ways to obtain a posthumous exoneration of Leo Frank, the turn-of-the-century Atlanta businessman convicted of and lynched for the murder of a Marietta girl—a murder a witness in the case now says Frank did not commit. And one of three Nashville, Tennessee newspaper reporters who broke the apparent new development in the sixty-nine-year-old case says he is ready to help clear Frank’s name “not only historically but legally.” The statements came last week before two of the reporters, Jerry Thompson and Robert Sherborne of the Tennessean, told an audience at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center about their discovery of a possible turnaround in the Frank case. In a package of copyright stories published last month, the Tennessean revealed that eighty-two-year-old Alonzo Mann of Bristol, Virginia, says an employee of Frank actually killed fourteen-year-old Mary Phagan. The April 1913 murder of the girl at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta—where she, Mann, Frank, and Jim Conley, the man Mann says was the killer, worked—began one of the most sensational legal episodes of the century. Frank, a Jew, was convicted on what even then was considered fuzzy evidence at a time of intense anti-Jewish feeling in the city. His death sentence was later commuted by Georgia’s governor, but a mob pulled Frank from prison in 1914 and hanged him from a tree on Roswell Street in Marietta, just east of what is now Cobb Parkway. Gerald Cohen, Vice President of the Atlanta Jewish Federation, said last week the new twist in the Frank case “has really set the Atlanta community back on its heels.” Sherry Frank (no relation to Leo Frank), area director of the American Jewish Committee, said Jewish leaders would like to make a possible exoneration of Frank an issue in the gubernatorial race this year. That time after Michael’s death was the most difficult period of my life so far. Nothing mattered. For the first time, I could not get excited over—nor even care about—the burgeoning resurgence of interest in Mary Phagan’s death. Then I received a letter from Sandra Roberts: Dear Mary and Bernard: I am sending you the latest story that we have had on the Frank case. I am also enclosing copies of the letters on which the story was based. The original letters are in the Goldfarb Library of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Seigenthaler [President, Editor and Publisher] told me this morning that the reaction to the Frank story continues to pour in from all over the world. Reporters and television people are trying their best to get Lonnie (Alonzo) Mann to tell his story again, but he seems more comfortable just dealing with Bob and Jerry. I believe that he is at peace with himself a last. I must admit, Mary, that when I first received your letter, I was purely curious about your reaction to the section. However, since our visit I’ve tried to put myself in your place. I’ve wondered what I would do if I were Mary Phagan. From the beginning this story has been fascinating, but it was merely another story to me. It is easy for me to remain objective as a researcher, since I have no personal involvement with the people, the races, the religions, or even the state concerned. It was simple for me to sit silently in the Jewish Community Center in Atlanta, and view the product of two conflicting cultures. On one hand I witnessed a mass of people, totally convinced that one of their brothers was brutally and unjustly lynched. Moreover they have remained angry for seventy years because they believe he was lynched because he was Jewish. On the other hand I saw one small woman who bears not only the name but also the face and figure of an aunt that she will never know. I felt your total devotion to a family and a legacy that will always bear the burden of the senseless slaughter of a beautiful young girl. I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were you, Mary, but the options seem clear. You could remain silent and let the past stay buried, or you could make a statement indicating your reaction to the resurgence of the PhaganFrank case. When I spoke with Seigenthaler this morning he revealed his concern (and curiosity) about your reaction to the case. He assured me of a few things; if you should decide to make a public statement concerning the case, there will be immediate, world-wide response to it. The Tennessean would print any statement that you or your father would make. You could indicate your belief of Frank’s guilt or innocence, or you could simply react to the new evidence of Alonzo Mann’s testimony. Any statement that you make could be preceded by a visit with Mr. Mann (I think that might be really interesting). We would also let you read the story in full before its publication (I was quite surprised when John made the last suggestion. It flies in the face of a basic rule of journalism). No matter what your decision is, I have another personal promise to you. I assure you that you have a new-found friend in Nashville who has tried very hard to feel this story through your heart. There are many times in this business that sensitivity and objectivity clash. Reporters must remind themselves that what is merely a story for the newspaper could be a thunderbolt in the existence of a human being. Maybe that is why I prefer the research end of journalism. Best wishes, Sandra I read her letter again and again and realized that she was indeed a friend. Her letter stayed with me. Sandra felt compassion for me and I knew she would not ask anything from me that made me uncomfortable or some how uneasy. It made me feel good that she respected me as an individual. She knew that I was struggling inside. Sandra’s letter also made me see something else in myself: I was fighting my legacy at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center. I couldn’t see it before reading and rereading her letter, but that was why I cried so abruptly and bitterly after the news conference. Now those feelings were over, gone. I could never deny or fight my legacy again. I would now be able to stand up and acknowledge that I am Mary Phagan.

My family’s strength during my brother’s death also proved to me that I could never forget who I was or where I came from. I was proud of my heritage. On April 18 I wrote Sandra to tell her of my brother’s death. I also reiterated that I would not make a public statement concerning Alonzo Mann’s affidavit at that time. I still felt the past should stay buried. Sandra responded on April 22 with yet another warm and sympathetic letter: Dear Mary and Bernard: Here is the long promised tape of the WRFG program. The producer, Chris Kuhn, did most of the research. The narrator, Sherry Conder, is a librarian at Georgia State Library and Archives. She did her Master’s thesis on Governor Slaton—and she knows a lot about the case. You’d really enjoy her if you get to meet her. Mary, I’m really sorry about Michael. I don’t know the circumstances, if it was accidental or an illness, but I’m sure you were a great comfort to your parents. Don’t worry about the statement. I’ll be honest with you—your statement would make a great story for this newspaper. Bob and Jerry and Seigenthaler really would like to have it—But, as I have reminded them, what is one great story for us could alter your life considerably. I’m sure that the chances are good that other news people may track you down (if they haven’t already). So all I’m asking is—if and when you decide to say something, please let the Tennessean have a little warning. I hope your healing is swift and as painless as possible. Let me know when you need anything that I can help you with. Best wishes, Sandra While reading through the newspaper articles I’d collected, I came across the name Mike Wing, a member of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Another big first step: why not call him, introduce myself, and let him know about my family? When I told him that my name was “Mary Phagan,” and of my relationship to little Mary Phagan, he reacted with utter shock. Mike Wing, like countless others, never knew that there were surviving Phagan family members. I wanted the Board to know, I told him, that there were indeed surviving close family members of Mary Phagan and that the family was anxious to be notified of any information brought before the media. I asked to be informed if an application for a posthumous pardon for Leo Frank was received. At the very least, this would ensure that if the story broke, I’d know ahead of time. He was responsive. During the conversation, he was curious about the fact that the Phagan family had never publicly acknowledged themselves. I explained that the murder had been a deeply traumatic event whose reverberations we still felt and that we had never seen the need to say anything. It had been, we hoped, best to keep a “vow of silence” among ourselves.

He said he felt certain an application would be filed. He took my address and phone number and those of my father. After that, I wasn’t scared anymore. I was glad that I had called Mike Wing and felt confident that if he did indeed receive a posthumous pardon application for Frank, he would inform me. But my brother’s death continued to cloud my life. I began to ask myself some difficult questions—including why he died and what the true value and purpose of my, life was. I and other close family members learned once again the importance and significance of family, and how vital it was that we continue being loving and caring to one another always. Then, in August, a happy event: I was the matron of honor in Amy’s wedding. Amy and I had remained close friends after I left Florida. Like most good friends, we had our good and fun times, and also had some “conflicts.” It didn’t matter, though: we always resolved them. Amy was there for me when Michael died, too. She kept in close contact, since she knew me well and knew I was having a difficult time adjusting. The wedding was a beautiful Jewish ceremony and I learned many new things. Her family became my family and I became a part of her family. The love and happiness we all shared was a healing force for me.