Leo Frank killed Mary
Phagan, says grand-niece
By Clint Williams, The
1915 lynching of Leo Frank, convicted of murdering 13-year-old Mary
Phagan, is the stuff of books, movies and now a Broadway
None of them, says Mary Kean, get
"The inaccuracies bother me,"
says Kean, who has been a student of the infamous case since she
herself was a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan after her
The first Mary Phagan was found
strangled to death at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta on
April 27, 1913.
Leo Frank, the factory's manager,
was convicted on the testimony of janitor Jim Conley, who said Frank
ordered him to hide Mary's body in the factory basement and plant a
note on the body blaming the crime on "a light-skinned
In August 1915, days after his
death sentence was commuted to life in prison, a group of about two
dozen men from Marietta snatched Frank from the Georgia Work Farm
Prison in Milledgeville. Frank was lynched from an oak tree on Frey
Gin Road in Marietta.
The musical "Parade," which
opened in New York in December and is expected to run through April,
takes the position of many other retellings of the crime: that Frank
was wrongly accused and the victim of virulent anti-Semitism. In
most dramatic accounts, the death of Mary Phagan is little more than
a plot device that triggers the chain of events leading to the
lynching, the focus of "Parade."
"Mary Phagan was the victim,"
says Kean. "He was the murderer."
That is not any sort of
emotional, knee-jerk conclusion, says Kean, who answers her
telephone at work, "Mary Phagan Kean."
"I'm not just the victim's
namesake, I'm a student of the case."
Over the years, Kean has spent
thousands of hours studying original court records and scrolling
through microfilm copies of newspapers of the era. Much of her
research is found in Kean's book, "The Murder of Little Mary
Phagan," published in 1988.
The family history that has
consumed Kean as an adult was unknown to her as a child. Kean, a
self-described "military brat," grew up knowing nothing about the
lynching of Leo Frank and the murder of her
It wasn't until an eighth-grade
history teacher asked her if she was related to the famous Mary
Phagan that she learned from her father the story of the girl whose
name she carries.
"My father sat me down, we had a
glass of milk, and explained it to me," Kean
Her father gave a brief account
of the murder and lynching and tried to explain the historical
significance. The case was famous, Kean's father said, because it
was the first time in the South that a black man's testimony
convicted a white man. The case was cited as the cause for the
resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the creation of the
When the family moved to the
Atlanta area, Kean says, more people asked about her name. So she
began reading all she could about the incident.
"I'd go to rummage sales and look
for books about the case," Kean says.
Her reading sparked her
"I wanted to know, I needed to
know: Is what they are printing true?"
Much of what has been printed--or
put on stage--isn't true, Kean insists.
The suggestion that Frank was
railroaded because he was Jewish is off the mark, she says. There
were no bloodthirsty crowds shouting, "Hang the Jew" outside the
courthouse, she says.
"I think the way this was covered
so heavily in the papers, if that sort of thing had happened it
would have been written about," Kean says.
Pulling out a photocopy of a 1913
Atlanta Constitution story about the trial, Kean reads the headline:
" 'Good order kept in court by vigilance of deputies.' Does that
sound like what they're saying today?"
Modern tellings also suggest that
class conflict had a role in the lynching of Leo Frank. Poor
Southerners working in factories resented their rich Northern
bosses. The implication, Kean says, is that Mary Phagan was poor
The Phagan family was
middle-class, Kean says. Mary's stepfather was a cabinetmaker and
her grandfather a wealthy Marietta businessman.
When the family moved from
Marietta to East Point, Mary Phagan couldn't get a desk at her new
school, Kean explains, so Mary was working at the pencil factory
until the start of the next school year.
Kean again reads from a 1913
"From her looks," a story about
the testimony of Mary Phagan's mother states, "the Phagan family is
above the station in life from which come children who toil in
Perhaps most galling to Kean is
the contention that Frank was wrongly convicted.
There is ample evidence in the
court records to prove Frank was the killer, she says. Frank was
caught in contradictions during the coroner's inquest, Kean notes,
and he refused to be cross-examined by the
Kean also offers what could be
called linguistic evidence. The note left with the body must have
been dictated by Frank, she says. The use of the word "Negro"
indicates a Northerner is the author, she says. A Southerner would
use the word "colored."
The 1986 pardon of Frank cited by
his modern-day defenders, Kean says, was granted without attempting
to address guilt or innocence.
"I think that the truth isn't
really told about Leo Frank," says Kean. "He is not a martyr, he is
But that doesn't mean the
lynching was justified, Kean says.
"I think it's a very horrible
thing that happened to Leo Frank," she says.
Convinced Frank is the killer,
the only mystery for Kean in the Mary Phagan case is who is putting
a red silk rose on the dead girl's grave.
Over the last several months,
every week or so, a single red rose appears on the grave. About a
dozen are now planted there.
"That is so sweet," Kean says.
"It means so much to my family."