The Murder Of Mary Phagan And The Forgotten Heroism Of John M. Slaton

I  just brought The Ethics Alarms Heroes’ Hall of Honor up to date. There are 44 men and women whose inspiring stories reside there, and I know who #45 will be: John Marshall “Jack” Slaton (December 25, 1866 – January 11, 1955),the 60th Governor of Georgia.

This won’t be the official entry for John Slaton; I want to do him justice, and the story of his moment of principle and sacrifice is not only complicated, but I am having a hard time settling the facts. The short version is this:

Mary Phagan, 13, an employee at Atlanta’s National Pencil Company where Leo Frank was the manager, died of strangulation on April 26, 1913. Her body was discovered in the factory’s cellar the next morning.  Over the course of their investigation, Atlanta police arrested several men, including the night watchman Newt Lee, Frank, and Jim Conley, a janitor at the factory. Lee and Conley were black; Frank was Jewish. Though this was the height of Jim Crow in the South, prejudice against Jews was as strong in Atlanta as racism.

On May 24, 1913, Frank was indicted on a charge of murder and the case was tried at Fulton County Superior Court beginning on July 28. The prosecution’s key witness was  Conley, who described himself as an accomplice, assisting Frank in disposing the girl’s body.  Frank’s defense lawyer argued that Conley was the real killer.

The jury pronounced Leo Frank guilty verdict on August 25, 1913. Then followed a series of unsuccessful appeals, the last being before the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected it in April of 1915. Georgia Governor John M. Slaton was a popular figure about to leave office, and considered a rising political star whose ascension to the U.S. Senate was likely, if not a forgone conclusion. It was assumed that he would quickly reject Frank’s request for a pardon, given the extensive appeals and the overwhelming public outrage regarding Mary Phagan’s murder.

Those assumptions were wrong. A trial lawyer before entering politics, the Governor reviewed the evidence, acquired some evidence that had not been presented at trial , and interviewed some of the witnesses, including Conley. who had changed his story several times.  Slaton also heard arguments from both the prosecution and defense.

Although he knew, and had been warned, that taking any action favorable to Leo Frank would not only end his political career in Georgia but also place him and his wife in mortal peril, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence from capital punishment to life imprisonment. In his official statement, he wrote,

I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation, but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience, which would remind me in every thought that I, as a Governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right.

The governor’s review of the evidence and the trial transcript convinced him that Frank had been victimized by manipulated testimony and questionable witnesses, that Jim Conley was not credible, and that there was more than enough exculpatory evidence for the jury to have found Frank not guilty. Indeed, the judge presiding over the trial announced from the bench that he was not convinced that Frank was guilty, but chose not to dismiss the jury’s guilty verdict as he had the power to do. The evidence against  Frank was circumstantial, and Georgia’s Solicitor General admitted as much. Under Georgia’s statutes, a conviction of murder on circumstantial evidence allowed the  trial judge to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment rather than death, but the judge, even with his own stated doubts, sentenced Frank to hang anyway. For all these reasons, Gov. Slaton decided that he had to commute Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment in the interest of justice, and he did so  just days before leaving office in June of 1915.

It didn’t matter, at least to Leo Frank.  Twenty-five  citizens of Atlanta invaded the prison farm where Frank was being held, and lynched him. In November of 1915, some of the men in the lynching party, calling themselves  the Knights of Mary Phagan, joined with some others  to burn a cross on Stone Mountain and  announce the founding of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

I have always believed that Slaton’s courageous act is not better known because of moral luck. It did no good, you see. He didn’t save Leo Frank’s life, and Frank’s innocence has never been conclusively proven.

After Frank’s clemency was announced, a mob threatened the governor at his home, and  the Georgia National Guard was called upon to protect him.  Slaton left the state for a decade, and never held another publicly elected position. He returned to Georgia  to practice law, and served as president of the Georgia Bar Association as well as chairing the Board of Law Examiners for twenty-nine years.

The controversy over Mary Phagan’s murder, however, continued, in fact, continues to this day. In 1982, Atlanta lawyers Charles Wittenstein and Dale Schwartz sought a posthumous pardon for Leo Frank based on the revelations of 83-year-old Alonzo Mann, who had been Frank’s office assistant when he was just 14 years old.  Mann swore under oath that on the day of the murder, he entered the factory lobby and saw Jim Conley carrying Phagan’s body. Conley had threatened to kill the boy if he told anyone about what he had seen. The elderly Mann agreed to take a polygraph test, and passed.

Nonetheless, the application for a posthumous pardon for Frank was vigorously opposed by the Phagan family and relatives of Hugh Dorsey, Frank’s prosecutor, who himself went on to become a governor of Georgia. The Georgia Pardon and Paroles board announced,

“After exhaustive review and many hours of deliberation, it is impossible to decide conclusively the guilt or innocence of Leo M. Frank. For the board to grant a pardon, the innocence of the subject must be shown conclusively.”

Wittenstein and Schwartz refused to give up, and reapplied for a pardon in 1986. This time, they argued that Georgia had failed to protect Frank from lynching, and owed him an expression of fault and regret.  The board agreed and Frank was pardoned, but not exonerated. And the case still roils: In early May of last year, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced that he will reopen the case. The review is being supervised by the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit, a panel created to look into cold cases, and former Georgia governor Roy Barnes serves as a consultant. When Howard made his announcement at a news conference, Barnes said, “There is no doubt in my mind that we’ll prove that Leo Frank is not guilty.”

I have not been able to determine where that investigation stands, or if it has continued. That’s one of the obstacles to my completing Slaton’s essay for the Hall.

In 1988, “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” a mini-series scripted by Larry McMurtry  and starring Jack Lemmon as Slaton, Charles Dutton as Conley,  Richard Jourdan as Dorsey and many other terrific actors like Kevin Spacey, Robert Prosky, Cynthia Nixon  and William H. Macy, won a Peabody Award. You can view it on Amazon Prime. In 1964, one of my favorite forgotten TV series, “Profiles in Courage,” featured Walter Mathau as John Slaton. You can see it here.

This is an excellent account of the case; Gov. Slaton’s explanation of his decision can be found here.

18 thoughts on “The Murder Of Mary Phagan And The Forgotten Heroism Of John M. Slaton

    • If you read his whole analysis (the link is included), it’s clear that he was 100% certain that Frank had been wrongly convicted, but not 100% sure he was innocent. As with the law allowing a judge to reduce the sentence to life imprisonment for 1st degree murder when the evidence was circumstantial, the idea was to respect the jury verdict and the process, but to give the convicted the benefit of some doubt. In the Larry McMurtry script, the governor says that if he pardoned Frank, he would be a dead man walking, and the best for all concerned was life imprisonment.

      Then they let a lynch mob get him anyway.

  1. This is interesting. Is it ethical to peruse pardons well after the the man is dead? This doesn’t change the fact that the man had died, and it goes well beyond most of his living relatives. Seems like a frivolous lawsuit. I’m sure I’m missing something here.

    • The idea is to clear a man’s name who was unjustly convicted. That’s worth doing…I agree that anything short of exoneration is a waste of time and frivolous. The captian of the Indianapolis was exonerated after his death—it didn’t do him much good, but he was unjustly scapegoated, and it meant a lot to his family. In Frank’s case, various Jewish advocacy groups have wanted to see Frank pardoned, because the whole story had political and anti-Jewish implications.

      • In Frank’s case, various Jewish advocacy groups have wanted to see Frank pardoned, because the whole story had political and anti-Jewish implications.

        I have listened to Tim Kelly’s podcasts for a few years now. It has to be said up front, because it is true, that his perspective is (as I would say) Jewish-critical, and as others would and do say ‘anti-Semitic’. Kelly has intereviewed E Michael Jones numerous times — and Jones is high up on the SPLCs list of demons. And it was Kelly that introduced me to the perspective of Graeme MacQueen who has investigated both 9/11 and the related Anthrax scare (His books: “9/11: The Pentagon’s B-Movie” and “The ‘Inside Job’ Hypothesis of the 9/11 Attacks: JFK, 9/11 and the American Left” and “The 2001 Anthrax Deception: The Case for a Domestic Conspiracy” indicate his orientation.

        MacQueen is an interesting man insofar as he has a degree from Harvard and is really and truly a peacenik given that he was director of the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I never much looked into it but his idea seems sound: You either make a serious effort to study peace and try to determine why war is more often than not an alternative, or you simply go with the flow of war-making and the many negatives that arise from it.

        MacQueen’s critical position of 9/11 dovetail into his understanding that whatever happened there, and it is not at all clear (and is tremendously confused), has led to conditions that can be described as ‘general war’. As you know I regard America’s wars as being the invisible and un-talked about cause of many different destructive influences now visible and operating in the social body of America. I conclude, and try to express my conclusion, that *no one seems to be able to explain why what is going on is going on*, because no one can look at the *whole*. It is only parts that are examined.

        I hesitated before submitting Tim Kelly and Nick Mason’s conversation about the Frank/Phagan case because Kelly is one of those people who is an exponent of those ‘alternative views’ that have become possible to disseminate because of the means offered by an open Internet. However, he and people like him are now being denied platforms and, it must be said, that in some cases it is Jewish activism that is pushing in this direction. These are things that are not talked about in any depth in any mainstream media, and so they are pushed underground and to the fringes. Related to this effort to control or eliminate speech that is not liked is “Secure Tolerance“. You and your readership will instinctively not like the way this ‘manifesto’ is talked about in, for example, the pages of Occidental Observer (a publishing site also on the SPLCs demon-list).

        In my case — oriented philosophically and meta-politically — I am more than anything interested in how people *organize their perception* and how they determine what is ‘true’ and also ‘real’. I do believe that it is possible to ‘know the world’ and to ‘understand reality’ — if I didn’t I would have to define an absolutely mystified state for Man generally — but I do refer to (my interpretation of) Plato’s Cave and I do believe that we are in a time of absolutely confused narratives about ‘reality’. And I definitely believe that *most people* do not and indeed cannot *see* their reality. You actually have to be trained to see it, and you have to have the intellectual tools to do so, and then also the resources.

        And the reason is because when *interest* enters the picture and someone has an interest to defend, this will always induce them to distort, to fib, and to lie. And as I have said numerous times the CORE LIES operative in our present have to do with those related to the war-making power (the military-industrial complex as Eisenhower put it) and therefore the ways and means that the Republic is undermined and perverted.

        So, all of this — everything that I do — involves attempts to ‘put everything on the table for examination’ and to open the conversation to the fullest extent possible.

        • The trial, witnesses and evidence , to cite a phrase I detest, is what it is. The prosecutor coached witnesses, and Frank’s guilt wasn’t proven. The main witness admitted that he often lied. Such a verdict today would be struck down anywhere, by any court. The Jewish issue helps explain how this could happen, but it has no bearing on the actual case or the rightness of the clemency decision. Take out all the tribalism, make all participants a neutral color and religion, and the legal issues would be identical.

          • I think all that you say here is sound. I know nothing substantial about this case, and it does not interest me much. I listened to the talk because I am interested in how alternative perspectives are constructed.

            And I am interested in the meta-political and meta-social issues that are so powerfully determining in our present. The whole point that I made in the above-post therefore goes unaddressed. As I said: you focus on a minor element and fail to comment on the larger one. I have no problem that you do this. You are clearly a lawyer — I mean your methods are those of a lawyer (generally) — and you approach things through the specific and through the detail.

            I simply work to explain my position which seems to be one with a (far) larger scope and with other, important implications. I know that what I do is bothersome at times. And not appreciated at other times. And despised by some.

            Yet my mother still loves me, thank Heavens! 😍

              • We differ in extraordinary senses as to what is relevant and what is irrelevant. But there were no doubts about this, I don’t think ever.

                This illustrates a point of mine, an important one: we are (that is *we* generally) are in wars that have to do with the most basic definitions, with value-declarations, and with (even) metaphysical notions about what the world is.

                And the divisions arise out of these perception-conflicts.

                “It is what it is”. 😁

  2. Jack, have you seen “Parade,” the musical adaptation of this story? It’s quite good. It’s also the reason I know this story.

    • Heard it, never saw it. I wasn’t able to fathom how anyone would think you could make a opmmercial musical out of that story. Sondhiem turned it down…when the composer of Sweeney Todd thinks a story is too depressing, that tells you something.

  3. This paragraph, “It didn’t matter, at least to Leo Frank. twenty-five citizens of Atlanta invaded the prison farm where Frank was being held, and lynched him. In November of 1915, some of the men in the lynching party, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, joined with some others to burn a cross on Stone Mountain and announce the founding of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

    Another feather in the cap of man… Jesus.

  4. YIKES! I just saw that for no reason I can see, the first paragraph published in the largest font! I ‘m sorry—it didn’t read that way on my master screen. I fixed it. WordPress gets funky sometimes….

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