Conley Star Actor in Dramatic Third Degree

by Archivist on September 16, 2016

conley-star-actor

Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.

Atlanta Georgian

Saturday, May 31st, 1913

In all the grim annals of Atlanta’s criminal history an illiterate negro, Jim Conley, stands out to-day the principal figure in one of the most remarkable and dramatically impressive “third degrees” ever administered by the city police.

A chief of police, ordinarily stolid and unmoved, and chief of detectives and members of his force, a Pinkerton operative—all men in daily touch with every sort of crime and evil—hung with tensest interest on each word as it came from the lips of the negro, and watched, as wide-eyed as any tyro in man-hunting, the negro’s every move as he re-enacted Friday afternoon what he steadfastly asserted was his part in the ghastly Mary Phagan tragedy.

Factory Men Look On.

Dumb under the spell of the drama in which Conley played a triple role—first in his own personality, then as Leo M. Frank, and, finally, as the young girl victim—two employees of the factory listened to the damning accusations that unconcernedly, almost glibly, were made against their superintendent. They were Herbert Schiff, chief clerk, and E. F. Holloway, the timekeeper.

Both had reckoned Frank innocent. They had said many times that he could not have committed the shocking deed. More likely, they had declared, it was the negro himself. Yet here they were the spectators of a grewsome performance in which Frank was represented as nervous and shaking and half in a panic as he directed the carrying of Mary Phagan’s limp and lifeless body to the elevator on the second floor of the factory and down into the dark and dirt-strewn basement.

Theatric in Its Appeal.

Every incident and every circumstance added to the theatric and powerful appeal as Conley duplicated detail by detail the movements he said were made that fatal afternoon of April 26. No stagery could have been more impressive with weeks of planning by the detectives. The sinister, gray-black factory, itself, threw a spell of silence upon the little group of detectives and police as they entered the forbidding doorway.

A score of girls, a number of them of just about the age of Mary Phagan, were just inside the door when the automobile of Chief Beavers, it’s curtains tightly drawn, dashed up to the front of the building during the noon hour. Their chatter and laughter instantly was stilled. It had been more than a month since their young companion had been taken from them by a mysterious crime and they had been able to forget some of its tragic details, but now the spectacle of a stern blue-coated officer, a squad of keen-eyed detectives and a shackled black man brought back the tragedy in all its first horror.

Young Girls Shudder.

Some of the girls, pitifully young and helpless looking, pressed back against the wall and stood there with distended eyes and afrighted [sic] manner as the men brushed past and mounted to the second floor. Several of the older girls gave hysterical little laughs which died in their throats when they noted the dead stillness that marked the passage of the officers and their prisoner.

Then followed during the very hour in which Mary Phagan is believed to have met her death on April 26 a reproduction of all that Conley declared took place after he heard the two low whistles with which Frank was to signal him. With the detectives following him closely and clustering about him each time he stopped to make an explanation, the negro started at the point he said he first saw the dead body and went through the building exactly as he claimed he did on the afternoon he bore the tragic burden to the elevator, down to the basement and then to the dark corner near the furnace.

Does Not Break Down.

If the detectives hoped that the plan of bringing Conley right to the scene of the tragedy would break him down and force him to confess that it was he alone, and not Frank, who committed the crime, they were disappointed.

The negro proved himself either a most consummate actor or a man who finally was telling the truth. He was letter perfect, so far as a person could be in a tragedy of the sort. He never faltered nor hesitated. Yet he reproduced in startling detail every movement and every conversation of importance which he said took place while the body of Mary Phagan was being hurried to the basement.

Conley did not pretend too great a knowledge. Occasionally when he was asked a question he would reply, “I don’t know, boss, I don’t know.” He did not assume to quote Frank verbatim in many instances. If he was lying, it was a most amazing fabrication he built up. He told more than enough to demonstrate conclusively that he knew all about the disproval of the body. He told enough of his alleged conversations with Frank to indicate strongly that they actually took place, but he did not go into such a wealth of detail as to give the impression that his whole story was a mass of lies so far as Frank’s connection with the affair was concerned.

However, Conley’s credibility will be a matter for the court to decide. Several times before he has related stories of his movements the day of the crime and has afterward admitted them false or imperfect.

Displays Little Emotion.

Conley displayed little or no emotion in his remarkable recital. Rather than detracting from the dramatic impression, this accentuated it. He impersonated the actors in the black tragedy with such unconcern and apparent fidelity to detail that the detectives were forced to feel that they were witnessing an almost exact reproduction of what took place after Mary Phagan was killed the afternoon of April 26.

“She was layin’ jus’ like this when I found her,” the negro said easily, and dropped on his stomach to the floor near the metal room. He had been unshackled so that he might go through all the movements that were necessary in telling precisely how the girl’s body was disposed of.

Conley told of his terror when he had discovered that the girl was dead, but there was no terror in his voice as he related his story. Throughout, his tone was a matter of fact and his motions free as though he were giving the description of some commonplace incident that might have occurred in his daily routine as sweeper at the factory.

How He Carried Body.

“I carried her jus’ this way,” he remarked, and he went through exactly the motions that one would use in shouldering a bag of grain.

Relating a moment later how the girl’s body became too heavy and he called Frank to his assistance, he added one of the little descriptive details of his recital by saying:

“This is where Frank got nervous and dropped the girl’s feet. They dragged on the floor. He had hold of the cloth that I had wrapped her in and was walking like this. I guess he just was so nervous he let go.”

A little later as the party arrived at the elevator down which the negro said the girl’s body was taken, Conley remarked that he had to wait there at the elevator while Frank went to the office to get the key to the door.

Employees Show Curiosity.

As the elevator passed down with its load of detectives, a large crowd of the factory employees could be seen gathered in the corridors of the first floor eager to get a glimpse of what was going on. They peered through the openings in the elevator and after the officers and the negro had got to the bottom of the shaft and were making their way to the place the girl’s body was found by Newt Lee, one venturesome young fellow raised the trap door on the first floor and poked his head into the dim light of the basement.

“Get out of there and shut that door,” Chief Clerk Schiff shouted at him, and there were no more prying eyes directed at the strange proceedings that were taking place. It was through this trap door that Conley said Frank made his way to the first floor after the body had been disposed of.

Left Indelible Picture.

When the remarkable recital was ended, all who had gone through the building with the negro had an indelible picture graven on their minds. It might not have been what actually took place at the factory the fatal day, but it was most realistic and impressive.

They saw a man, a white man, standing at the top of the steps leading from the second floor down to the first. He was signaling some one. A negro answered the signal.

They saw the horrified face of the black man a few moments later bending over the huddled form at the rear of the building. The form was that of a little girl. She was dead.

They saw her wrapped in a rough piece of crocus bagging on the shoulders of the stocky negro. Her head hung limply from one end of the bagging. Her legs dangled from the other.

Drops Heavy Bundle.

When the burden became top heavy, the spectators in this grim drama saw the body dropped to the floor and the white man come cursing from a doorway where he had been directing the negro.

Then the white man took up the feet of the girl victim and the negro the shoulders. They carried her a few feet and the white man in his nervous fright loosed his hold on the bagging and the body dropped again.

The little ‘party’ saw, almost as plainly as though they had witnessed it, the body carried to the elevator, the white man hurrying to the office to get the key and then running the elevator down himself, standing with one foot on one side of an extended leg of the girl and the other foot on the other side.

In the Dim Basement.

The tragic panorama then represented the two lifting the mutilated body out of the elevator, the negro carrying it past the dimly burning gas light and into the darkness at the other end of the basement. Meanwhile the other stood guard at the trap door lest anyone interrupt them at their grewsome work.

Then the negro ran the elevator up, the white man climbing up through the trap door and meeting the elevator at the first floor. A graphic picture was presented of the white man as he stumbled from the elevator in his frenzy of fear at what he had done and of his terrified actions after he had reached his office. His face blanched and then went red. He wrung his hands as though in abject terror, according to the story of the black man. He muttered: “Why should I hang?” and mentioned rich relatives in Brooklyn who would help the negro financially. He gave the negro $200 and then took it away from him. He said it would be all right, that the negro would get the money Monday.

Air of Calm Finality.

All this the negro told and told it with an air of calm finality that convinced the officers where they had doubted his other stories. They realized when they walked from the gray-black building that they had passed through one of the most remarkable experiences of their lives. The negro had told a startling and grewsome story. He had related it as though it were a matter of little moment. The tale was not without the improbabilities, but these were swept away in the minds of the detectives by the assurance of the black man and his many references to incidents that seemed impossible of invention in any human mind unless they actually had taken place.

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Atlanta Georgian, May 31st 1913, “Conley Star Actor in Dramatic Third Degree,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)

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