This isn’t going to be a typical story, and not a typical story Chaser is going to usually do, but it is important to consider the current arrogance in today’s historically illiterate rage mob.
People think these days that they are more enlightened and worried about the treatment of various identity groups.
Not even close.
That is a myth.
So I am going to discuss a 1913 murder case that has all of the elements of the kinds of things we talk about today.
I am going to make connections to things that are currently in play, and look at the case through several different filters.
I am not going over the gory details. This isn’t an exploitative piece, but one where we begin to loo at how narrative defines what we know about certain events.
The second arc will take one step away from traditional journalistic conveyance. The third will take two steps away.
But this is Arc I. Let’s examine how we draw our conclusions to what things mean. This event has always been told in a Patriarchal narrative, and it is time to look at a Matriarchal one.
I will refer you to this site, this one, this one, and this one. One journal article from 1991 is here, and it is well worth reading, as I will refer to it later on.
First, I am going to go over the difference between Patriarchal and Matriarchal. Second, I am going to discuss the basics of the case. Third, I will go over the anti-semitism of the case. Fourth, the racism.
Then I am going to talk about the misogynistic thread that oddly enough, has been consistently ignored for the other two. Then I will discuss socioeconomic class.
Finally, I am going to discuss why narratives get in the way.
Patriarchal versus Matriarchal
The biggest problem with nonfiction relaying of information is that it is tinged with interpretations and the compulsion to use narrative in order to relay it. This compulsion guarantees that there are roles and fit trumps honesty: certain facts are ignored, downplayed, spun, or emphasized in order to make the narrative flow smoothly.
To add to this quagmire, we rely on patriarchal narratives to tell a story.
One point of view, and that of the “Good Guy”, meaning any opposition is seen as the “Bad Guy.”
It is competitive and antagonistic by design, and in order to support this role designation, certain information has to be spun in a certain way — a hero has no bad qualities, while a villain has no redeeming qualities. There is no logical reason why one tragedy trumps another. There is need for competitive narratives as we have multiple deaths that are interconnected. The biggest problem with studying the Phagan Murder is precisely that there are many societal problems that all collide in one case, but are ignored. Had there been focus on multiple issues, Frank may not have been murdered in the first place as people were encouraged to focus on The One.
What we do not see is matriarchal narratives where an Us Versus Them dynamic is not used. We have different people with different wants and needs. We get to understand all players, and do not weigh their actions to create a pecking order.
Let the facts speak for themselves without trying to rig the perceptual outcome. We do not talk in terms of roles: no hero, villain, or victim. There is no drive to deify or demonize. We give a full account of the players. Their facts.
And when we rely on facts and not narrative, we have a thirst for more facts, not filler.
We can use an epistolary style of just putting out the raw data, and then a picture merges; or more accurately, several intersecting pictures emerge at once. We see hidden connections, and we can draw realistic conclusions without the melodrama.
If any event warranted a matriarchal method of conveying information, it was the murder of Mary Phagan.
How did these lives intersect with one another until it resulted in the rape and murder of a thirteen year-old girl.
The primer of the Mary Phagan murder.
The basics of this case are horrific, but to be clinical, Mary Phagan was a child labourer who was murdered on April 26, 1913. Her father died, and she was forced to work in a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia. Child labour was common back then in the US. This would not be a fun job or an easy job. Prospects for anyone working there would be dim. Because the workforce skews toward children, ideas of unionization and the like are not likely to happen. These children need to support their families. This is life and death, and as bad as this situation is, it is preferable to not working. Social supports are nonexistent. There is no social media.
The First World War will break out in the following year.
Mary was attractive, outgoing, and popular with her peers.
She was laid off and went to the factory to pick up her final pay check, but she never made it out of the factory alive.
Her body was discovered by one of the African-American workers at the factory, and he feared he would be arrested for the crime.
He called the police, and was arrested for it, but was eventually released.
Eventually, police focus was on a factory superintendent, a Jewish man named Leo Frank. He would be arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime, sentenced to death, but new evidence compelled the Governor to commute his sentence to life imprisonment.
There was a second African-American worker who testified against him by the name of Jim Conley who also worked at the factory, and many people believe that it was this second man who was responsible.
However, Frank was no saint himself, with several young female factory workers who testified about his penchant for sexually harassing them.
A series of events cumulated with a group of white Christian men who abducted Frank, and lynched him for the crime. Frank was 31 years old. Even though his sentence was commuted and things came out after the trial that indicated he was perhaps innocent did not matter to those who took the law into their own hands. Had appeals taken their course, the murder of Phagan would have escape collective memory entirely.
Much of the mob had relied on the press coverage.
The portrayal of Frank, and the end result of the trial sparked the creation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.
However, the facts of the case were always dodgy.
Had this case taken place today, there would be more forensic means to determine guilt and innocence, but the narrative would not be so cut and dried, and be torn in several different directions.
Anti-semitism in the perceptions of the murder
Leo Frank was not treated kindly in the press. Many stereotypes and assumptions were made about him. The fact that a lynch mob nabbed him and killed him speaks volumes about the state of perceptions in the region — and country — at the time.
To bolster the theory that Frank was guilty, the press overtly resorted to religiously biased attacks on him. That’s absolutely true. He did not come from Georgia, making him more the outsider, and he was seen as a “Northerner.” He was not an outgoing man, and these factors made it difficult for him to connect to the public during his trial. He did not have deep roots in the community, and their xenophobia echoed loud and clear.
The details of the trial and his murder have been recounted elsewhere, as has been the anti-semitism. Of all aspects of this case, it is the this form of prejudice that has been studied and debated the most. For an enigmatic murder, the only clear narrative has been Frank’s plight. The bigotry has been established, and at the time, it was the most pressing problem considering the man was abducted and lynched.
I would also go on to say that considering how Nazis portrayed Jews in their propaganda campaign against them in the Second World War, the press coverage of Frank highly mimics those images.
I will say this much, however: while Frank was accused of sexually harassing young female employees, the practice was common back then (and now, if we are to be honest), and these were abuses perpetrated by Christian supervisors; however, this wasn’t an issue or spoken of before the Frank Trial — nor did it spark any sort of awareness or conversation after. This was used for the sole purpose of setting Frank’s role as villain. This does not excuse what happened to those female workers, but unlike #MeToo, the revelations did not go anywhere, meaning the outrage was not actually sincere. While the Jewish Anti-Defamation League arose from the ashes of that trial, no such Women Anti-Sexual Harassment League came from it, either.
This lack of organization, in fact, speaks more about the anti-semitism of the times than the lack of progressive drives of young women: once Frank was convicted, the abuse was seen as contained because the Jewish man was sentenced to death. No one thought whether or not other factories were having similar problems as well, particularly not the press.
In a Patriarchal narrative, the one who receives the most attention for their tragedy ends up being the sole focus, as other players’ plight may be believed to contradict the set story; however, that thinking does not align with reality. Frank’s death was tragic, but not more tragic then Phagan’s.
However, the press was not just anti-semitic. They were also racist, sexist, and classist.
Racism in the perceptions of the murder
White supremacy in the region at the time was rampant. What is shocking is that neither black man was convicted of the murder, given the social climate; however, this is not to suggest there was any sort of civil enlightenment because the man who reported it was release, or that the star witness was Conley.
The second — and more pivotal player during the trial was Jim Conley, and many have suggested that he was the killer, and not disposing of the body per Frank’s orders. While Newt Lee, the night watchman who initially discovered Phagan’s body was arrested for the murder, he was eventually released.
He was a suspect because he was black. That began to taint the case right from the start. The man who gave the warning was rewarded with handcuffs. He was released, but the troubles began from there.
Once Frank became a suspect, however, blaming Conley became out of the question. Not because civil rights were a concern back then, but because you cannot maintain authority or control once you start playing musical suspects. People already had their personal prejudices incited from the start, and once that disease was triggered by a racist knee-jerk arrest, the case went downhill from there.
Conley was a star witness, but there is evidence pointing to him being the actual killer, but once the police locked in on Leo, that narrative stuck in public opinion.
Had the police been more methodical, we would have had more definitive answers about the case.
Misogyny in the perceptions of the murder.
The accusations levelled against Frank are not all that different than the ones levelled against Harvey Weinstein, except the sexual harassment was levelled at teenaged girls.
There were several young women who testified against Frank. Not a single one recanted her testimony. To this day, not a single one was discredited or shown to have lied.
Frank has been portrayed as the biggest victim in the saga, but what is easily forgotten is the murder of Phagan and the abuse of captive female workers. The 1991 article is one of the few that looks at the gender aspect from an academic aspect at all.
In an Age of #MeToo, the narrative would be vastly different than it was back then when there was more overt sexism seen as normal.
We still see that sexism. Wikipedia, for instance, has no individual entry for Mary Phagan — just Leo Frank. She is a mere footnote (Jim Conley does not have one, either; so we can argue that racism is also at play, too).
What is also interesting is the journal article suggests that Phagan may have been sexually active, but offers no real evidence one way or another — and besides, what is the point? It is not an excuse for murder.
Phagan’s personal history is irrelevant., but as we realize collectively in modern times, is not a valid excuse. The “boys” did not deny sexual harassment occurred, and as we saw during the early days of #MeToo, everyone from unpaid interns to A-list actors knew about sexual harassment happening right in front of their noses, but said nothing.
We don’t actually know much about Phagan, either. The article suggests that Phagan may not have been raped, but that is highly unlikely given the brutal nature of the crime — that kind of brute force on a child is unnecessary to subdue or even kill her. Add that she was naked from the waist down, we are on safe ground to say she was sexually assaulted prior to her death. To quibble on this point is counterproductive. One scholar had peculiar logic: that way back in 1913, the autopsy couldn’t say for certain that Phagan was raped — and yet the technology and methods back then missed a lot of things.
The same scholar goes on to make some assertion that Conley could have been the killer — and the motive could have been robbery — as if robbery and rape were mutually exclusive.
And then there is this mystifying passage: