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.
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:
One has nothing to do with the other. The author is in equal denial that a murdered teen with a job couldn’t be raped because there were conservative mindsets back in the day. “Sexual conservatism” and “sexual liberalism” don’t have more or less rapes in their ecosystem. Both have failed miserably.
But the scholar insists on a default delusion that would not play out today. Take a look at this passage:
It doesn’t matter what an ideological faction holds of dear: just because they saw her as chaste, doesn’t mean Frank’s lawyers weren’t playing dirty by putting out misogynistic rumours about her unproven sexual history. Weinstein’s legal team played a similar gambit. It was still a horrific murder of Phagan.
It was still a horrific murder of Frank. His murder was a hate crime.
Even in 1991, the ideas of what “really” happened to Mary Phagan were sexist to an extreme, and it explains how, five years later, Monica Lewinsky would be framed in disturbing terms in a New York Times piece penned by feminist Gloria Steinem as Lewinsky’s sexual harasser Bill Clinton was spared the same treatment in the same piece. No matter what, Phagan was betrayed by academics decades later in order to keep an incomplete narrative in place.
The scholarly article tries to make a case that working empowered young female workers, forgetting that they were completely dependent on the job for their survival — and that many young girls had to also prostitute themselves to support their families. They were hardly independent and free: they were breadwinners in their families, and hence, had few options for survival as social safety nets weren’t exactly a thing back in the day. The rights of women weren’t all that back then, either. Plus, given the social conservatism of the region, and what you have is a captive female workforce who were vulnerable to the whims of their adult male employers and supervisors.
Which is not dissimilar to the Weinstein’s accusers: despite working and being young adults, to burn a bridge in an ego-fuelled industry is career suicide, and Weinstein’s purported transgressions were at their height in the 1990s, and the mindset back then didn’t consider a woman’s perspective or reality under those circumstances. The 1990s were decidedly an anti-feminist decade.
While there is no doubt that Frank was the victim of anti-semitism, his tragedy was recognized immediately. With Phagan and the young women whose sole option was being a labourer in a dangerous and non-unionized factory, they must either be seen as flawless virgins, dirty whores, or independent and liberated women, when the truth is that they were none of those things. They were disposable and expendable workers to their employers who defined them in their formative years. We have yet to paint any sort of accurate picture because a patriarchal narrative dictates there can only be The One, and this case, the one just so happens to be a white male who had authority over others.
Socioeconomic status in the perception of the murder
Phagan was a poor white girl. Conley was a poor black man. Frank was a rich white male who was Jewish. This places them in very confined roles that doomed them all in various ways.
The former two were units to be exploited, but Phagan was pretty and young, and had she been a poor homely girl, her case would not have caught the attention of the press. She was not someone’s well-heeled daughter, but people could relate to her and the idea of a pretty young girl working in a factory added to the vault of sorrows chained around her neck. She was a captive employee.
As was Conley, and because of his economic status, in a way, would be seen as someone who wouldn’t lie or be able to outwit his wealthy employer. It was racism that gave him credence in the press. He could not possible be a sole actor of a crime: he needed a superior to direct him.
Frank, despite being well-heeled and in a position of power, saw that power work against him. Anti-semitic stereotypes dominated press coverage: how dare he be able to lord over an attractive young girl?
There were no excuses afforded him during the trial, and Phagan’s virtue wasn’t questioned. Had Frank been Christian, Phagan may not have been seen as virtuous in the press coverage. Everyone had a role to play, and the coverage reflected the stereotypes.
Narrative manipulation in the Case of Mary Phagan
Whenever there is a discussion of the case, there seems to be a difficulty not to skew facts. Even in academic papers, we see an overt attempt to shade and create false narratives because there is a compulsion to use patriarchal and antagonistic ruses to make a case.
Frank may or may not have been innocent of the murder, but sexually harassing his female workers was still an issue with him. Jim Conley may or may not have been guilty of the murder, but we have yet to have some sort of satisfactory re-examination of the murder done with facts, not narratives.
Because this is a story that has many intersections, we don’t just have to focus on Frank’s unjust murder. We have Phagan’s unjust murder. We have the exploitation of Conley by prosecutors. We have the working poor who suffered greatly in the pencil factory, forced to be adults when they were too young to do so, who were discarded and harassed as they tried to support their families. They should have been in school as their minds were still developing.
We had various factions spin various narratives — always deifying their chosen subject while demonizing the other side. We cannot seem to even entertain the notion that a self-entitled man abusing his position may find the tables turned on him and face an unjust ending to his life that no one had the right to mete out. Our sense of justice, compassion, or even basic moral weighing seems highly undeveloped, meaning we cannot judge reality because we still refuse to see it in its entirety.
Mary Phagan was a footnote in her own murder. She was poor. She was a wage earner in her family who lost her job at the time. She was raped and murdered.
And yet, often, we have an insistence to question the girl’s virginity status prior to the murder (she may have been the victim of sexual abuse) or have those wonder if she was raped or not to downplay the fact that we have a murdered teenaged girl.
We can have a falsely accused man who was both a target for bigotry, a sexual harasser, and murdered in a hate crime. These are not mutually exclusive traits. The point isn’t to skew or shade, but investigate and find facts so that we understand the reality of the situation. We do not have to like people, but it does not mean they shouldn’t be treated justly.
Mary Phagan’s murder was as unjust, and yet her life and death get lost in the narrative, or spun horrifically. Minimizing the extent of workplace harassment merely prolonged the plight of women in the workplace. It was not uncommon for male superiors to “peek in” on their female employees on the pretence of ensuring they were not wasting company time, but looking in change rooms frequently strains the credibility of that excuse. Young women were harassed, and as they had no rights and no voice, they were dependent on those jobs for survival.
The case was mired in various propagandistic narratives, and continues to be mired in it to this day. Working conditions for young women back in the early 1900's were deplorable. Those who did not align with a Christian faith were vulnerable to mob rule. Those who were not white also placed in subservient positions to be exploited. Those who weren’t male were abused and discarded. Those who were poor were trapped — and yet so were the rich.
The Phagan murder was a case that was always misunderstood. It is a Matriarchal story, not a Patriarchal one. We should have been able to follow several lines, not just one. Today, with social media, various groups would draw attention to each of these variables, and we could get a fuller picture and more nuanced perspective of each players: how does race fit in? What about gender roles? Or religious beliefs?
Unfortunately, we never got the whole story with the murder of Mary Phagan. People feel compelled to villainize Frank, Conley, and even Phagan herself. The picture was never fully painted; ergo, who was who had never been actually established.
Facts would have shed light on this dark episode. Narrative muddied the waters. The Patriarchal structure distorted the extent of the societal rot. This episode was chaotic, and yet it is still being treated as a single story rather than the interconnected quagmire of various hardships and crises.
I have outlined the various problems with the telling of this story. The point was to show that we weigh narratives, not facts, and then try to make the story fall completely in line with the narrative without considering the complexities are not mutually exclusive even if they seem contradictory.
Recently, one family was upset that a book had been written about their deceased relative by someone not of their own race. Their reasoning was that they wanted to control the narrative.
Except that narrative is a hypothetical construct. It is an invention and is owned by no one.
And within any given story, there are countless narratives. Those patriarchal assurances that there can only be The One are illusionary. The Mary Phagan case proves it.
It is time to challenge the very concept of narrative. It is not “owned” by any person or group.
No one owns the story.
No one owns the facts.
To break the barriers for the world to finally confront reality to see the truth, the rules must be turned over and shattered.
Let multiple perspectives be exposed for what they are — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Because people use narratives to hide ugly truths and manipulate public opinion.
We need facts, not narratives.
Had we had facts and not narratives, we would have known who killed Mary Phagan, and had we even sooner than that, she most likely would not have been vulnerable to rape and murder in the first place.