By Zach Itzkovitz
It’s possible but highly unlikely that Leo Frank was the killer of Mary Phagan, journalist Steve Oney, author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank,” told a packed Earl Smith Strand Theatre on Marietta Square on Thursday, Aug. 13.
Oney joined Georgia Historical Society senior historian Stan Deaton onstage to mark the centennial of Frank’s lynching.
After detailing events surrounding the lynching, Oney discussed his book’s methods and sources. He said Bill Kinney, former associate editor of The Marietta Daily Journal, guided him toward witnesses of the lynching. Many were children of the culprits, including George and Lucille Morris, son and daughter of Judge Newt Morris, and Eugene Herbert Clay Jr., son of Herbert Clay.
Oney believes, as most historians do, that Jim Conley killed Phagan, acting on his own. He noticed similarities between Conley’s written and spoken statements and the notes found with Phagan’s body.
“Conley had a penchant to use compound adjectives — long, tall, black — in everything he wrote and said,” Oney said. “To me, the authorship of those notes places this crime at Jim Conley’s hands.”
But he acknowledged that Frank could have been the killer.
“The prosecution presented a credible case against him,” Oney said. “Jim Conley was a fabulous witness. I read every single word of his testimony, and there were days that he had me convinced.”
The program at the Strand was titled “The Ghosts of Leo Frank: Reckoning With Georgia’s Most Infamous Murders 100 Years later.” Oney’s book title also introduces the idea of ghosts from Phagan’s murder and Frank’s lynching.
Why do the ghosts of the Frank case still haunt us? It’s easy to acknowledge how much has changed in a century. It may be harder to recognize what hasn’t changed and what may never change.
Deaton followed Oney’s remarks with an explanation: “It is still our story, and we risk our own future if we don’t return to walk over this ground.”