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East Hall Middle School students video chat with author of Leo Frank book
Author wrote of mans lynching in 1915 during Atlanta murder case
East Hall Middle School eighth-graders talk to Steve Oney, author of “And the Dead Shall Rise,” via Google Hangouts. The students prepared questions for the author about his research for the book. The book delves into the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta in 1915, which is a Georgia Studies grade standard. - photo by Kristen Oliver

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In Marietta in 1913, it wasn’t unusual for a 13-year-old girl to work at a pencil factory.

It was highly unusual for her to be raped and bludgeoned to death.

The murder of Mary Phagan and the ensuing lynching of her accused killer, Leo Frank, two years later has been the subject of speculation and discussion for 100 years.

Eighth-graders at East Hall Middle School were riveted by the case over the last several weeks, as it’s a state eighth-grade standard for Georgia Studies. Their attention was further captured by a live video discussion on Google Hangouts with Steve Oney, author of “And the Dead Shall Rise,” the definitive account of Frank’s lynching.

Oney spoke Friday to students from his home in Los Angeles. The discussion was arranged by eighth-grade Georgia Studies teacher Dana Farr, who spoke to Oney last fall at a Leo Frank discussion in Marietta.

“The Leo Frank case is extraordinarily fascinating,” Oney said. “It’s strange, puzzling, and it kept me tied up in curious knots for about 15 years.”

Oney said he became interested in the case when an 85-year-old man came forward late in his life with information about the case.

“He came forward to say he had seen something on the day Mary Phagan was murdered, and that he had kept it inside him for 70-plus years,” Oney said. “What he said he saw was a black man named Jim Conley, who was likely actually the killer of Mary Phagan. He didn’t see Jim Conley kill Mary Phagan, but he saw him carrying her body.”

The story started as an article in Esquire Magazine, and soon became a “monster” of a nonfiction book.

“My wife — who is very funny — would refer to herself, as I was twirling away on this, as ‘the bride of Leo Frankenstein,’” Oney said. “She was none-too happy that I was caught up in this mad pursuit to get to the bottom of this. But she was proud of me that I was working on something that was fulfilling.

“But it became kind of a monster in our house.”

Oney told the students he was happy to “pull back the curtain” of his research and show them what he found.

His research and findings went into several areas: Phagan’s murder in 1913; the ensuing case, which at one point considered both Frank and Conley as suspects; and the 1915 lynching of Frank in Marietta after he was found guilty.

Oney said the most suspicious thing to him was that a group of affluent and influential men in Georgia at the time were able to break Frank out of state prison in Milledgeville, drive him more than 150 miles and lynch him openly in Marietta at dawn.

And though the lynchers were prominent men in Marietta and the state, they were never prosecuted for the crime.

Oney started his research by getting a list of 1915 vehicle registrations. There were only a few hundred in the greater Marietta area at the time. He also worked with several people in Marietta today who are well-connected and familiar with the history of the city, and he set out to identify the lynchers.

“They got away with it,” he said. “They lynched him at dawn, and then they just disappeared into the woodwork. It was a perfect crime.”

Oney said he didn’t want to prosecute the guilty all these years later, but simply wanted to understand what happened.

Oney also discussed his certainty that Phagan was murdered by Conley, not Frank. One student asked Oney why an all-white jury in 1915 Georgia would have believed the testimony of African-American Conley over Frank.

Oney said part of the bias was due to Frank’s Jewish and “Yankee” heritage, but it also had to do with his role as superintendent, or manager, of the pencil factory where Phagan worked.

“We’re all slightly distrustful of the boss, and Leo Frank was the boss,” Oney said. “Jim Conley was just a worker — he was black — but he was just another worker. You also have to understand that in the South at this time, the factories were kind of new. Most Southerners had grown up on farms or still lived on farms.”

Oney challenged the students to imagine the life of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who had only completed a few years of school and was a worker in that factory.

Oney, who is from Georgia originally, said “And the Dead Shall Rise” was an opportunity for him to write about his home in a particularly captivating way.

“When I looked at the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank I thought, ‘Wow, this is a way to tell a whole story of the modern South. This is a way to do it, but write about a murder case,’” Oney said. “And I tried to do it in a way that I hope was interesting, and that caused people to read it because they wanted to, not because they had to.”

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