Newt Gingrich & Mary Phagan

Posted on November 21, 2011


Newt Gingrich’s says child labor laws are unnecessary. When I read about his comments, I was immediately reminded of Mary Phagan, a young girl who worked in a pencil factory in Atlanta at the turn of the 20th century. Mary Phagan went to pick up her pay from her employer, National Pencil Company, and never returned home.

The 13-year-old Mary Phagan was murdered.

According to one source, Mary Phagan was paid $4.05 per week, or 7-4/11 cents per hour, for a 55-hour work week.

I learned of Mary Phagan many years ago when I was a teen.

Mary Phagan was born June 1, 1899. Some web sources place her birth in Marietta, Georgia. Other web sources give her place of birth as Florence, Alabama. Updated 11/27/11: According to newspaper clippings I viewed over Thanksgiving holiday, 2011, Mary Phagan was born in Colbert County, Alabama, near Spring Valley, and lived there until she was approximately 8 years old.  In any event at some point, Mary Phagen lived briefly in Alabama with her mother and stepfather, J.W. Coleman. (Her father, John Phagan had died and Mary’s mother remarried).

I know that Mary Phagen lived in Alabama for a brief time because, after her father’s death, Mary Phagan and her family lived about 3 miles from where I grew up. One mile as the crow flies. My ancestors owned the Colbert County house and land rented by the Phagan’s family. They destroyed the house about 10-15 years ago.

A poem about Mary Phagan’s murder begins with these two stanzas:

“Little Mary Phagan
She went to town one day
She went to the pencil factory
To get her weekly pay.
She left her home at eleven;
She kissed her mother goodbye;
Not once did the poor girl think
She was going off to die.”

You’ll find the rest of the poem here.

The murder was a cause célèbre around the country.

Mary Phagen’s body was found by Newt Lee, a night watchman for the National Pencil Company. Lee was, initially, one of several suspects. He was eventually cleared. Another suspect, Jim Conley (a sweeper at the factory) was caught washing out a shirt in the factory’s basement. The shirt was found to contain bloodstains.

Leo Frank

Mary Phagen’s boss, Leo Frank, supervisor of the National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta, was eventually convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder. Frank was Jewish

Jim Conley implicated Frank and the jury chose to believe Conley over the man with Jewish blood. Although Conley was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder, Leo Frank is the one who paid the price.

On June 20, 1915, on his last day in office, John Slaton, governor of Georgia, commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison. On August 16, 1915, a lynch mob calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagen surprised prison guards and took possession of the person of Leo Frank, removed him from the prison.

The lynch mob hanged Leo Frank at Frey’s Grove, near Mary Phagen’s birthplace on the outskirts of Marietta. After some desecration—which ended after a former judge (named, coincidentally, Newt Morris) convinced the mob to end its violence—the body was taken into possession by an undertaker who performed embalming. Leo Frank was buried in Brooklyn, New York on August 20, 1915. Frank was posthumously pardoned when new evidence came to light. (The facts of this and previous two paragraphs are summarized from the detailed account of the trial, lynching and burial described here).

Note to Newt Gingrich: Nothing good comes from child labor.


Watch The Murder of Mary Phagan on Hulu

The Leo Frank Page on GeorgiaInfo

Posted in: History, People