The Divisive Death of Mary Phagan

The shocking child murder that divided the nation

Heather Monroe
10 min readNov 28, 2019


Mary Phagan, ca 1913, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Mary Phagan was born on June 1, 1899, to a farming family in Florence, Alabama. Her mother was the widow Frances Phagan; Mary’s father succumbed to the measles before she was born. The family found themselves in dire straits and moved to Bellwood, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. Frances ran a boarding house to make ends meet. When she was 10-years-old, Mary dropped out of school and found factory work.

On April 26, 1913, Mary had two things on her mind. First, it was Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia, and she was excited to show off her new dress and watch the parade. Secondly, she had to go to the National Pencil Company and pick up her final paycheck of $1.20 from her boss, Leo Frank. The company laid her off after a shipment of sheet metal failed to arrive. Mary had a late breakfast of cabbage and bread at 11:30 AM, then said goodbye to her mother for the last time. Little Mary wouldn’t live to see the parade.


On n April 27, at 3:20 AM, night watchman Newt Lee went to the basement of National Pencil Company to clean the “colored” bathrooms. On the floor, amongst the filth of the rarely used basement, Newt discovered the dead body of little Mary Phagan.

13-year-old Mary lay there face down. The dress she meant to wear to the festivities, pulled up, exposing her torn and bloody underclothes. Soot and ash from a nearby furnace covered her face, obscuring the child’s skin color.

Newt was terrified that he, a black man in 1913 Georgia, found the body of a murdered white child. Atlanta was still recovering from the 1906 race riots, and race relations were still volatile. Despite what might happen, he immediately told the police.


It was an eerily quiet day at the police headquarters for a Saturday. But that stillness was shattered with a telephone call at 3:30 AM. Officer Anderson dropped the receiver without bothering to ask who was calling. He only recalled the words, “Somebody’s killed up here! It’s the pencil factory on Forsyth Street…!”

Officer Anderson jumped in his car and drove to the pencil factory with Officers Dobbs and Brown. Newt led the…



Heather Monroe

Welcome readers! Heather Monroe is a genealogist and writer who resides in California with her partner and their nine children. •True Crime• History• Memoir•