"The Night Witch Did It":
Notes on Jim Conley's Murder Notes in the Leo Frank Case


James Conley,
 author of the murder notes

note 1
1  Mam that negro
2  hire down here did
3  this  I went to make
4  water and he push me
5  down that hole
6  a long tall negro blck
7  that hoo is wase
8  long sleam tall negro
9  it wright while play with me
note 2
1  he said he wood love me:
2  land down play like the
3  night witch did it
4  but that long tall black
5 negro did by his slef.

LINK: Jeffrey Melnick, "The Night Witch Did It":
Villainy and Narrative in the Leo Frank Case

 

1. BACKGROUND

The excerpt below is taken from Governor Slaton's commutation order:

JIM CONLEY

The most startling and spectacular evidence in the case was that given by a negro, Jim Conley, a man 27 years of age, and one who frequently had been in the chain gang. Conley had worked at the Factory for about two years and was thoroughly acquainted with it. He had worked in the basement about two months and had run the elevator about a year and a half.

On May 1st he was arrested by the Detectives.

Near the body in the basement had been found two notes, one written on brown paper and the other on a leaf of a scratch pad. That written on white paper in a negro’s hand writing showed the following:

“He said he would love me, lay down play like the night witch, did it, but that long, tall black negro did boy hisself.”

On the brown paper, which was the carbon sheet of an order blank which hereafter becomes important, headed “Atlanta, Ga., _________190”, was written in a negro’s hand writing the following:

“Mam that negro fire down here did this I went to make water and he push me down a hole a long tall negro black did [had] it I write while play with me.:

The Detectives learned about the middle of May that Conley could write, although at first he denied it. He made one statement and three affidavits which are more fully referred to in stating the defendant’s case. The affidavits were introduced by the defendant under notice to produce.

By these affidavits there was admitted the substance of the evidence that he delivered on the stand which in brief was as follows:

Conley claimed that he was asked by Frank to come to the Factory on Saturday and watch for him, as he had previously done, which he explained meant that Frank expected to meet some woman and when Frank stamped his foot Conley was to lock the door leading into the Factory and when he whistled, he was to open it.

Conley occupied a dark place to the side of the Elevator behind some boxes, where he could be invisible.

Conley mentioned several people, including male and female employees, who went up the steps to the second floor where Franks’ office was located. He said that Mary Phagan went up the stairs and he heard in a few minutes foot steps going back to the Metal Room, which is 150 to 200 feet away from the office. He heard a scream and then he dozed off. In a few minutes Frank stamped and then Conley locked the door and then Frank whistled, at which time Conley unlocked the door and went up the steps. Frank was shivering and trembling and told Conley “I wanted to be with the little girl and she refused me and I struck her and I guess I struck her too hard and she fell and hit her head against something, and I do not know how bad she got hurt. “Of course, you know I ain’t built like other men”.

Conley described Frank was having been in position which Conley thought indicated perversion, but the facts set out by Conley do not demand such conclusion.

Conley says he found Mary Phagan lying in the Metal Room some 200 feet from the office, with a cloth tied about her neck and murder the head as though to catch blood, although there was no blood at the place.

Frank told Conley to get a piece of cloth and put the body in it and Conley got a piece of striped bed tick and tied up the body in it and brought it to a place a little way from the dressing room and dropped it and then called on Frank for assistance in carrying it. Frank went to his office and got a key and unlocked the switch board in order to operate the Elevator, and he and Conley took the body in the elevator down to the basement, where Conley rolled the body off the cloth. Frank returned to the first floor by the ladder, while Conley went by the elevator and Frank on the first floor got into the elevator and went to the second floor on which the office is located. They went back into Frank’s private office and just at that time Frank said, “My God, here is Emma Clark and Corinthia Hall”, and Frank then put Conley into the wardrobe. After the left Frank let Conley out and asked Conley if he could write, to which Conley gave an affirmative reply. Frank then dictated the letters heretofore referred to. Frank took out of his desk a roll of green backs and told him, “Here is $200.00”, but after a while requested the money back and got it....

AUTHOR OF THE NOTES

Conley admits he wrote the notes found by the body of Mary Phagan. Did Frank dictate them? Conley swears he did. The State says that the use of the word “did” instead of “done” indicates a white man’s dictation. Conley admits the spelling was his. The words are repeated and are simple, which characterizes Conley’s letters. In Conley’s testimony, you will find frequently that he uses the word “did” and according to calculation submitted to me, he used the word “did” over fifty times during the trial.

While Conley was in jail charged with being an accessory, there was also incarcerated in the jail, a woman named Annie Maude Carter, whom Conley had met at the Court House. She did some work in the jail and formed the acquaintance of Conley, who wrote to her many lengthy letters. These letters are the most obscene and lecherous I have ever read. In these letters, the word “did’ is frequently employed. It will be observed that in Conley’s testimony, he uses frequently the word “negro”, and in the Annie Maude Carter notes, he says, “I have a negro watching you”.

The Annie Maude Carter notes, which were powerful evidence in behalf of the defendant, and which tended strongly to show that Conley was the real author of the murder notes, were not before the jury.

The word “like” is used in the Mary Phagan notes, and one will find it frequently employed in Conley’s testimony. The word “play” in the Mary Phagan notes, with an obscene significance, is similarly employed in the Annie Maude Carter notes. The same is true as to the words “lay” and “love”.

In Conley’s testimony, he uses the words “make water”, just as they are used in the Mary Phagan notes.

In Conley’s testimony, he says the word “hisself’ constantly.

It is urged by the lawyers for the defense that Conley’s characteristic was to use double adjectives.

In the Mary Phagan notes, he said “long tall negro black”, “long, slim, tall negro”.

In his testimony Conley used expressions of this sort. “He was a tall, slim build heavy man”. “A good long wide piece of cord in his hands”.

Conley says that he wrote four notes, although only two were found. These notes have in them 128 words, and Conley swears he wrote them in 2 and ½ minutes. Detective Scott swears he dictated eight to Conley and it took him about six minutes to write them.

The statement is made by Frank, and that statement is consistent with the evidence in the record, that the information that Conley could write came from Frank when he was informed that Conley claimed he could not write. Frank says he did not disclose this before, because he was not aware that Conley had been at the Factory on the 26th day of April, and therefore the materiality of whether Conley could write any more than any other negro employee, had not been suggested to him. Frank says that he gave the information that Conley had signed receipts with certain jewelers, with whom Conley had dealings.

WHERE WERE THE NOTES WRITTEN

At the time of the trial, it was not observed that the Death Note written on brown paper was an order blank, with the date line “Atlanta, Ga.____190. Subsequently the paper was put under a magnifying glass and in blue pencil, it was found that one Becker’s name was written there. He had been employed at the Factory on the fourth floor. Investigation was made and Becker testified that he worked for the Pencil Factory from 1908 until 1912, and the order blank was #1018. During that entire time, on signed orders for goods and supplies. The brown paper on which the Death Note was written bears his signature, and at the time he left Atlanta in 1912, the entire supply of blanks containing the figures 190__, had been exhausted, and the blanks contained the figures “191__”, had already been put in use. Becker makes affidavit that before leaving Atlanta, he personally packed up all of the duplicate orders which had been filed and performed their functions, and sent them to the basement to be burned. Whether the order was carried out, he did not know.

In reply to this evidence, the State introduced on the extraordinary motion the testimony of Philip Chambers, who swears that unused order blanks entitled “Atlanta, Ga., __, 191__ were in the office next to Frank’s office and that he had been in the basement of the Factory and found no books or papers left down there for any length of time, but same were always burned up.

This evidence was never passed upon by the jury and developed since the trial. It was strongly corroborative of the theory of the defense that the death notes were written, not in Frank’s office, but in the basement, and especially in view of the evidence of Police Sergeant Dobbs, who visited the scene of the crime Sunday morning, as follows:

“This scratch pad was also lying on the ground close to the body. The scratch pad was lying near the notes. They were all right close together. There was a pile of trash near the boiler where this note was found, and paper and pencil were down there too”.

Police Officer Anderson testified: “There are plenty of pencils and trash in the basement”.

Darley testified: “I have seen all kinds of paper down in the basement. The paper that note is written on is a blank order pad. That kind of paper is likely to be found all over the building for this reason, they write an order and sometimes fail to get a carbon under it, and at other times, they change the order and it gets into the trash. That kind of pad is used all over the factory.

Over the boiler is a gas jet.

Another feature which was not known at the trial and which was not presented to the jury, but came up by extraordinary motion, was regarding the hair alleged to have been fund by Barrett on the lathe. The evidence on the trial of some of the witnesses was that the hair looked like that of Mary Phagan. It was not brought out at the trial that Dr. Harris had examined the hair under a microscope and by taking sections of it and comparing it with Mary Phagan’s hair, and thought that on the lathe was not Mary Phagan’s hair, although he said he could not be certain of it.

This, however, would have been the highest and best evidence.

The evidence as to the probability of the blank on which the death note was written being in the basement, and the evidence as to the hair, would have tended to show that the murder was not committed on the floor on which Frank’s office was located.

2.  DID LEO FRANK DICTATE THE MURDER NOTES?: AN ANALYSIS
(From The Kansas City Star, January 17, 1915)

Jim Conley, the negro, murdered Mary Phagan, and he described how he slew her in the two notes he wrote and laid beside her body.
 
Conley is a low, dissolute, brutal negro.  He had been in jail different times.  He lived with a negro woman not his wife.  He drank heavily and was always trying to borrow money from the girls in the factory, where he was a roustabout.  His brutal nature is shown by the glib, grinning manner in which he told of carrying the body of the murdered girl to the basement, dropping her with a “thump” upon the floor, handling the body of the pretty, golden haired girls as coldly as if it had been a dead dog.
 
He was drunk the day of the murder.  He had spent his last cent for a flask of whisky which he took with him to the factory.  That is his testimony.  He went there to sell off the effects of the drink.  he hid himself among the boxes there, in the deep shadows.
 
Mary Phagan came down the stairway with her mesh bag in her hand.  it is easy to think that she was opening her pay envelope as she came.  She might have had the money in her hand.  Now, read those murder notes again:
 
          Mam, that negro hire down here did this, I went to make water and he push me down that hole.  A long, tall, negro, black: that hoo it wase, long, sleam, tall negro, I wright while play with me.
 
In the reproduction of this note The Star omits two words represented by the blank space.  The punctuation marks are not in the original.  The other note reads as follows:
 
          He said he wood love me laid down, play like the night witch did it, but that long, tall black negro did buy himself.
 
Within a few feet of where the negro was hiding among the boxes there is a large hole in the floor, two feet square, and a ladder reaching down into the basement.  The hole is behind the walled-in elevator shaft (See fig. 11).
 
Mary may have stepped back into the shadow there for the very purpose stated in the omitted words in the note.  Conley, crouching there, saw here and on the impulse of the moment may have clutched her by the throat and choked her or he may have hit her with something and laid her scalp open. then he thrust her down the hole, head first, likely.  At the foot of the ladder is a chuck of log.  Her head may have struck it and caused the wound in her scalp.
 
Conley hurried down the ladder after her.  She was not dead.  All the doctors agreed that the wound on the head would not have killed her.  There was no skull fracture, no blood clot on the brain.  She would have been unconscious a few moments, she would have squirmed and clutched frantically in the agony or returning consciousness.  She might have screamed.

 
Mrs. J. B. Simmons of Birmingham, Ala., states in an affidavit that she was visiting in Atlanta and passed the pencil factory the afternoon of the murder and heard a woman’s screams in the basement.  She heard a woman’s voice say “Please don’t.”  She stopped to listen.  There was a grating there opening directly into the basement.  Screams in that basement could have been heard.
 
She swore that she went and told Prosecutor Dorsey of it and that he tried to get here to change the time she said she heard the screams because Frank had gone to his luncheon then.  Dorsey denies this.
 
In justice to Dorsey it must be said that neither he not the defense places any confidence in her story.  She was not used as a witness.
 
Anyway, the wounded girls must have struggled hard.  The cinders under her finger nails and matted into her face prove that.  It also proves that she was alive when she was in the cellar.  She breathed cinders and ashes into her nose and mouth.  There were no cinders on the office floor where Conley says she was killed. 
 
Conley says the cord was put around her neck upstairs by Frank, that she was dead up there.  All the doctors agreed that she was strangled to death by the cord.  Her face was black, her eyes starting out, her tongue protruding.  If that was done upstairs she could not have breathed ashes and cinders in the cellar.
 
The ashes and cinders were breathed before she died in the cellar, while she was fighting off Conley.  In his drunken desperation lest she be heard and he be discovered he ripped a piece from her underskirt and tried to gag her with it.  it was not strong enough.  Then he grabbed the cord. 
 
The testimony proved that cords like that were in the cellar.  He tied it tightly around her neck.  It was proved at the trial that a piece of the strip of underskirt was beneath the card, and beneath the strip of skirt were cinders.  That proves beyond doubt that both were put on in the cellar.
 
Having strangled her to death and eternal silence the negro had leisure to carry her back and hide her body at (fig. 12) where it was dark as midnight. 
 
Then he sat down to write the notes.  Against the wall opposite the boiler was a small, rude table with paper and pencil.  Scattered around in the trash that came down from the floors above to be burned were sheets and pads of paper exactly like those upon which the notes were written.  The pad from which one of the notes was torn was found by the body of Police Sergeant L.S. Dobbs, who so testified.
 
Now mark this, it is proof of Frank’s innocence, that pad had printed on the top of every sheet the name of the pencil company and a date.  it was a pad used in the office by Superintendent Becker, who preceded Frank as the factory head.  All of those pads were carried into the basement two years before, after Frank became superintendent, and ask had new pads printed.  There was no paper in Frank’s office like that upon which that note was written.  This disproves absolutely the story of the negro that the notes were written in Frank’s office.
 
The negro wrote these in the basement: denied for eighteen days after his arrest that the could write, when confronted with proof that the could write, and this proof furnished by Frank , he first said that Frank wrote the notes.  Shown that his could not be true, that positively they were in his handwriting, he said he wrote them at Frank’s dictation.  He swore that he “wrote them word by word just as Frank told him.”
 
Frank was then believed guilty by everyone.  Frank would naturally be the one upon whom Conley would lay the crime.  Under other circumstance, of less public delirium, no one would have believed the negro’s story for a moment.  It is too absurd from any point of view.
 
After writing the notes the negro was afraid to to-up and out the street door.  He went by the back door, indicated by an arrow in the diagram.  He pried the locked staple out with a piece of iron pipe and went out. 
 
His bloody finger prints were on the door.  The authorities sawed out the boards and took them to be examined by experts.  The government expert in charge of the Bertillon department as the federal prisons in Atlanta says he could have ascertained positively from those three distinct bloody finger prints whether Conley’s fingers made them.  The finger printed boards were never shown at the trial.  The prosecution said they had been lost. 
 
It is possible that someone had them examined, found they corresponded with Conley’s finger prints and destroyed them?
 
The three strands of hair found on a lathe in the metal room, which did so much to center public suspicion upon Frank, also disappeared.  Prosecutor Dorsey said in reply to a question from the defense, during the trail, that he had lost them.
 
Yet, in his impassioned speech to the jury he referred to those strands of hair.  He said: “I tell you right now, gentlemen, that when Barrett swore he found that hair on that machine he told the truth.
 
“I tell you right now, gentlemen, that when Barrett swore he found that hair on that machine he told the truth.”
 
Mary’s hair was golden in color, easy to identify.  But several who saw that hair say it was dark.  So it was lost.
 
Fair trial indeed!
 
The negro escaped by the back door into the alley, and Mary Rich, an old woman who sold pieces and cakes at the mouth of that alley, and knew Conley well, made affidavit that she saw Conley come out that back door into that alley that very afternoon, right at the time Conley did go out.  But before the trail she repudiated her affidavit.  She told friends that she had to make a living and could not afford to antagonize the police.
 
Conley wrote the notes to direct suspicion away form himself and place it upon a negro who fired the boiler in the basement, “that negro hire down here.”
 
Note that “down here” indicating that the notes were written “down here” not up in the office.

Conley is short, stout and light colored.  He wished to throw suspicion upon someone the very opposite of him, and that the murderer “did it by his self, “Conley did not help him.  The negro that fired the boiler was “long, slim, tall and black,” and so Conley described him that way in both notes one was not enough.  He emphasized in the second note that he “did it by hisself.”
 
“He pushed me down that hole.” Would Frank have written that after he had taken her down in the elevator?  It is pretty good proof that she was pushed down that hole, and not carried down the elevator.
 
The drunken mind of the negro wished to make it appear that the girl wrote the notes to her mother while the negro was not watching her write.  “ I wright while he play with me.”  Whose mind but a negro’s would have conceived such a silly explanation.
 
The second note “he said he would love me laid down, play like the night witch did it,” evidently this: “He told me to play, or make believe or tell, that the night witch did it.”  Those words, “night witch” are negro pure and simple.  No white man would have used them, especially a white man for the North, who had never lived among negros.  The ”night witch” is an old negro superstition prevalent among them over all the South.  The “night witch” comes in through the keyhole at night, gets upon the chest of a sleeping person and takes his breath away.  Persons who die in their sleep, who have bad dreams and nightmares are victims of the “night witch.”
 
Nobody but a Southern negro would have written that.
 
In his speech to the jury Prosecutor Dorsey emphasized that an illiterate negro like Conley would never have written “negro,”: but would have written “nigger:” but would have wrote ten “nigger:” that he would have never written or aid “did it,” but would have said “done it,” and that argument has great weight in Georgia.
 
I have before me as I write the official stenographic report of Conley’s testimony as he gave it in court.  he said “did it” and “negro” many times.”
 
“I don’t remember what I did.”
“I don’t know what I did.”
“Well, I don’t know sir what I did that day.”
“I did some watching for him.”

 
Those are characteristic answers. 
 
In his testimony he said “negro,” many times, and seldom “nigger,” and the court stenographer has made affidavit sine that he wrote exactly as Conley pronounced the words.  Noting that both notes the writer has a distinct way of describing a person “long, slim, tall, negro” “a long, tall, black negro.”
 
Conley’s testimony at the trial shows that his habit was to identify persons with several consecutive descriptive words.  The following are from his testimony:
“Well, she was a tall built lady, heavy weight.”
“Nice looking lady, kinder slim.”
“She was a very tall, slim built lady.”
“He was a tall, slim built, heavy man.”
“Well, Miss Delsy, she was a low lady, kind of heavy.”
“She was low and chunky.”
“He was a slim looking man, and tall with it.”
 
The word “slim” was a favorite with him.
 
Also he used often the word “like: as it is used in the note, “play like the night witch did it.” And he used the words “hisself,” as it is used in the notes.  I quote from his testimony:  “He went to the front door and fixed it hisself, unlocked the front door hisself.”
“Looked to me like with pieces of velvet on it.”
“I said something like that.”
“Yes, sir, eh looks like he would weigh that.”
“He looked like it.”
 
And so on often and often
 
Since he has been in jail Conley has written many letters to a negro woman prisoner.  They are filled with the most unspeakable obscenity.  They prove, not only the lasciviousness and moral rottenness of his nature, but they establish beyond question that he is a pervert.  He writes plainly of his perversion.
 
When the negro wrote the notes his dull mind, sodden with liquor, did not conceive that there were differences in handwriting.  To his ignorant mind all handwriting was alike.  Experts say this is a common belief among the ignorant.  They think writing is writing and that it is impossible to tell one man’s writing from another’s.  Conley never thought that anyone could detect that those notes were not written by the girl.
 
But Frank, the college graduate, the expert bookkeeper, would have known that.  he would have never resorted to so clumsy a subterfuge as using eh notes, even had he been such a fool as to take a dissolute negro roustabout as accessory to his murder.
 
There are many other evidences, beyond those given here, that Conley murdered Mary Phagan and that Frank is innocent.  They can be touched on only briefly here.
 
The fact that the elevator did not run at all the day of the murder, proven by a soft substance deposited early the morning of the murder in the bottom of the elevator shaft and found intact Sunday morning after the murder.  When the elevator was run then it mashed the substance.  The elevator floor always hits the bottom of the shaft.
 
The two men working upstairs did not hear the elevator run, and it runs with a loud noise and shakes the floors.
 
That Frank was not in the least nervous when seen by witnesses immediately after Conley says the murder was done.  He went home and ate dinner with his wife and mother-in-law, returned to the factory and filled out invoice sheets for three hours.  Experts testified that it would take three hours to do it.  The handwriting was plain and not a sign of nervousness in the writer of it.
 
And Frank was extremely nervous and excitable at times.  Witnesses swore that once when a car on which he was riding struck and killed a child he was so upset that he could do no work all day.  A quarrel with his foreman made him so nervous that he gave up work the rest of the day.
 
Conley says she was wrapped in a cloth when he carried her to the cellar.  No such cloth was ever found.
 
There was no blood at the spot where Conley said he found her on the second floor, where she had lain at least twenty minutes, and none in the elevator.  And the undertaker and doctors testified that she “must have bled a great deal” from the wound to the head.
 
Proof that Conley’s story was “made” for him, that he was coached in the telling of it is found in his testimony that “Frank put a piece of cloth under her head when he killed her to keep the blood off the floor.”   A silly and impossible tale.
 
If Frank wished her body burned why did he dictate the notes?  There was no fire in the boiler that day.  To have kindled one would have exposed the crime.  It is a small boiler.  The door is so small the body could not have been put in.  The negro would have had to chop it up and burn it piece by piece.
 
The girl’s mesh bag and the bunch of red flowers from her hat were never found.  The drunken negro probably carried them away to give to the negro woman with whom he lived.
 
At the trial it was proved by Frank’s bankbook and the factory balance sheets that there was not $200 in the office that day.
 
The murderer escaped by the back door, breaking it open first..  Frank did not go out that way.
 
This one fact alone refutes the possibility that Frank murdered Mary Phagan.
 
The negro’s story is so incredible, so absurd, so inconsistent with all the facts, that one wonders that anyone could believe a word of it.


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