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A newly discovered document casts a disturbing light on exactly how Frank’s prosecutor won his case
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
Frank directed Herbert Schiff, acting superintendent of the pencil factory, to a drawer in the company safe that contained documents associated with Conley’s purchase of watches from local jewelry stores and pawnshops. These led the Pinkerton detectives to three shops where they were able to secure loan contracts signed by Conley, and when the signatures were compared with the murder notes, Whit field noted in his report for that day, “the hand writing appeared to be identical.”
Four times in all, and all under oath, Schiff insisted Harry Scott had stated explicitly that Pinkerton wanted Frank to be found guilty.
Though Scott could not prevent the knowledge that Conley was able to write from becoming known, he did try to hide Frank’s role in its discovery, for if Frank were guilty of the murder and Conley were his accomplice, then Frank would be expected to try to shield Conley from questioning.
Luther Rosser had no doubts about the significance of Scott’s failure to inform him that Frank was instrumental in the discovery. At the unpaid-debt trial he stated, “In my opinion, as an attorney, it was material that I should have known before hand the information that the Pinkerton’s [ sic ] had that Leo Frank had said that Conley could write and that information should have been given me by the Pinkertons.” Under questioning by the attorney Harry A. Alexander, acting for the pencil company, Rosser explained how valuable this knowledge could have been for the defense:
Q. [Alexander] When Mr. Scott took his stand at the trial and testified that he ha[d] gotton [ sic ] the information about Conley writing from sources entirely disconnected from the pencil factory, would it or would it not have been material to you?…You could have disproved it by their own reports, couldn’t you[,] if Mr. Scott, had—
A. [Rosser] If they had reported to me, I could have shown it in their reports, of course.
Q. Yes, if it was in that report that they had got it from Leo Frank?
A. If they had given me that information I could have just handed it up to him [Scott], and said: “What did you report that to me for?”
Evidence offered by the National Pencil Company lawyers shows that Scott edited Pinkerton documents to remove any mention of Frank. This evidence consisted of two copies of Whitfield’s report for May 16, 1913—a draft in Whitfield’s hand and the final typed version. In the handwritten version the following words were crossed out: “but that he would sent [ sic ] to the tower and learn from Leo Frank if Conley could write.” These words did not appear in the typed version submitted to Frank’s lawyers, and it was Harry Scott who had edited Whitfield’s draft report.
Once Conley became a prime suspect, he eventually made four different statements, a process that involved Harry Scott more than any person except Conley himself. At Frank’s trial Scott claimed that he coaxed Conley to write by dictating “That long, tall, black negro did by himself,” words similar to those on the murder notes. Scott explained: “We [Scott and John Black] talked very strongly to him, and tried to make him give a confession[;] we used a little profanity, and cussed him, and he made that statement that he knew that I knew that he could write; we talked for about 2 or 3 hours that day. He made another statement on May 24th, which was put in writing.”
On the basis of the second statement, Scott and Black “questioned him [Conley] very closely for about 3 hours” and again the next day, but Conley stuck to his story. In this statement Conley claimed that Frank had paid him to write the murder notes on Friday, April 25, the day before the killing. Scott continued: “We saw him [Conley] again on May 27th in Chief [Newport] Lanford’s office. Talked to him about 5 or 6 hours. We tried to impress him with the fact that Frank would not have written those notes on Friday, that was not a reasonable story, that showed premeditation and that wouldn’t do.”
On May 28, 1913, Scott, joined this time by Chief Lanford, “grilled” Conley for “5 or 6 hours, endeavoring to make clear several points which were far fetched in his statement; we pointed out to him [Conley] that his statement would not do, and would not fit. He then made us another long statement on May 28th.”
This was Conley’s third statement. On the very next day, May 29, Scott and another person, most likely either John Black or Chief Lanford, spent “almost all day” talking with Conley in an attempt to improve on it. As Scott explained, “we pointed out things in his story that were improbable, and told him he must do better than that, anything in his story that looked to be out of place, we told him wouldn’t do; after he had made his last statement, we did not wish to make any further suggestions to him at that time; he then made his last statement on May 29th.”