The grotesque murder of a child laborer more than one hundred years ago exposed irreconcilable fault lines running through American society. Fear, hatred and populist menace are persistent themes in this horrific tale. And it continues to be discussed today because it’s so pertinent to America’s present condition.
Rifts between North and South, Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, rural and urban America – all were laid bare by the case. In fact, the murder of 13-year old Mary Phagan in 1913 sparked a sickening chain reaction that conclusively demonstrated that the United States of America was anything but united.
The story began in Atlanta – the capital of Georgia and gateway to the “New South.” In 1913 the city was experiencing social and economic transformation due to the growth of its manufacturing industries. Inward migration from rural areas was commonplace and life in the factories often entailed low wages, long working weeks and poor workplace safety. Child labor was common as well.