In the early 2000s, I tried to join a frat at Georgia State University. No, I won’t say which one. That’s not the point of this story.
It was the week before pledges get initiated – popularly known as “Hell Week” – and I was nervous. You lasted through Hell Week or you didn’t make the cut. And Hell Week was… well, it was exactly what it sounded like.
The brothers didn’t like me, I could tell. They didn’t WANT me to make the cut. Good ol’ Georgia boys, sons of farmers and senators and sheriffs, they didn’t want me – a skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn – to be one of them. Because I wasn’t. It was the whole reason I tried to join up: I wanted to fit in. Problem was I was a Yankee and this was a place where they still called people “Yankees”.
They strung me along most of the week. Kept mentioning how they were gonna get me good, saving the best for last. I spent those warm September days in constant fear, never sure when someone might strike. I heard rumors they made one guy drink a beer mug full of piss. I couldn’t imagine what they had in mind for me if that wasn’t the worst thing on their list.
“What the fuck!” I cried, more out of reflex than anything else. I knew what was happening. My hazing was upon me.
“Grab his legs,” someone said. It sounded like Jeffy. Jeffy was a football player, 250 pounds of pure muscle, and I’d once heard him call me a kike behind my back.
Someone obeyed him and I was lifted out of bed. I was only wearing boxers that night since it’d been unbearably hot. I prayed that my junk stayed put.
“Where are you—” I began, but a strong hand clapped down over my mouth. I tasted the sweaty cloth of the pillowcase.
“Keep ‘im quiet until we’re in the car,” another voice said. The deep drawl of this one told me it was Hugh. Hugh was more or less in charge; the frat president was a guy with a squeaky-clean record who was doing it for the boost to his eventual résumé. He stayed quiet and out of their way as long as they kept their shenanigans out of the public eye. Hugh, a lanky blonde majoring in Psychology (oh irony), stepped up to the plate and no one batted an eye.
Whoever had their hand over my mouth grunted a reply and I was carried out of my dorm in total darkness. I only knew we were outside when I could hear the chirping of crickets and felt the thick Atlanta heat sweep over me.
A car door opened and I was thrown inside. I knew better than to bolt or fight back; this was part of it. This was “the best for last”.
I really hoped they wouldn’t make me drink piss.
Two brothers filed in on either side of me, boxing me in. I heard more car doors slam shut and then the engine roared to life.
“Where are we going?” I said, struggling to keep my voice calm.
“This is yoah test, boy,” Hugh said in his Southern drawl. “Yoah gon’ keep quiet back theyah. We’re gon’ take you somewhere and give you a test and if’n you pass, well, you’ll be a brothah.”
Someone clapped a hand on my shoulder and shook me roughly.
“Oh, we all know Behrman ain’t gonna pass,” Jeffy said, uncomfortably close to my ear. “Yankees are chickenshit. Especially Jews. Everyone knows that.”
I bit back the urge to tell him that wasn’t true. It wouldn’t have helped and it would’ve been useless to defend something so stupid anyway.
We rode in silence for a long time. Hugh seemed to be driving; I could hear him occasionally whisper something to someone in the passenger seat. I’m not sure who was up there or to my left. Jeffy kept flicking my kneecap, hard.
Finally, after what felt like an hour, we jerked to a stop.
“Get ‘im out,” Hugh told the others.
I felt two hands lift me under the arms and I was swung out of the car. Someone grabbed my feet again and then we were moving.
“I know where it is.”
“Shut up, shit for brains, and grab the rope.”
Rope? I did start to struggle then. What if they had something else planned, something worse than hazing, something really bad?
“Quit squirmin’, you little Jew,” Jeffy snapped.
When they set me down it was on grass. Someone pushed me back so I was leaning against a rough surface; my groping hands quickly discovered it was the base of a tree.
“This isn’t funny, you guys,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. Someone held me still and another one began to loop the aforementioned rope around my chest and, presumably, the tree.
“Oh yes it is,” Hugh laughed. “’Specially them panties you got on. Real cute, Behrman, nice little polka dots.”
“They’re boxers,” I muttered lamely.
“Now heah’s what’s gon’ happen.” Hugh went on as though I hadn’t spoken as whoever it was finished tying me to the trunk of the tree. “Yoah gon’ sit there ‘til the witchin’ hour is ovah. That’s…” A pause as I guess he checked his watch. “Just ovah an houah. If you survive the night, yoah in.”
“He ain’t gonna,” Jeffy said again. “Look where he is, little Jew’s gonna piss himself and die of fright before the night is over.”
“Or start cryin’ for Momma,” someone else added.
“I just have to sit here?” I moved my shoulders experimentally and found that I was tied tight. I couldn’t lean away from the tree and my hands were stuck at my sides. No getting out of this.
“What does that mean?” I asked, but they were walking away, their voices getting quieter as they laughed and clapped each other on the back. They had left the pillowcase on my head. “What does that mean?” I called again, my heart pounding in my chest.
No use. They were gone.
Something else? What was he talking about?
I squirmed against my bonds for a moment. No dice, I could barely move. I flexed my fingers to see if they could reach the rope but all I could feel was grass and the roots of the tree they’d tied me to. I listened, hard, and heard only crickets and cicadas singing in the night.
The woods. They’d taken me to the woods. I’d only been in Georgia less than a month, I had no idea what lived in these woods!
I tried frantically to remember what kind of animals were in the wilderness in the South. I was pretty sure there were the normal ones – possums, deer, foxes – but I was also pretty sure there were nastier things that thrived down here. Bears. Snakes. Gators.
Did gators live in the woods? Fuck.
I tossed my head back and forth in an attempt to knock the pillowcase off. It stayed put, sagging limply against my face. My breath was hot and all around me.
Okay, I told myself. Calm down. Getting panicky wasn’t helping.
They wouldn’t have taken me somewhere really dangerous. I mean, right? It wasn’t like I was someone who wouldn’t be missed. I hadn’t made a ton of friends or anything but my parents would eventually call and even Jeffy wasn’t stupid enough to get implicated in my murder. It was just a dumb hazing prank and it would be over in an hour.
I controlled my breathing. Tried not to think about bears and snakes and gators.
It was probably only ten minutes or so when I saw the lights.
Off in the distance, faint but there, orange-glowy lights were bobbing up and down. I still couldn’t really see through the pillowcase but through the thin linen fabric the light was visible, just barely.
As they got closer I realized it was fire. Torches. And people carrying them.
Hugh’s words echoed in my brain. Something else.
“Hello?” I called out, hoping that I wasn’t going to be burned at the stake like a witch. I’d take that mug of piss now, thanks. “Who’s there?”
“Move along. Stop draggin’ your feet, move along!” That was someone else. They were both men, not my frat brothers but older guys with the Georgia accent I still hadn’t gotten quite used to.
It sounded like a lot of guys, actually.
“I’m trying,” another voice said, another man – and he had an accent I HAD gotten used to, one that immediately brought back all the comforts of home. A Yankee, someone from New York, like me!
“Hello?” I said again, but they ignored me.
“There. Right there. That tree.” The lights were right in front of me now, definitely torches. They flickered in the dark and in their glow I could see a group of men, twenty or so, silhouetted against the black night. One of them was smaller than the rest, head bowed like he was ashamed.
“Yeah,” said the first voice, “yeah, that’s real fine, face him towards her house. You see that, Frank? That’s where Mary lived. You piece of shit.”
One of the men spun the smaller guy roughly by the shoulder so they were facing away from me. The smaller guy – Frank, I supposed – sagged under his touch.
“There’s gonna be a manhunt,” one of the others whispered. “We should take him back to the prison, we’ll never get away with this!”
“This is justice,” someone responded, and the crowd murmured its agreement.
Behind Frank, some men were at work setting something up on the grass. A table?
This was part of the hazing. It had to be.
“Guys, I don’t know what you’re doing but it’s not funny,” I yelled. None of the men even flinched.
Frank exhaled shakily.
“Can you put something around my waist, please?” he asked, his voice so different from the others – the accent had something to do with it, sure, but this was the voice of a man who’d been utterly broken. “When you put me up there, I’ll be – I’m not wearing any – I’ll be exposed.”
“Jesus,” a big guy next to him said in contempt. “Someone put something on him, Christ almighty.”
“Yessir, Sheriff,” someone said, and left.
Sheriff turned to a man at his right.
“Judge, would you do the honors?” he asked, serious as a heart attack.
“Gladly,” Judge replied. A hush fell over the crowd.
“Guys,” I said again, weakly. Was this really part of it? The hazing made no sense. It was like no one could hear me.
“Mr. Frank,” Judge began in one of those tones that lets you know the person has been in charge for a long time, “we are now going to do what the law said to do: hang you by the neck until you are dead.”
“Woah,” I cried, struggling against the rope, trying to get the pillowcase off my head. What the fuck was happening here?
“Do you want to make any statement before you die?”
Someone came back and was tying something around Frank’s waist, a sheet or a sack or something. Frank looked like he was wearing a nightgown.
“No,” Frank said, defeated.
An angry mutter swept through the crowd.
“We want to know,” Judge went on, “whether you are guilty or innocent of killing little Mary Phagan.”
Jesus Christ, what was going on? If only I could get the pillowcase off my head, if only someone would pay attention to me – how could they not SEE me, how could they not HEAR me?
Frank took a moment to consider this. Finally, he replied, “I think more of my wife and my mother than I do of my own life.”
This was not what they wanted to hear. More cries of “Guilty”. “Murderer”. “Pervert”.
Over the branch of the tree I was tied to, someone threw a rope. In the dim glow of the torches, I saw the familiar hangman’s noose swaying gently.
Oh Christ, I thought, but didn’t say because what I said didn’t seem to matter.
“Put him on the table,” Sheriff said, disgusted.
A group of men lifted Frank off the ground and placed him roughly on the table in front of me. He still had his back turned. He wasn’t crying.
“Wait,” he said, and the mob of men uttered a few shouts of outrage – “Get on with it”, “Stop stalling”.
Frank let out another shaky breath.
“I want my wedding ring to go to my wife,” he said plaintively. “And – and I want you all to know –”
The crowd grew quiet very fast. Hoping for something.
“I didn’t hurt that little girl,” Frank said, and then fell silent.
Not what they’d hoped for, apparently. The mob went nuts.
What happened next happened very fast. Torches were thrust in the air as men screamed, shouted, hooted. Sheriff put the noose around Frank’s neck and tightened it. The crowd seemed to surge around him and the table he stood on. Someone – Judge, maybe – kicked the table and Frank fell. His head snapped backwards, towards me.
Frank’s feet did an odd little shuffle like he was trying to tread water. I’m trying to remember if there was a snap but I don’t think there was; he made these weird, awful choking noises instead. It sounded like he was drowning.
It took almost five minutes for him to die.
And they cheered.
I didn’t say anything at all until they began grabbing at him, tearing his nightshirt, beating his lifeless body without mercy. It was a nightmare. Even through the thin white linen, illuminated only by flickering torchlight, I was witnessing man at its absolute worst.
“Leave him alone!” I shrieked, and someone took the pillowcase off.
There were no torches. There was no mob. No overturned table, no hanging body.
I was in a parking lot.
The tree I was tied to was set back in a corner, the only grassy area around all that pavement. To my left was an office building, and across the street – past the traffic I couldn’t hear until now – was a hot dog joint.
“What the fuck,” I said, unable to put the pieces together. I said it over and over again: “What the fuck. What the fuck.”
“Dude, calm down,” Jeffy said, seeming genuinely concerned. “It’s fine, everything’s fine.”
“What the fuck,” I said again.
Hugh looked at Jeffy nervously.
“Did we traumatize ‘im?” He glanced at the other brothers and gestured impatiently at me. “C’mon, now, untie ‘im, for Christ’s sake!”
They moved to the other side of the tree and began loosening the rope.
“They were here,” I said when I could finally gather my racing thoughts somewhat. “They were here, they killed him, they killed him—”
“Killed who?” Jeffy asked. His brow was furrowed like he was doing a particularly hard math problem. “Behrman, we’ve been sitting on the other side of the parking lot all night. No one else was here. You weren’t in any real danger.”
“But I saw them,” I said, dimly aware I was babbling. “There was a sheriff, and a judge, and they hung him—”
One of the brothers stopped untying me.
“Hugh,” he said, uneasy.
Hugh dropped to a knee and put his face close to mine.
“Shut up,” he snapped, all at once angry. “Yoah shittin’ us, and we know it, so just shut up.”
“I’m not, I’m not shitting you, they were here and they were talking about a little girl—”
Hugh raised his fist like he was going to hit me. Jeffy grabbed his arm.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Jeffy demanded. “You can’t hit a guy who’s tied up, man, Jesus Christ!”
“He’s lyin’!” Hugh shouted. “He knows where he is and he’s lyin’, tryin’ to scayah us—”
“I don’t, I’m not!” My heart felt like it was in my throat. “Please, you gotta believe me, I saw it happen, I saw him die—”
The rope fell away from me and I jumped to my feet, turning to look at the tree where I’d seen Frank’s body hanging.
“I saw it,” I said weakly, and that was when I started to cry.
The other guys shifted uncomfortably. Jeffy still looked confused, and Hugh still looked like he wanted to hit me.
Finally Jeffy took me by the shoulder, gently.
“It’s fine, man, you’re in. Don’t… don’t cry, okay, Berhman?”
“I don’t give a shit about your stupid frat,” I managed. “Where am I, what is this place?”
He paused, then lead me slowly over to the office building. Cars passed us by on the street, headlights blazing.
On the brick, near the door, was a green and gold placard. It read:
I stared at that for a long time.
“What happened?” I asked at last.
“They said he killed a little girl who worked at his factory,” Jeffy said quietly.
“He DID kill her,” Hugh spat.
“And what happened?” I pretended not to hear Hugh.
Another long pause passed between us.
“Bunch of guys took him from the prison,” Jeffy said, “and lynched him. Here. They – they wanted him to see the little girl’s house as he died.”
“You knew,” Hugh insisted. “You knew and yoah just tryin’ to get us back foah the prank—”
“Take me home,” I said, not even caring that I was standing at the side of a busy road in my boxers. “Just take me home, okay?”
I didn’t join the frat. In fact, I didn’t even stay in Atlanta. I dropped out that semester and went back to Brooklyn, where Leo Frank was from.
There’s no way I can explain what I saw that night. The best I can come up with is “residual haunting” – an act is committed that creates so much negative energy that it plays out long after it’s happened, over and over, endlessly. Who knows how many times Leo Frank has met his fate. Or maybe it was because I was there, another scared Jew stolen from his bed in the night.
All I do know is that when I’m alone, when it gets really quiet, I can still hear that awful sound: the sound of a man suffering, slowly dying, while all around us – cheers, as joyous as a Memorial Day parade.