Today, by most accounts, Phenix City, Alabama, is a nice place to live and work. Business Week magazine rated the city on the Chattahoochee River near Columbus, Georgia as the “Nation’s Best Affordable Suburb” in which to raise a family in 2007. Located not far from Fort Benning, the city of about 28,000 souls appears to be a quiet, decent, typical American small town.
That wasn’t always the case.
One of the first communities to reinstate the sale of beer after the repeal of Prohibition, by the mid-1950s Phenix City was known for its gin joints, gambling and bawdy houses, and corrupt government. Anyone who paid attention to it knew the town as “Sin City.”
Perhaps it is unfair to include an entire community in the Malefactor’s Register, and even at its worst the vast majority of Phenix City citizens were decent law-abiding folk who just happened to tacitly condone a culture of vice that made Las Vegas pale in comparison. Most likely most of the people who lived there during the worst of times thought themselves too powerless to make much of a difference.
Chances are they were right. Until 1954, when the Alabama National Guard was called in to enforce limited martial law, there was a machine in place in Phenix City that didn’t blur the line between law and crime — it obliterated it.
“I saw city policemen openly buying votes for $5 or $10,” one veteran returning from WWII told the press. “I knew I didn’t fight for this.”
To get an idea of what the devolution of Phenix City must have been like, think “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bedford Falls with George Bailey was a nice place where people could walk the streets at night and raise kids and all went to the same church. They took soup to sick neighbors and even the girl of questionable virtue had a heart of gold.
In contrast, “Potterville,” the same city without George, was filled with bars, nightclubs, dance halls and worse. People walked the streets at night, but they were usually drunk, and if not, they were looking for love in all the wrong places.
People who are opposed to using casinos to inject much-needed capital into foundering municipalities can use Phenix City as a good example of what can go wrong when a community compromises its morals.
Like many small towns during the Depression, Phenix City was struggling. The city literally had no money — in 1932 the teachers were paid with valueless scrip. Something had to change, and the city fathers decided that perhaps legalizing beer, selling liquor licenses and taxing the drink might provide the city with the cash it needed.
It was a gutsy move because Prohibition had been repealed but Alabama and Russell County were dry. The state turned a blind eye, but for a time the Russell County authorities conducted half-hearted raids and confiscated the 3.2 beer the honky-tonks sold.
Eventually the “wets” won out, but it was a case of be careful what you wish for.
Phenix City started down a slippery slope. If 3.2 beer was OK, then full-strength alcohol must be OK, too. Soon it was beer, wine, and whiskey. Then came the racketeers who brought gambling and prostitution for the soldiers at nearby Fort Benning.
The city itself was addicted to vice. A 1955 article about Phenix City reported that 20 percent of the city’s general fund was made up of income from licenses, fines, and forfeitures. Dirty money in the city coffers corrupted the city officials and soon the gangsters were running things, influencing city hall and infiltrating the police department with bribes and threats.
Phenix City had been a haven for crime almost since its incorporation in the early 19th century.
At one point, U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson called Phenix City “the wickedest city in America” after receiving a report about how Fort Benning soldiers had been victimized there. According to author Margaret Anne Barnes, who wrote the definitive history of Phenix City, Gen. George Patton once threatened to take his tanks from Fort Benning to “mash Phenix City flat” because of the “atrocities committed against his soldiers.”
There is a specious belief that when organized crime runs a community things are “safer.” People think that the thugs don’t want the cops poking around so they keep things clean. This is bunkum, particularly in a place like Phenix City, where the main source of income came from the kind of entertainment that attracts some of the less-desireable components of society.
To know how safe a place is, we must know how safe it isn’t. Unless crimes are reported and recorded somewhere, we have no idea how dangerous our community is. When the people keeping track of crimes are the same people who commit them, then few crimes are reported. How safe is that?
Former New York Times writer Selwyn Raab, in his awesome book on the New York mob, sums up life in a mobbed-up neighborhood this way:
…A commonly recycled story by newspapers and television subtly praised the Mafia, citing its formidible presence for low street-crime rates in predominantly Italian-American sections. With predatory crime soaring, two Mafia strongholds, Manhattan’s Little Italy and Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, were presented as safe havens to live in. Unreported and underemphasized were the factors behind these statistics. Significantly, the gangsters relied on sympathetic neighborhood residents to alert them to the presence of probing law-enforcement agents and suspicious outsiders trying to encroach on their bastions. These watchdogs helped turn their neighborhoods into xenophobic enclaves, sometimes resulting in violence against strangers, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics.
Selwyn Raab, Five Families
I strongly recommend Raab's book for anyone interested in historical organized crime. No OC library is complete without it, as it is encyclopedic.
This is not to suggest that Phenix City was totally lawless. It wasn’t. It was only quasi-lawless. Certain roadhouses and brothels were periodically raided by police when payoffs were slow and when things really got out of hand the Military Police from Fort Benning would show up and roust the drunken soldiers on leave. Occasionally the military authorities would declare a particular joint off-limits to army personnel.
The police department did its part, too. It revoked the permits for all the guns within city limits, but when it outlawed guns, only the outlaws had guns.
There were attempts by a few brave locals to try and clean things up, but as might be expected, these were easily put down by threats and violence. Most of the time people just averted their eyes and held their noses as they raked in the cash. After all, should the druggist not sell condoms to the hooker because he disapproves of her profession?
The corruption of Phenix City spread beyond its borders. The city was a safe haven for bootleggers who imported tax-free liquor into Georgia and when confronted by Georgia revenue agents, scurried back across the border to the protective enclave of the city. There, the Georgia agents had no jurisdiction, and they could expect no assistance from either the Russell County Sheriff’s Department, led by Sheriff Ralph Matthews, or the city police.
Prostitutes were available for the asking, with prices ranging from $5 to $50, according to testimony at one of the many trials held after the fall of the rackets. Plainclothes state troopers admitted “talking with” the prostitutes — and paying for that privilege.
Spiraling out of control almost since its inception, with destruction accelerated by the gangsterism of the early 20th century, Phenix City hit bottom on June 18, 1954.
On that night, a killer gunned down the town’s leading anti-vice advocate, Albert Patterson, 59, in cold blood.
A former state senator and Purple Heart veteran of the First World War, Patterson had been more than just a thorn in the side of the local hoodlums. Through the Russell Betterment Association Patterson had raised awareness of the situation in Phenix City and brought it to the attention of the people of Alabama. The Phenix City machine fought back against the RBA. Someone firebombed the house of the Association president, destroying it while his wife and children were home. After the police revoked the gun permits, two RBA members were assaulted with lead pipes by a pair of thugs. Patterson’s law office mysteriously went up in flames.
Patterson, who could only walk with the help of a cane because of his war wound, was no saint. For a long time he was one of those citizens who held his nose while working with the corrupt system of Phenix City. Unlike those who colluded for the sake of profit, Patterson did so because of his belief in the rule of law — even for those who seemingly didn’t deserve it.
Eventually Patterson could no longer in good conscience provide legal services for the criminals of Phenix City and he was recruited by the Russell Betterment Association to run for Attorney General. The RBA knew that it would take state muscle to make any signficant headway in the city.
Patterson’s former clients were stunned by his decision to run on an anti-crime platform, and they took steps to make sure he didn’t reach his goal. Ironically, the Phenix City political machine, which reached high up into Alabama state government, painted Patterson as “the machine candidate.” They used their own notorious history — and Patterson’s role in it — against him, referring to Patterson in campaign literature as “that lawyer from Phenix City.”
The May 4, 1954 primary in Phenix City was typically corrupt. Vote buying and tampering was common. People who openly supported Patterson were beaten and chased away from the polls without voting.
But Phenix City was only one part of Alabama and when the votes were tallied Albert Patterson won the three-man primary by 70,000 votes. Unfortunately for him, that victory only meant a runoff vote a month later against the machine’s real chosen candidate.
In the June runoff Patterson won by less than 1,000 votes. The slim margin necessitated a recount which gave the opposition a last chance to manipulate the totals.
When that failed, the racketeers of Phenix City and the entrenched political machine of Alabama state government tossed away the ballots and chose the bullet.
Next: The murder of Albert Patterson and the rebirth of Phenix City