the tyranny of the mob
by Robert Clem
Phenix City Alabama didn’t earn the name ‘wickedest city in the USA’ for nothing. It was a border town offering soldiers at nearby Fort Benning everything they couldn’t get in Georgia. It was Tijuana to the larger city of Columbus across the Chattahoochee River.
But to say that might be an insult to Mexico.
On payday at the fort, with its huge population of Army trainees from World War II onward, the mob that ran Phenix City would dispatch ‘mobile units’ to meet the extra demand, with girls handing out their favors under a tarp in the back of a truck. There was a casino behind every door downtown. Cards were marked in a nearby warehouse and the dice expertly loaded. “B girls” were paid to get soldiers drunk enough to lose their boots at the roulette wheel (the boots often ended up in Phenix City pawn shops) or get rolled on their way to “Ma Beachie’s” famous club up the street. The grandmotherly Ma Beachie was said to have a pair of matched pistols under the counter in case of trouble. A cast of shady characters straight out of a 1950s crime novel served as thugs, enforcers and hatchet men.
Dapper Hoyt Shepherd, who’d lost his job at a Georgia cotton mill, descended on Phenix City during the Depression when the city was nearly bankrupt. He and his English partner Jimmy Matthews offered tax revenues in return for license to set up gambling casinos near the Chattahoochee river bridges. Other rackets followed, from prostitution to untaxed liquor, drugs, loan sharking and common theft – among its other distinctions Phenix City was the site of an exclusive safecracking school. The city government was the mob’s private fiefdom; the police, sheriff, judges and jurors all belonged to them. If anyone complained about illegal activity, they were thrown in jail for drunk and disorderly or given a pair of concrete shoes and dumped in the Chattahochee.
Phenix City had always been notorious dating back into the nether reaches of the nineteenth century, when it was known as Girard. Then, it was bootlegging, gambling and one or two houses of ill repute. Now, in the period after World War II, it was a multi-million dollar business ‘too big to fail,’ with enough money to buy off every politician in sight.
Every now and then some higher up at Fort Benning would threaten to close down Phenix City. Unlucky soldiers who couldn’t pay their debts would sometimes end up dead. It was the Secretary of the Army who called Phenix City the ‘wickedest city in the USA.’ When George Patton was the fort’s commanding officer he threatened to bring his tanks over and flatten the place.
But then it would always come down to the fact that soldiers needed a place to have fun. They were serving their country; any day they might be sent off to foreign wars to fight and die. An attitude of laissez-faire toward Phenix City became the norm. A succession of governors and state attorneys general looked the other way – either because of campaign contributions, backdoor bribes or perhaps because other issues were far more pressing. No one in the state was calling for the city’s cleanup.
Except for a growing number of citizens of Phenix City.
Hugh Bentley lived in Phenix City and passed by the strip every day on his way to the sporting goods store he owned in Columbus. But at a convention up north around 1950 he found out just how notorious Phenix City was. A Sunday School teacher and family man, he had known nothing about the vice his city was famous for.
As head of the Russell County Betterment Association, Bentley and colleague Hugh Britton held secret meetings with other citizens to discuss how they might restore democracy to Phenix City and end the tyranny of the mob. When Bentley and Britton set up a table on a main street to influence voters, a group of heavies beat them senseless as a crowd looked on. When Bentley went to the press, his house was bombed and his wife and son barely escaped injury.
The bombing led several newspapers, notably the Columbus Ledger, to pay closer attention to Phenix City. In 1954 enter Albert Patterson, a Phenix City lawyer who once helped mob leader Hoyt Shepherd escape a murder rap. Patterson had been elected to the state senate with gangland support, but now he decided to buck the mob and run for state attorney general on a platform of “Man Against Crime.” His platform: to clean up Phenix City.
The mob did everything they could to defeat him, setting fire to his law office, disrupting rallies, and on election night going all over the state buying and stealing votes. But in May 1954, Albert Patterson won the Democratic nomination as Alabama’s attorney general – tantamount to election in those days – by less than 900 votes.
A tough man who had suffered a grievous leg wound in World War I and walked with a pronounced limp, Patterson believed that Phenix City prosecutor Arch Ferrell and outgoing attorney general Silas Garrett had committed flagrant vote fraud in Birmingham in a failed bid to defeat him. Two weeks after he was elected attorney general, Patterson announced he would testify about vote fraud before the Jefferson County grand jury.
It was a brazen act. Two nights before he was to testify, Patterson was gunned down in a parking lot outside his office. One shot had been to the mouth, gangland vengeance against informers.
The assassination touched off a spark that brought national magazines to town, a Pulitzer Prize for the Columbus Ledger and final dissolution of the mob. When the Phenix City police hindered the state’s investigation into Patterson’s murder, Governor Gordon Persons ordered the town placed under martial law. The head of Alabama’s national guard, General Walter J. ‘Crack’ Hanna, did what George Patton had threatened to do years before. Phenix City’s mob was flattened, the casinos shut down, the hookers and hoodlums scattered to other seedy locales. Even Ma Beachie was caught up in the dragnet. Arch Ferrell and Silas Garrett were indicted for Patterson’s murder, but neither was convicted. Judgment fell on the third alleged co-conspirator, deputy sheriff Albert Fuller, probably the triggerman.
For the most part, when the dust settled in what had once been called the ‘poor man’s Las Vegas,’ the people had won. Phenix City’s notoriety, with any luck, was all in the past.
Robert Clem, a former fellow of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, Harvard Law School and NYU Film School. He is an award-winning independent filmmaker and producer whose productions have been distributed around the world. Of particular interest to Alabamians are In the Wake of the Assassins a film about Phenix City, and Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism.