Episode 50 - Wickedest City In America

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The town of Girard of Russel County, Alabama was created near the Chattahoochee River when a federal road was put in between Charleston, South Carolina and Montgomery, Alabama. The town of Columbus, Georgia was right across the river from Girard and the two towns were connected by a ferry. Columbus began to grow as a crossroad of industry and trade while Girard became the town where everyone would go to drink, gamble, and fight. At the turn of the century, Girard’s main economy was liquor. Many of the citizens took part in the manufacturing and trading of illegal corn liquor, but the town also had a legitimate distillery and whiskey warehouse that shipped liquor all over the Southeast United States and even as far as New York and Boston. A bank was opened in Girard to handle all of the cash that the liquor was bringing into the town.

In 1915, Alabama’s legislature overrode the Governor’s veto and statewide prohibition was put into effect. Alcohol was the economy of Girard and without it, many families went into bankruptcy and lost their homes. It didn’t take long before citizens of Girard decided to just not abide by prohibition laws and continue the manufacturing and sale of alcohol. Anyone who tried to interfere with Girard’s liquor were met with beatings, their house and property burned or destroyed, the hamstrings of their horses cut, and murder. If newspapers tried to write about the illegal liquor trade, their presses were often smashed. Some of the members of this citizen gang would be indicted for crimes by the Russel County Grand Jury, but they would often make bond and when they didn’t show up to court, the bond was forfeited and the case never went to trial and that was that.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were upset about this open defiance of prohibition and asked the Governor of Alabama to do something. When the Governor was slow to interfere, the Attorney General of Alabama, William Logan Martin sent 40 hand picked deputy into Russel County and ordered to destroy over one-million dollars’ worth of illegal liquor. The deputies began to kick in the doors of illegal saloons and hauling their owners along with all of their liquor out into the streets. 106 barrels of beer, 46 barrels of whiskey, and 1,000 bottles of wine, gin and other liquor were all smashed. The liquor all began to run in a stream towards the Chattahoochee. Men began to jump into stream they called “whiskey creek” and tried to drink as much as they could before it all washed away. One of the liquor warehouses was seized and the liquor that remained there was guarded by the Alabama National Guard.

The Alabama Chief Justice disqualified the Russell County courts and sent an attorney named Hugo Black, who later became a United States Supreme Court justice, to act as the chief prosecutor for the State of Alabama along with Judge A.H. Alston who put together a grand jury. Black and Alston quickly got to work. The city marshal was convicted of accepting bribes from liquor dealers, the sheriff was impeached, and the mayor and the board of alderman all resigned. Anyone who had been found to violate prohibition laws were tried, convicted, and either fined or sent to jail. Satisfied with the law and order they brought to Girard, Black and Alston left. About six months later, in March of 1917, liquor runners dug a tunnel through the river bank that went underneath the floor of the liquor warehouse that was guarded by the national guard. The liquor was then taken through the tunnel and then shipped down the river.

The United States entered into World War I the next month and Girard was once again left to do whatever it wanted and liquor was made and sold openly in Girard. In 1923, the same sheriff that had been impeached in 1916 was reelected as sheriff of Russel County. When one of his deputies tried to close a saloon, the saloon owner shot the officer four times. Another man involved in Girard’s liquor business began to punch and kick the officer all while another officer on the scene just watched. Eventually, the saloon owner and the bloodied officer were both taken to the county jail where the officer was locked in a cell and the saloon owner was able to hang out in the jail corridor.

After this incident, a large group of citizens asked the Governor to help clean up Girard. The Governor went to go speak in front a crowd of 8,000 citizens where he said that the people just needed to solve their problem through love. When the crowd began to boo, the governor then suggested that Girard be consolidated with the peaceful, law-abiding town of Phenix City, which the crowd seemed to like much more. In order to make sure that Girard would peacefully transition into Phenix City, the governor sent another clean up crew in. Federal agents destroyed liquor stills that held over 100 gallons of liquor and 3,400 gallons of beer. For a while, it seemed like the newly combined Phenix City was going to be a quiet, law-abiding town, but in 1925 watermelon beer began to be manufactured and distributed from Phenix City, and then it was corn liquor in 1927, and morphine in 1931.

The Great Depression was also in full swing at this time and the state of Alabama had much bigger problems to worry about than Phenix City. In 1932, a man named Jimmie Matthews, who did laundry across the river at Camp Benning, began to gamble with the soldiers there. When he was able to stash away $11,000 that he had won from the soldiers, he decided to open up his own gambling operation in Phenix City. He had slot machines, dice, cards, and a lottery that locals called “the bug”. Gambling and lotteries were illegal in Alabama, but it didn’t matter. There were even kids showing up to the saloon to spend their milk money on slots with step stools installed in front of the machines so it was easier for the kids to reach and play.

When concerned citizens complained to the city, the city council tried their best to explain that without gambling and liquor, there was no industry in Phenix City. If they got rid of those, the schools and all other public services would have to be shut down and the town would be bankrupt. Jimmie Matthews and his partner Hoyt Shepherd quickly began to use their money to contribute to campaigns on politicians and buying off law enforcement. Eventually, there was no candidate in the county that could run for office successfully without being backed by Jimmie and Hoyt. Even if citizens tried to vote out the corrupt politicians, ballot boxes were routinely filled with the votes of dead citizens and citizens down on their luck often openly sold their votes at the ballot box, usually for around $3 at a time when the weekly salary at the mill was $8.75.

If a case against anyone was brought to court for gambling or liquor, the district attorney usually dismissed the case based on the lack of sufficient evidence. If there was way too much evidence to use that excuse, then witnesses were intimidated with threats of violence to themselves, their families, or their jobs.

When a lawyer named Albert Patterson moved to Phenix, one of his first cases was to defend his client in a dispute about car repairs. The jury came back with a verdict that was in favor of Patterson’s client, but the judge refused to accept their verdict and forced them to return to the jury room until they came back in favor of the other party and threatened to throw them in jail for being in contempt of court if they did not.

When Hitler started to make his way through Europe during World War II, it was becoming obvious that America could get involved soon. Fort Benning started to bring in even more soldiers for training. In their off time, soldiers often found themselves gambling and getting drunk across the river in Phenix City. There were also prostitutes that usually cleaned the soldiers out of the rest of their cash at the end of the night. Around the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing and the United States officially entering World War II, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was informed of the Fort Benning’s soldiers trips to Phenix City. Phenix City was made officially off-limits to soldiers. However, since Phenix City made about $2 million a month off of soldiers, enough politicians were able to be bought off that the off-limit order was lifted.

Even when soldiers were found in the Chattahoochee River wearing cement shoes, the only explanation that military investigators received was “He was drunk and fell off the side of the bridge into the water. I reckon he was so drunk he walked through fresh cement before he fell in.” General George C. Patton was training troops at Fort Benning at this time and was getting fed up with his soldiers being taken advantage of. Patton publicly threatened to take his tanks across the Chattahoochee and flatten Phenix City. Patton never got the chance, having to lead troops in World War II, and Phenix City continued to do whatever they wanted to do.

During the height of the war, with Fort Benning taking up to 80,000 soldiers at one time, Phenix City was taking in $100 million a year in revenue for a town with a population of 23,000. There was a bank teller at almost every gambling table in town, just to keep track of all of the bribes and loans happening almost constantly.

Hugh Bentley had lived in Phenix City his entire life, but the sporting goods store he owned was in Columbus, so he did his best to try to mind his own business and paid no mind to the gambling and racketeering that was happening in his hometown until he had two sons of his own. He began to become worried that his hometown was a poor influence on his children. Bentley began to speak to anyone who would listen, church groups, civic clubs, and veterans about organizing an effort to stop the evil that had taken over their town. Bentley eventually organized the Russell Betterment Association to slowly reform the town.

Albert Patterson, the lawyer mentioned previously, joined Bentley to lead the RBA after he had finished defending the Phenix City kingpin Hoyt Shepherd against a murder charge. Bentley’s house was bombed and Patterson’s law office was set on fire. Others in the RBA were harassed, beaten up, and banned from several establishments in town. In 1952, the RBA placed members at each polling station so that they could watch out for voter fraud. When they tried to intervene, they were beaten by Hoyt’s gang members.

In 1954, Albert Patterson decided that he would run for attorney general of Alabama on a hard-lined anti-crime platform. He had also been a former state senator and was an obvious choice for the job. Despite large amounts of voter fraud across the whole state of Alabama that was meant to elect Patterson’s opponent, Patterson was able to win after the runoff election results came in. However, he knew that his life was in danger by winning the election, telling a church group “I have only a 100-to-1 chance of ever being sworn in as attorney general.” On June 18, 1954, Patterson was working late in his law office. When he left his office, he was confronted by a sheriff’s deputy named Albert Fuller who begged Patterson not to testify before a Birmingham grand jury for a vote-stealing case that led back to the gang that ran Phenix City. Fuller even offered Patterson $30,000 to keep quiet. Patterson decided to ignore Fuller and kept walking towards his car. As he reached his car, another sheriff’s deputy named Arch Ferrell stepped out of the shadows, shoved a gun into Patterson’s mouth and shot three times.

Alabamans across the state were devastated. Albert Patterson’s son John went to Washington D.C. to try to meet with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and get him to investigate his father’s murder, but Hoover refused to see John. Despite that, there was political pressure on Alabama Governor Gordon Persons to do something. Governor Person declared martial law in Phenix City and sent in 75 Alabama National Guard soldiers under the command of General Walter J. “Crack” Hanna to clean. Phenix City was once again declared off-limits to the soldiers stationed at Fort Benning. Under the governor’s orders, the national guard shut down any establishment that had gambling, liquor, or prostitution. More than 80 people were either convicted or pled guilty to being part of Phenix City’s criminal underground including Hoyt Shepherd.

Albert Patterson’s murder trial was still moving really slowly. The current Attorney General Si Garrett, who Patterson had ousted during the election, refused the governor’s request for a special grand jury and prosecutor and instead appointed Arch Ferrell to handle the case. John Patterson was disgusted and continued to ask for an impartial investigation, saying “Some of the people doing the investigating have the most to gain. They are afraid that if the murderer is caught, he will implicate somebody else. This thing is big. It’s tied to the vote fraud.”

With John Patterson leading the charge, he began to look into the corrupt underground of Phenix City that was responsible for assassinating his father. A grand jury brought Attorney General Si Garrett in for questioning on his involvement in election fraud. After his questioning, Garrett had himself committed to a Texas mental hospital, which ultimately declared him mentally unfit to stand trial when he was indicted for election fraud. The assistant Attorney General Bernard Sykes removed deputy Arch Ferrell from office and an honest investigation was finally started into Albert Patterson’s murder.

The newly appointed sheriff, Lamar Murphy, located an eyewitness to the murder that testified that he clearly saw both Fuller and Ferrell approach Patterson before he heard gunshots. Fuller and Ferrell were indicted on murder charges. The same afternoon that the eyewitness testified before the jury of Fuller and Ferrell, he was found stabbed and later died in a hospital from his wounds. Other witnesses began to pop up and it was found that Si Garrett had hired Fuller and Ferrell to carry out the assassination. Fuller was eventually convicted, but Ferrell was acquitted.

John Patterson saw how big of a splash his father had made by being elected Attorney General and decided to run for his father’s now open seat and easily won. He was a popular attorney general by cleaning up the state of Alabama from racketeering and eventually became the governor of Alabama in 1958.


“When Good Men Do Nothing: The Assassination of Albert Patterson” by Alan Grady

“Slaying Lead to Sin City’s Deliverance” by Philip Rawls

“The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama” by Margaret Anne Barnes

“Patterson for Alabama: The Life and Career of John Patterson” by Gene L. Howard

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