The people's voice of reason

LEGALIZED GAMBLING: HAVE WE FORGOTTEN PHENIX CITY?

“They don’t have to gamble,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey says of gambling opponents.

Perhaps not. But we all have to live with the evils gambling produces. And Alabamians should remember the lessons of Phenix City.

Life Magazine described Phenix City as the “wickedest city in the United States, …everything from gambling to murder to arson to fraud.” Known as “Little Las Vegas,” between 1945 and 1954 this little town of 23,000 featured casinos, lotteries, cockfighting, and other forms of gambling, and was home to over 1,000 prostitutes.

Those who ran the gambling industry took control of city and county government. The mayor, police chief, and prosecutor were controlled by the machine, and the sheriff was a “yes man” for his chief deputy Albert Fuller. Fuller furnished legal protection to the brothels in exchange for one-third of the profits, and he forced many young women into prostitution by arresting them on trumped-up charges and arranging for the brothel operators to bail them out in exchange for “work.”

Citizens who tried to stand up to the gambling industry were silenced by threats, beatings and bombings, and some ended up in the Chattahoochee River. Some of the city’s 37 churches stood against gambling, but others were controlled by them. Pastors who preached against gambling were accused of mixing religion with politics, and many found themselves transferred to other parishes.

Soldiers from Fort Benning across the river supplied much of the clientele, even though commanders made the gambling establishments off-limits. Many a naive young soldier lost his paycheck at Phenix City, along with falling into vice, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Often they were swindled by crooked operators; if they protested, well-armed bouncers beat them up and sent them back to Fort Benning battered, bruised, and penniless. In 1940, General George C. Patton threatened to send tanks into Phenix City to level Dillingham Street, the infested areas around Dillingham Street, and the Fourteenth street bridge.

As Edwin Strickland and Gene Wortsman wrote in Phenix City (Vulcan Press 1955), p. 6:

No practice was too vile. Unconsumed beer was re-bottled and re-sold. Drinks were spiked. Customers were knocked on the head and their wallets lifted. House men would take all the coin a soldier had, at a crooked dice table, then direct the youth next door to a company-owned pawnshop where he could pick up a spot of cash for his boots, his watch, or his underwear. Inevitably the boy returned to the table to lose again. If a client got rowdy, the casino tough would toss him outside, usually into the waiting arms of the police who would book him for being drunk and disorderly.

The Chattahoochee River became a dumping ground for dead bodies, the kind with cement-encased feet. Killings went unsolved. Complaints from honest citizens went unheeded.

You’d have to search a long time to find a home with green grass growing in the front yard. Dirt roads could be located by a turn of the head. The city jail smelled like tge garbage dump. The county jail smelled like the city jail.

But even in Phenix City, faithful people prayed for a deliverer. And God answered their prayers. In 1954, Phenix City lawyer Albert Patterson announced his candidacy for Attorney General as a crusade to clean up the gambling syndicate that ran the city. On June 1, he beat the machine and won the Democratic primary. But even though winning the Democratic Primary was at that time tantamount to winning the election, he declared that his chances of becoming Attorney General were less than 100 to 1.

And the next day, June 18, Patterson lay dead on the streets of Phenix City – gunned down by an assassin.

The news spread like wildfire across Alabama, and an aroused citizenry demanded action. While local law enforcement dragged its feet, several heroes arose. One was Albert Patterson’s son, John Patterson, who announced his candidacy for Attorney General and vowed that he would smash the machine that had killed his father. Patterson won the nomination and the election, later served as Governor and as an Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Judge, and remained a respected elder statesman until his passing in 2021 at the age of 99.

A second was Bernard Sykes. Attorney General Silas Garrett was controlled by the gambling syndicate, but on June 23 he left Alabama for an extended hospitalization in a Texas mental institution, so Sykes became acting attorney general. Sykes took an active role in the investigation and prosecution of the case before John Patterson took office in 1955.

The third was Major General Walter J. (Crack) Hanna, commander of the Alabama National Guard. Ordered into Phenix City by the Governor, General Hannah quickly saw that Phenix City officials were conducting a cover-up, so he and his guardsmen disarmed the police and sheriffs, took over law enforcement, and performed valuable service in the investigation.

And the fourth was Judge Walter Burgwyn Jones, son of Governor Thomas Goode Jones and founder of the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. He had served as President of the Alabama Bar Association and the Alabama Bible Society and taught an open-air Sunday school class that was attended by more than 1,000 men. Assigned to take over the legal proceedings in Russell County, he opened a courtroom packed with mobsters and racketeers as well as citizens hoping for a return to law and order and intoned,

Albert L. Patterson rests in the earth from which he came, but the State of Alabama, all her forces of law, will not rest, day or night, until his murderer is tracked down and pays the extreme penalty for the brutal deed.

Let it be understood here and now, once and for all, that there will be no return to Russell County of that tragic era, the days when the law violator reigned supreme, and trampled the Constitution and laws under his foot. From this day forward the reign of law has come to Russell County to stay, and stay it will under the providence of God and all the power of Alabama’s government.

Judge Jones instructed the grand jury that they were to “drive back into their lairs the beasts of crime,” and he declared that it would be better for “bats and owls to inhabit the city” than for vice lords to drain off the people’s wealth. After five months of testimony, the grand jury returned 741 indictments against 144 defendants. Of these, all but two either pleaded guilty or were found guilty.

Today, Phenix City seems to be a quiet town. Who would want to bring back the horrors of the past?

But a generation has passed, and the lessons of history have started to fade. Now the Alabama Legislature is considering HB151 and HB152, which would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would authorize casinos, sports betting, and a state lottery.

And a primary sponsor of the bills is Rep. Chris Blackshear of Phenix City. Is the gambling spirit really dead?

 

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