Jerry Summers: Phenix City - Original Sin City

Wednesday, October 23, 2019 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Before the popular television show “Sin City” came into existence depicting Las Vegas, Nevada’s lifestyle, the original sin city during that era was what is now a small family-oriented community in Lee and Russell counties in the State of Alabama - Phenix City.  

This small township had a population of 32,822 residents in the 2010 census and in 2007 was selected by Business Week Magazine as the nation’s #1 Best Affordable Suburb to raise a family.  Such was not the case in the pre-war years in the little town across the Chattahoochee River connecting it to Columbus, Georgia, home of the large Army base, Fort Benning.

For years Phenix City had thrived with an underworld culture, corrupt law enforcement, and crooked governments.  Due to the positive economic impact and Robin Hood philanthropy of the operators of the illegal establishments, the local citizenry had been unable to oust the criminal element that promoted gambling, prostitution, illegal whiskey operations, drugs, white slavery and murder.  Soldiers from Fort Benning provided an ample supply of young men eager to spend their government checks on the whiskey, women, and crooked games of chance in Phenix City. 

During its first half of existence, it was widely known as the most corrupt city in the nation.  From 1945 to 1954 the town was the home of 1,000 prostitutes.  The reputation of the town was so corrupt that General George Patten while stationed at Fort Benning once threatened to roll his tanks across the river and destroy Phenix City in 1940.  However, the sinful reputation of the community had existed for nearly 100 years.  In 1917 during World War I, it had the nation’s highest rate of venereal diseases. The construction and opening of Fort Benning in 1918 provided a new market of young soldiers to engage in the sinful activities.

A courageous lawyer form Phenix City, Albert Patterson, Sr., realized that there was no chance of stopping the corruption at the local level and decided that the State of Alabama would have to take action.  He chose to run for the position of Attorney General of the entire state on a platform of cleaning up Phenix City.  He won the Democratic nomination in June of 1954 which virtually assured him of being elected attorney general in the fall general election. 

The crime syndicate running Phenix City knew that with Patterson having the power of the State of Alabama behind him it could bring the end of their power in the community.  On June 18, 1954, after his primary victory, he was gunned down in the alley where he parked his car near his law office.  

A county deputy chief, Albert Fuller, was later convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison but only served 10 years.  The assistant district attorney, Silas Garrett, was indicted but fled to the State of Texas and checked into a mental institution.  A third defendant, county attorney Archer Ferrell Garrett, was acquitted in a jury trial. 

Rather than solving their problems with the murder of Albert Patterson, the crime machine in Phenix City aroused the anger of President Dwight Eisenhower, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and law enforcement across the nation.  As a result, the Governor of Alabama, Gordon Persons, declared “limited martial rule” and the National Guard took over law enforcement from local officials and raided businesses, seized equipment, and wiped out the crime syndicate. 

In the following crack down on crime, 749 indictments against 150 individuals were returned by the local reorganized grand jury and all but two of the defendants pled guilty or were found guilty by a trial jury.  

John Patterson, the 32-year-old son of Albert, replaced his father as State Attorney General and later became Governor in 1958 defeating George C. Wallace.  Patterson’s tough stance against integration was responsible for his victory over the more progressive Wallace who vowed he would never lose another race for that reason and he immediately turned into a staunch segregationist. 

The story of Phenix City has been memorialized in both literature and film.  The Columbia Ledger Enquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for its longtime reporting of the corruption in Phenix City both before and after the Patterson killing.  

The Tragedy and Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama by Margaret Anne Barnes and When Good Men Do Nothing:  The Assassination of Albert Patterson by Allan Grady provide written documentation of the events in that era.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will periodically show the 1955 black and white film The Phenix City Story during its movie series, which was filmed on location in Phenix City. Many local residents were selected to play in the film including the female operator of one of the town's favorite nightclub and brothel. 

Although being chosen an “All American City” shortly after the corruption clean-up by the National Civic League, Phenix City still has had to bear the stigma of being called the “wickedest City in America” for decades into the future. 

* * *

Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com

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