By Fred Woods
Phenix City, Opelika’s neighbor to the southeast, just 28 miles away, has a lot going for it today. It’s about 25 percent larger in population than Opelika, an estimated 37,500 people to Opelika’s 28,600. Although Phenix City is officially in Russell County, about 5,000 of its citizens actually live in Lee County.
Situated on the west bank of the Chattahoochee river, directly across from its “big sister,” Columbus, Ga., Phenix City is basically a bedroom community for the larger metropolis and neighboring Fort Benning. In 2007, Business Week magazine named Phenix City the nation’s #1 Best Affordable Suburb to Raise a Family.
Although Phenix City has no major industry, it is home to the Chattahoochee Valley State Community College and a branch of Troy University. Phenix City also shares with neighboring Columbus the world’s longest, at 2.5 miles, urban whitewater rafting and kayaking course. In fact, the Chattahoochee river site has been called the world’s best man-made whitewater course.
Today’s visitors to the attractive little city are hard-pressed to believe that this same good place to raise a family was once called, by US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, in 1940, “ … the wickedest city in America.”
Since its beginning as a border town trading post in 1833, Phenix City, or Girard, as it was called then, was a refuge from the law for cutthroats, killers, thieves and other criminals. As well-known and as lawless as Dodge City or Tombstone, it remained so for 120 years.
By 1940, the traffic in murder, manslaughter, gambling, illegal liquor and prostitution had grown to attract the attention of national defense officials. Secretary Stimson’s review of the Department of the Army’s classified record of Fort Benning soldiers who had been beaten, robbed, cheated and, sometimes, killed occasioned his “wickedest city” remark.
When Gen. George Patton was named commander of the 2nd Armored Division, stationed at Ft. Benning in early 1941, he became so enraged over the atrocities committed against his men that he publicly threatened to take his tanks across the river and mash the town flat.
Amazingly, none of the publicity and threats helped. Things just got worse. Lured by gambling, girls and booze, the Ft. Benning soldiers continued to pour across the river whenever they could get a pass. They were no match for the organized criminals who controlled Phenix City, using knockout drops, knives, chains, spiked brass knuckles and guns to enforce their rule. The occasional dead bodies were frequently disposed of by dropping them, weights attached, into the muddy Chattahoochee waters.
You couldn’t complain to the law because the law was owned by the mob, in some cases was even a part of the mob. Sheriff Ralph Mathews said he knew of no open gambling in the city. Neither Mayor Homer Cobb nor his successor, J.D. Harris, could see any wrong-doing in Phenix City.
The decent, law-abiding citizens of Phenix City, and there were many of these, were not happy with what they saw happening in their hometown, but they were just as much victims as the soldiers. Most kept their heads down and tried to ignore what went on around them. The few who did attempt to organize to help retake and clean up their city, a few church-goers and honest citizens, saw their efforts come to naught as the mob ruled the police, the mayor, the city council, the courts, all other elected officials and, most importantly, the ballot box.
Any attempts to overturn the status quo was met with stone-walls, as well as minor and major violence. Voters known to be opposed to mob candidates were prevented from voting by a range of tactics including savage beatings.
A man named Hugh Bentley emerged as the leader of the Phenix City reformers in the late 1940s. Bentley’s attempts at taking back his city met with mixed results over the next several years, but Bentley persisted, sometimes making small gains, even as his house was bombed one night in early 1952, as his wife and two sons slept inside.
Finally, a local lawyer named Albert Patterson, who had defended several mob figures in some of the pseudo-trials held periodically to give some semblance of “law and order” in the area, had enough and joined forces with Bentley, his few followers and the local ministerial alliance in an organization called the Russell Betterment Association.
The group slowly began to make some small progress, even getting some candidates friendly to them elected to lesser offices. But larger efforts still failed; an attempt to impeach mob sheriff Ralph Matthews failed when local and state elected officials turned out in force to testify in Matthews’ favor. Alabama’s serving Attorney General Si Garrett said, “I have known almost every sheriff in Alabama since 1935 and I don’t think I know of a better one than Ralph Mathews.”
Finally realizing that the attorney general was the most powerful law enforcement official, Bentley and the RBA were able to convince Albert Patterson to run for that position. He reluctantly agreed and miraculously won a fraud-filled state-wide election. (Actually, he won the Democratic primary, but, in those days, that was tantamount to election as we were part of the solid Democratic south.) Patterson had promised voters not only to clean up Phenix City but to attack crime all over the state.
The tentacles of the Phenix City mob reached over much of the state and extended as high in state government as the attorney general, one Si Garrett.
On June 18, 1954, a Saturday night a little over two weeks after he was certified the winner is his race by 854 votes, Albert Patterson was shot and killed as he left his office in downtown Phenix City.
Alabama Governor Gordon Persons, heretofore reluctant to act on the criminal activity in Phenix City and with only six months left in his term, finally realized he had to move quickly and decisively to head off an erupting powder keg in the border city.
He called out the Alabama National Guard under the command of Gen. Walter J. “Crack” Hanna to maintain order and do whatever needed to be done. Hanna had a reputation for getting the job done, whatever the assignment and he turned out to be the man for the job.
The two Opelika guard units were the first guardsmen to arrive in Phenix City: Battery B of the 104th AAA Battalion (SP) and Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 167th Infantry Regiment, both part of the famous 31st Infantry “Dixie” Division.
The clean-up was not automatic but Albert Patterson’s death started it, a huge price to pay for something that never should have happened. A classic example of the truth of Edmund Burke’s comment, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Ultimately enough good men got together to overcome the evil. Governor Persons, after Gen. Hanna threatened to arrest him, reluctantly declared Martial Rule, which, unlike Martial Law, enabled Gen. Hanna to replace all elected law enforcement in Phenix City and the county. That was the key to the clean up.
The late Margaret Anne Barnes, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, who wrote by far the best and most accurate account of Phenix City affair (The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City Alabama) credited three men with the primary responsibility of cleaning up Phenix City: Hugh Bentley, the moral leader; Albert Patterson, the political leader and Walter J. “Crack” Hanna, the military leader. These men led the transition of Phenix City from one of the worst to one of the best places in the U.S. to raise a family.