Phenix City: The Build-Up (1900 - 1945)
The main source of this Spotlight is The Tragedy and The Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama by Margaret Ann Barnes. She notes in her Foreword that information came from in-depth interviews with the principals and investigators, witness sworn testimony, and recordings from wire-taps. Images are from Phenix City by John Lyles.
**editor's note: This Spotlight is a combination of character development (getting to know the players) and the larger context of what was happening in
and around Phenix City.
On February 23, 1883, the Alabama Legislature officially incorporated the town of Brownville located to the north of Girard. It had been not quite twenty years after the Civil War and the economic downturn was being seen on both sides of the river. As a result of financial hardships and a lack of unified political leadership, a dependence on the textile industry for Columbus was a natural outcome. On the Alabama side, the textile mills were the main source of “honest” jobs for the people, outside of farming and sharecropping. During this time in our history, women were limited in their options for work. There was typically only one of three choices – wife, millworker, or prostitute.
On February 19, 1897, the Alabama Legislature officially changed the name of Brownville to Phenix City. Although no definitive source reveals why this name was chosen, possibilities include it being named after the Eagle and Phenix Mills in Columbus.
By 1900, the rural landscape of Russell County resembled antebellum days. Slave cabins had been replaced by tenant houses, but African Americans were still bound to the land. African American sharecroppers operated 73 percent of Russell County’s total farms from 1900 to 1920. During the same period, white tenancy accounted for nine percent of the total farmers. One reason for this majority was the exodus of white farmers to the mills.
In 1912, Calvin Bentley operated a store that was a popular hangout for those individuals inclined to entertain themselves with drinking, gambling, fighting, and causing trouble. He lived above his store with his wife and seven children. When Minnie Bentley had enough of exposing her children to all the activities in her husband’s store, she left Calvin. Minnie took her seven boys to an apartment and from there, she would figure out how she would make a living for herself and her children.
Minnie turned to what she knew best – cooking and sewing. She cooked meals and took them to the workers at the Eagle & Phenix to include a meat, three vegetables, bread, and dessert. She would sell the meals for 25 cents each. All seven of her sons had to get jobs too. Her youngest son, Hugh (who later becomes a key figure in Phenix City history), would pull his wagon loaded with baskets of food for the workers. Being a Dinner-Toter was a very common job for children at this time. The mill villages created a family labor system where mothers, fathers, and children worked in the factories.
Minnie was not alone in her dislike of the darker side of Girard and Brownville. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League of Alabama were supported by women, preachers, a few politicians, and moralist groups. They set upon a relentless campaign to rid Alabama of its whiskey and whiskey interests. By 1913, all candidates for governor, whether opposed to whiskey interests or not, supported the need for bone-dry prohibition law. By 1915, a law was passed prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages – a full two years before the United States Congress passed the law on national prohibition.
One of the primary targets for the prohibitionists was Russell County and its notorious village of Girard. In addition to the illegal corn liquor, Girard had one legitimate distillery and two whiskey warehouses used for the storage of bonded liquor that was shipped all over the Southeast. Business from this enterprise had been so profitable, that a Citizen’s Bank had been opened to handle the huge sums of money.
All of this was brought to a standstill in 1915. Fortunes were lost. Family homes put on the auction block. When those involved tried to divest themselves of their whiskey interests, the Anti-Saloon League and the Temperance Union thwarted every effort. As the economic knot began to strangle the economy, the citizens of Girard began an open defiance of the law. Anyone who interfered or tried to stop this defiance did so at their own peril. There were beatings, killings, houses burned, and property destroyed. None of the cases would ever come to trial.
On May 17, 1916, forty hand-picked deputies from Montgomery came in by train at 5:30 AM. By 8:00 AM, they were kicking in doors of the illegal liquor establishments and hauling out the owners. By afternoon, 4,000 people were watching as the deputies seized more than a million dollars’ worth of liquor and poured it into the street behind a warehouse on the river. They called it “whiskey creek.”
Seven years later, it would happen again. This time the spark that ignited the controversy was evangelist A. A. Haggard, a fiery preacher who pitched his tent in the middle of Girard in April 1923. Girard Mayor C.M. Knowles declared he wasn’t taking any action against the illegal liquor activities for fear of life and property. On April 21st, Russell County Deputy Sherriff W.T. Miller, attempting to close a place operation in violation of Prohibition Law, was shot four times by owner, Charlie Jinnet. Girard Officer Will Hill, also on the scene, made no assist to help the deputy and he watched another man, George Davis, beat Miller. Deputy Miller and Jinnet were both taken to jail.
Governor William W. Brandon received a petition asking for help and in response, he arrived in Girard on Sunday, April 29th to address a crowd of over 8,000. The Governor called upon the people to solve their problem through love. That went over like a lead balloon. He then proposed that the village of Girard be consolidated into the more respectable town of Phenix City. This was met with much more enthusiasm. The city of Girard merged into Phenix City on August 9, 1923, giving the newly enlarged town a combined population of 10,374.
Federal agents raided twenty-six establishments and destroyed stills containing over 100 gallons of liquor and 3,400 gallons of beer, and for a while, there was a brief suspension of illegal liquor activity, but in 1925 the trouble began again with watermelon beer; in 1927 with corn liquor; and in 1931, a morphine ring, but by this time, the people of Phenix City had more to worry about than trafficking in illegal liquor and dope. The Great Depression had fallen on the nation and farmers, laborers, and people from all walks of life were migrating to the towns and cities in search of work they could no longer find on the land.
One man in search of work arrived in Phenix City in the early 1930s, his name was Jimmie Matthews. He soon made the acquaintance of Clyde Yarborough, a seasoned Phenix City gambler, who took young Jimmie under his wing. Jimmie began working in the laundry at Camp Benning and started gambling with the soldiers. Within one year, Jimmie had accumulated what was then a fortune, $11,000 – an amount that would have taken a millworker nearly twenty-five years to earn.
Over a poker hand, Jimmie meets a shrewd, but penniless Hoyt Shepherd, who had recently arrived from LaGrange. Shepherd was the son of a cotton mill worker, had little education, but an easy way with words and an innate ability to accurately figure a situation. Together, they combined their ambition and expertise and formed S&M gambling syndicate using Jimmie’s $11,000 as seed money. Besides slot machines, crooked dice and marked cards, they began a lottery, known locally as “the bug,” operating out of the Ritz Café on Dillingham Street. (Hoyt is pictured on the left and Jimmie is on the right.)
During the Great Depression, Phenix City went bankrupt, accumulating more than $1.1 million of debt. By 1933, the city was operating under a federal receiver. City leaders took advantage of the gambling activity and enforced a system of fines and licensing for gambling and for the use and sale of liquor to raise money for the city’s treasury, while not addressing the illegal activities themselves. By 1945, the city was collecting more than $228,000 a year in fines.
The argument of the city fathers was that Phenix City had no industry and no tax base. Without the income from the licenses and fines levied on gambling, the city would have to close down the schools and every public service, and the town would go into receivership. Homer Cobb, who was at this time one of the three City Commissioners, rationalized it as the best they could do at the time – since a millworker only made $8.75 a week, how could the City levy any more taxes on them when the gamblers have the money, and if a tight rein was kept on them…
Well, that didn’t work.
Hoyt Shepherd emerged as the leader of the growing gambling community. He was also quick to see the need for protection and political power to ensure the empire he and his partner, Jimmie Matthews, were building. While Jimmie was quiet, reclusive, and a genius with money and investments, Hoyt was friendly, personable, and spent time in the courthouse making friends with politicians and contributing to their campaigns. Hoyt soon graduated to picking the candidates and running their campaigns. Buying into the courts, the law enforcement, and the governing body, Hoyt became so powerful that no candidate running for office could win without his backing.
An outraged citizenry could do nothing but try and vote them out of office at the polls. Routinely, ballot boxes were stuffed with votes from dead people or votes were bought for an average of three dollars. When a man makes $8.75 a week at the mill, he could sell his and his wife’s votes for almost a week’s salary. If those two options didn’t get the vote going the way the gamblers wanted, then those who were counting the ballots were taking orders from them. As far as the court system was concerned – if a case concerning gamblers or gambling activity was brought, more often than not, the matter wouldn’t get to court. Witnesses were bought and/or intimidated.
There wasn’t much anyone could do about the situation in Phenix City, even when it spilled over into Fort Benning. The toughest fighting men in the world were outmatched by the gamblers who were waiting for them with crooked dice, marked cards, knock-out drops, brass knuckles, and a police force that backed the establishment, not the soldier.
Here’s the typical rundown for an evening. The gambling establishments paid taxicab drivers one dollar a head to deliver the soldiers to their place of business. They were immediately met by one of several “B – Girls” who enticed them into buying an expensive drink (tea with a teaspoon of liquor on top), which she would almost immediately spill so the soldier would have to buy her another one. Drinks were $10 each. Then, she would suggest a bottle of champagne because it had been a long-time since she had met a feller as good looking as he was, so she needed to celebrate. The bottle was $25. If by the end of the evening, the B-Girl and the gaming tables had not cleaned a soldier’s pockets, the prostitutes did, selling favors for a dollar a minute.
Cheated, angered, and with no court of resort, the soldiers fought their way through situations they were destined to lose. No matter how strong, they were outmatched by the gun-butts, chains, and spiked brass knuckles.
General Patton, while training his troops at Fort Benning for what would later become their triumphant Third Army push through Europe, became so enraged by the outrages against his soldiers that he publicly threatened to take his tanks across the river and mash Phenix City flat. When Walter J. Hanna, now a regimental commander with the 31st Dixie Division in Mississippi, heard Patton’s comment, he said he would go help Patton because this was a disgrace to our fighting men and the country.
City Commissioner Homer Cobb worried about what would become of Phenix City when he was no longer able to hold back the ever-increasing tide of criminal activity. Originally, his plan had been to license illegal liquor and gambling only long enough to get the city through its financial crisis and then cut the gamblers loose from their strings on the city, but it hadn’t worked that way. With each passing year, the number of racketeers increased, activities multiplied, and the attitude became more arrogant and demanding.
By the early 1940s, Hoyt Shepherd was the man who ran things in Phenix City. Territorial rights took constant vigilance and supervision. Phenix City had become overflowing with gamblers, cooks, racketeers, and upstarts who had be stopped before they got too big. There were seven big lotteries run by the old timers who began back in the thirties and there was trouble and wrangling all the time between those who ran them.
There was trouble with the federal government for many of the gamblers, but Hoyt (pictured below in the middle) figured that making Homer Cobb mayor would quiet their troubles. It didn’t. Instead of accepting it for the payoff it was, Homer Cobb took it seriously. Building a high school and a hospital was all right, but when he started talking about the rackets and the reputation of Phenix City as an outlaw town – well, he had forgotten who fed him when he was hungry.
Homer would hear the echoes of his friend Minnie Bentley warning him – you’ve made a deal with the devil, and you’ll live to rue the day. Now, Minnie’s warning had been taken up by her son Hugh. Hugh was active in the First Baptist Church and was trying to galvanize a group against gambling.
Hugh was talking to church groups, civic groups, veterans’ groups, anybody who would listen – trying to organize an effort. But Hugh was never able to rally a crowd for long – Hoyt saw to that. What Hugh Bentley (pictured to the right) realized, but refused to accept, was that most families in town were either connected to the rackets or were kin to someone who was, and a word of warning was all that was needed to stop any effort he started.
Pictured is the north side of 14th Street - Riverside Cafe, Oyster Bar, Boone's Cafe,
the Maytag, Golden's Rule Cafe, the Silver Slipper, Silver Dollar, and the Blue Bonnet offered gambling, prostitution, drugs, and alcohol. In all, 14th Street housed 12 gambling joints, 8 loan companies,1 sporting goods pawnbroker, 3 short-term loan companies, 2 service stations, and 1 drug store.
In addition to Hugh Bentley, there was another man that Hoyt Shepherd viewed as causing him trouble. Fate (Fayette) Leebern had come to the area about the same time as Hoyt Shepherd during the Depression. Hoyt set up shop in Phenix City and Fate became successful in Columbus on wholesale liquor, hotels, and real estate. Fate wanted to naturally expand his business. Hoyt had warned him to stay on his side of the river, but Fate came across and leased a building for a pool hall. It burned down before Fate ever got it started. But Fate wasn’t the only one Hoyt had to watch. There were many others who wanted pieces of Hoyt's territory. Every time something happened, the first one they blamed was Hoyt Shepherd. Hoyt ran things, but he couldn’t control everybody. It kept him busy, and he needed to protect his investment. During World War II, the military population at Fort Benning swelled to 80,000. The total take from the rackets in Phenix City had risen to 100,000,000 a year and in a town with a population of 23,000 – that was a lot to protect and Hoyt Shepherd was willing and prepared to do whatever had to be done to protect his interests in Phenix City.
Next week: We will get further into what led up to Albert Patterson's murder and the aftermath. There is triumph at the end of this journey and a brighter future for our neighbor and regional partner, Phenix City. If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director