Phenix City: The Tragedies (1946 - 1954)
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 her book and Phenix City by John Lyles.
***Editor's Note: There was so much happening during this time and so many players. It was hard to capture and condense it all. There is much more to the story, but here's a decent shot at it. Thank you for your understanding!
When we first met Hugh Bentley, he was helping his mother (Minnie) haul baskets of food in his wagon to the workers at the mills in Columbus. Hugh was the youngest of seven boys. Growing up, he had three close friends killed in their adolescence by the excesses of Phenix City – Jesse Stubbs with his head shot off, Herman Elliott, knocked in the head and found floating in the river, and Jimmie Hooks, stabbed in the heart. The violence of their deaths had turned him forever away from the lure that Phenix City offered youths on every corner and set him back on the path of his mama’s teachings, the path of a Christian dedicated to having the courage to do something about the spawning evil and leave the world better than he found it for those who would come after him.
The straw broke for the adult Hugh Bentley in 1944 when he and his friend Hugh Britton found a soldier, almost dead, off the side of the road at the Dillingham Street Bridge. They decided that day to try and get someone a seat on the City Commission to change what was happening in their town. They chose to back Otis Taff who was running against the gambler’s candidate, Elmer Reese. The decision to back Otis Taff seemed like a good one, but with this fateful decision, a chain of escalating events began, followed by a series of significant murders that each contributed to the destiny of Phenix City, and brought it to its ultimate tragedy.
It was as bitter and hard-fought a campaign as Phenix City had seen in a long time. Everywhere you looked, there was Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton attacking city government and county government, Mayor Homer Cobb and the City Commission, and Elmer Reese. They never let up and when election day came, they appointed themselves “poll watchers” to see to it that the ballots were cast according to the law. Hugh Bentley said that a blind man had been led from precinct to precinct and had voted five times and Hugh Britton said the ballot boxes were being stuffed with tombstone votes, but nobody outside of the newspapers took much notice. When the votes were counted, Elmer Reese had won re-election to his seat by better than a two to one margin. This was cause for celebration on the part of Hoyt Shepherd and the great job the precinct workers had done to make it happen. They headed to the Southern Manor night club and the drinks were on Hoyt.
In addition to all of the precinct workers, Hoyt Shepherd had gathered all of his friends around that night – his brother, Grady, his partner, Jimmie Matthews, and his old mentor, Clyde Yarborough. They were all laughing, drinking, and joking about running Hugh Bentley out of town when Hoyt spotted Fate Leebern across the room. Fate, his archrival from Columbus, was sitting at a table with a Columbus Beauty Queen. Hoyt hands the 19-year-old hostess, Jeannette Mercer, a $20 bill to leave the high dice room. He then tells the floor manager, Otis Stewart, to leave as well. Hoyt then walks to Fate’s table and asks him to follow him to the dice room. Hoyt had warned Fate before that if he caught him on this side of the river, he’d kill him. Terrified, Jeannette Mercer ran to the door, but it was too late – she heard two shots fired and a body hit the floor. She ran out into the street and disappeared. Otis Stewart was never seen again. Grady Shepherd admitted to police the next day to killing Fate Leebern in self-defense with Hoyt Shepherd and Jimmie Matthews stating they were eyewitnesses to it. One week later, both Hoyt and Jimmie were also arrested, charged with murder, and put in the same cell as Grady in the Russell County Jail (pictured below). For his defense, Hoyt hired every lawyer in town: Roy Smith, the city attorney also representing Grady, Jabe Braswell, William Belcher, Julius Hicks, Arch Ferrell, Jake Walker, and Albert Patterson.
The Leeberns retained five attorneys to assist the Circuit Solicitor and Russell County Solicitor in the prosecution. They were Roderick Beddow from Birmingham, E.E. Andrews of Altanta, Lawrence Andrews of Union Springs, and Columbus attorneys Joe Ray and Hubert Calhoun. A heated and lengthy trial went on for some time. Jeannette Mercer was found, but the defense attacked her character and did everything to discredit her testimony. The police were also used as defense witnesses to corroborate the self-defense claim. The defense then attacked Fate Leebern’s character. When the jury convened, they came back with a verdict within four hours. Hoyt and Jimmie Matthews were found not guilty. Grady’s trial never happened because witnesses were still missing. This was horrifyingly devastating to the Leebern family, but unfortunately not surprising within the framework of the system that had been established at the time.
Hoyt Shepherd was also unhappy and greatly disturbed by the disclosures and conduct of the trial. It had been too close to call, too close, and he decided, as he handed out rewards to those who had helped him with the trial, that it was time to reshuffle the deck and adjust the balance of power beginning with the circuit judge and circuit solicitor. What he decided was Phenix City and Russell County needed its own separate circuit, staffed with hand-picked elected officials who could be depended upon and appointees who knew what to do without being told. The cornerstone of the Phenix City Machine was laid.
In 1947, Hoyt got his wish. Julius Hicks was appointed as circuit judge of Russell County and Arch Ferrell would be the new circuit solicitor. Both men had been Hoyt’s defense attorneys. The three-man City Commission was also expanded to five.
In 1948, another case would require Albert Patterson’s help. This time he was defending gambling associates – Head Revel, Godwin Davis, and Joe Allred – for hiring two hitmen to kill Johnny Frank Stringfellow. Stringfellow, a soldier doing time in the federal detention barracks for violating the military code, had been released from prison to become an undercover agent for the federal authorities and a government witness in a liquor conspiracy case against Revel, Davis, and Allred. Reporting his findings, he had written a letter to the federal agents. Before mailing it, the letter dropped from his pocket and was found by some of the criminals in Phenix City. The information was immediately turned over to the three gamblers.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, the three men hired Wilson McVeigh (a former friend of Stringfellow) and his partner, Dave Walden. They carried out the task and buried him in Ponte Vedra, Florida. Shortly after, Walden killed his wife for threatening to tell the police and took her body to the Okefenokee Swamp. Both McVeigh and Walden were soon arrested and confessed to the crime. Godwin, Revel, and Allred were arrested, but released because McVeigh and Walden deny knowing them or being hired. They were tried and convicted of both murders.
All of this didn’t sit well with Albert Patterson (pictured below). Patterson’s persuasion and expertise had, he felt, made him a party to an obstruction of justice and he made up his mind, that he would never again represent the criminal element who so violated his own personal code of ethics.
By 1949, traffic in illegal liquor had also become such a bustling trade that not only liquor runners, but private citizens set on saving a dollar a bottle in bonded liquor, were hauling it over the bridge from Phenix City by the carload. Phenix City was angered because Georgia police were trying to arrest people and therefore depriving them of their own property. Georgia didn’t want anyone bringing Alabama whiskey into Georgia and cars used for transportation would be confiscated. It was war.
This brings Deputy Albert Fuller into the picture. He developed a reputation for being fast with a trigger thanks to a raid with two ABC agents and he began to build power of his own. Fuller began providing racket protection to the gamblers. Then, Fuller decides to expand his interest.
There was another whole field of exploitation that had been permitted to flourish but had not yet been organized, prostitution. Every bar, honky tonk, and gambling joint hired girls to lure customers into drinking themselves into insensibility, gambling their money, and losing it all before they left. Other establishments provided more extensive services where a girl’s sexual favors could be bought by the minute, the hour, or the evening. When the heat was on and the preachers started pounding the pulpit about sin, a few raids were made, and a few prostitutes were locked up overnights until their employers bailed them out the next morning.
It occurred to Albert Fuller (pictured to the right) that what these people needed was protection - and he was the man to provide it. There was Ma Beachie, a grandmotherly woman who swore that all she provided was high-spirited good fun and a floor show. Cliff Entrekin’s Fish Camp down by the river served dinner downstairs and sex upstairs, and Frank Gullatt’s Blue Bonnet Café. The girls he hired were tattooed, with an identification number like a thoroughbred horse, inside the lower lip, so that if they tried to run away, or if anyone tried to hire them away, the tattoo would prove “they were one of Frank’s.”
The possibilities and profits from providing girls and protection was endless and Albert Fuller decided to explore and exploit this lucrative field. It was not nearly so high-risk as gambling and lottery with investigations going on all the time.
In August 1950, Mayor Homer Cobb suffered a heart attack at a celebration in Idle Hour Park for Cobb Memorial Hospital. He, unfortunately, died soon after. For Deputy Albert Fuller, it appeared to be a turn in his favor. Homer Cobb allowed gambling and gaming, but he came out strong against prostitution. Getting that organized for protection was a project Albert Fuller long wanted to do. Now, it seemed that opportunity had come.
For Hoyt Shepherd, it was time to get busy and get a man to replace Homer Cobb as Mayor in order to keep his political machine running the way he wanted. Deputy Sherriff J.D. Harris was elected Mayor. A.L. Gullatt, Otis Taff, and Roy Greene were also elected as commissioners. Elmer Reese continued in his position, as he was not up for an election that year.
Later in 1950, no one, least of all Godwin Davis and the gambling community, expected a divorce trial to put in motion a tide of events that would challenge and nearly topple their carefully crafted gambling empire. Gloria Floyd Davis, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Seth Floyd, filed for divorce from William Robert (“Bubber”) Davis, son of gambling kingpin, Godwin Davis. She was seeking alimony and support for their two-year-old daughter. Bubber was set on seeing she got nothing. She charged him with cruelty, he charged her with drunkenness.
Albert Patterson represented Gloria and Roy Smith represented Bubber. During the divorce proceedings, Gloria disclosed the gambling business as the source of family income and the National Lottery Company (Davis’ business) grossing more than one million dollars a year. This was done in open court. For Phenix City, this was the most important element of the divorce – organized gambling had been established. No longer could the gambling charges made against the Phenix City crime syndicate be dismissed as hearsay. It was now a matter of public record, and the IRS was going to investigate.
Godwin Davis is pictured on the left.
The IRS was the only organization in the world the gamblers feared. The county and city could be controlled, but the IRS could not. Its pursuit of the circumstances would be thorough and relentless and for this grief, they held Albert Patterson personally responsible. For what he had done, Albert Patterson was removed from the “reserved list to the endangered list” and systematically stripped of every public office he held on the School Board, the Draft Board, and even as a deacon of his church. Patterson then joined Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton in their effort to beat the rackets. They formed the Russell Betterment Association (RBA). For the first time, the gambling community realized that with Albert Patterson guiding the group, a serious assault was about to be made on their activities and it was time to stop it before any real damage was done. Hoyt Shepherd wanted to make a deal with Hugh Bentley. When Hugh wouldn’t bend to the bribe of becoming Mayor, Hoyt Shepherd did the unexpected – he cashed in his chips and turned in $250,000 worth of gambling equipment and announced that he and his partner, Jimmie Matthews, were finished with gambling forever. This capitulation, however, was not due to Hugh Bentley or the RBA, but a federal tax increase that had been passed by Congress which included a new federal law requiring all lottery operators, nationwide, to register, buy a $50 occupational tax stamp, and pay a ten percent tax on their gross income. Like all of the gamblers in Phenix City, Hoyt feared neither God nor the Devil, only the IRS. With his equipment gone, he leased his buildings and gave his full attention to politics.
In the early morning hours of January 9, 1952, Hugh Bentley’s home was bombed with his wife, son, and nephew inside asleep. Hugh had taken his brother to the Veterans Hospital and was driving back from Augusta when it happened. Fortunately, everyone survived and only had minor injuries. This bombing bred a new kind of terror in Phenix City. Vengeance was now being reaped on the innocent and unsuspecting. The underworld would strike again in February with setting fire to Albert Patterson’s office. As was always the case, investigations were started, but no evidence could be found, and no arrests were made.
Also, later that same year in May, Hugh Bentley and members of the RBA took up their positions at the ballot boxes as poll watchers. They witnessed marked ballots, bought votes, and unqualified voters. When they asked Judge Harry Randall, who was seeking re-election, to issue warrants, he refused. When Hugh Bentley returned to the polls with his son and friend, Hugh Britton, they were badly beaten with the police watching. Apparently, using fists and feet weren’t considered an arrestable moment at the time.
Hugh Bentley and the RBA were not the only ones saying that law enforcement in Phenix City had gone to hell. Everybody said so, including the courthouse crowd – Hoyt Shepherd, Godwin Davis, Elmer Reese – but theirs was for a different reason. Their grave concern was the cavalier conduct of Chief Deputy Sherriff Albert Fuller. Fuller had carved out an empire of his own: protection and prostitution with levies so high that there were constant complaints from the gamblers about the exorbitant fees. Fuller laughed it all off. Fuller was top gun. He had more money than he could get in his pocket. He had a wife and three mistresses that he kept in clothes, cars, and houses and almost any woman he took a fancy to – of course, they weren’t all willing – and when they weren’t there were ways of persuasion or penalty which was how he kept the jail filled up and the whore houses provided with an unlimited stable of girls. Fuller would even cruise the county for girls. For Albert, it was all so easy. The gamblers were willing to pay plenty for protection so that they could continue operating in back rooms with hidden equipment, and the girls were even easier than that. All Albert had to do was make an arrest, charge them with a fine they couldn’t pay, and then arrange for them to work it out at whichever whore house needed a new girl. Of course, once the girls started to work, they had to pay their dues for protection to insure themselves against arrest for prostitution. What the courthouse crowd objected to was not the prostitution, but the use of the Russell County jail cells for that purpose when Albert found a soldier willing to pay for a quick trick. It was double pay for Albert – the soldier paid for the girl and the girl paid for protection – and the money kept growing and with it, power.
Hugh Bentley and the RBA had no idea what was really going on in Phenix City. They would never be able to beat the Machine, at least not the way it was set up at that point. Every corner was covered, law enforcement, legislative, and judicial. Hoyt Shepherd had seen to that.
Two things then happen that set up Albert Patterson’s run for Attorney General. First, the gambling machine gets Russell County’s two State Representatives – Jabe Brassell and Ben Cole – to introduce legislation declaring the five-man commission created in 1947 as unconstitutional and request a return to the three-man commission (who would be gambler-friendly). The second was the unsuccessful attempt to impeach Sherriff Ralph Matthews.
Since taking the job as legal counsel for the RBA and investigating the conditions to bring impeachment proceedings against Sheriff Matthews, Patterson had learned that the syndicate’s tentacles of power and influence reached far beyond Phenix City out into the State and beyond with its sights ultimately on Washington, but only Patterson knew the full extent of that. It was dangerous knowledge that he did not share with anyone for it made him a target. After grave consideration for his family and his finances, and his own physical limitations, Albert Patterson decided to become a candidate for the office of attorney general.