Phenix City: The Triumph
The main source of this Spotlight is The Tragedy and The Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama by Margaret Anne 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: As always, there is much more to this story. I encourage you, if you want to know more details, to please read Margaret Anne Barnes' book. This has been an interesting journey in research and an incredible story to share.
On that night of June 18, 1954, Walter J. Hanna, Adjutant General of the State of Alabama and Commanding General of Alabama's National Guard, known since his early days as "Crack" because of the record he established for expert proficiency with the rifle and bayonet, was hurtling down a dark, narrow road across Alabama with his driver, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Jannett. Jannett was driving the general's specially equipped, souped-up green Lincoln at the general's normal cruising speed of eighty miles per hour. Then, over the airwaves came the message: "Emergency! All cars call in! General Walter J. Hanna. Call home immediately!" The governor had put out an APB on General Hanna to get him to Phenix City.
Crack Hanna was tough like Patton was tough. In combat, he gave no quarter, in principle, he knew no compromise, and personal cost was no consideration. His concern was for the mission and the safety of his men and the confidence this inspired rallied them to whatever challenge arose. He was the “soldier’s soldier” and the “warrior general.” But he was more than the warrior general, he chose the role of defender and protector and if advantage was being taken of the defenseless and unprotected, they had to face Crack Hanna’s fists first. There was hell to pay if anyone took advantage of a woman or one of his soldiers, but God save the soldier who broke ranks and disobeyed an order.
In Phenix City, all was chaos and confusion. From the moment the shots were fired, the streets began filling up with spectators, onlookers, and speculators. As word was flashed on the radio and across TV screens, people poured out of their homes and into the streets to hurry to the downtown spot where Patterson was slain, and then to the hospital where Patterson’s family had gathered and where the mayor, the sheriff, and all the law enforcement had come to look under the white sheet covering Patterson’s shattered body. At the other end of town, at the foot of the Dillingham Street bridge, pandemonium had gripped the criminal fringe; the petty peddlers of crime and vice, the prostitutes, pimps, card sharks, and small-time crooks were crowding into every car, truck, and taxicab trying to get out of town in advance of the biggest trouble Phenix City had seen in thirty years. The word had already come down, the Guard and the Governor were on the way.
Albert Fuller, quick to protect his interests, had already alerted the gamblers and gambling houses under his protection, and Buddy Jowers (Night Police Chief) had done the same, sending members of the Phenix City Police Department to make the rounds of the favored houses who paid for his protection, instructing them to put up and put away all gambling paraphernalia because the National Guard was being sent to patrol the city. For the others, the warning was plain: to talk, give information, or assistance to those coming to investigate Phenix City and what happened there would be done at one’s own peril. For the big-time gamblers and the governing establishment, it was time to lay low and wait until it all blew over. It always had. It would again. Columbus cab driver James Radius Taylor anguished over being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shaken by what he had seen and frightened by what he had said, he went home vowing never to say another word, ever. As he stopped at the traffic light in Phenix City, shortly after 9:00 PM when the shots rang out, he had looked to his left and recognized a man running from the scene. As he was driving back over the bridge, the dispatcher over the cab radio said: “Albert Patterson’s been shot.” Another cabbie asked, “who did it?” Before he thought about what he was doing, Taylor spontaneously said the name of the man he had seen. “Who said that?” the dispatcher wanted to know, but Taylor, thoroughly frightened by what he had done, never opened his mouth again and went home vowing silence forever.
In Phenix City, another vow of silence was also made by cab driver Bill Littleton. Moments before the shots rang out, he had driven his cab past the courthouse, recognized two men standing there and had thrown up his hand in greeting. Minutes later, shots rang out and Patterson was dead. To his bitter regret, he had mentioned this to his girlfriend and her boss at the café, and now, fearful of what might happen should anyone learn what he had seen, he took a solemn oath never to mention it again, for Bill Littleton knew what trouble was. Back in 1950, he had been charged with murder, but he had kept his mouth shut and nothing had ever come of the charges. Having learned the value of silence once, he planned to keep his mouth shut again.
When Governor Persons arrived, he and Crack Hanna toured the city and the murder scene, watching workmen scrub the blood stains from the sidewalk where Albert Patterson had fallen dead. At the courthouse, the city and county officials were waiting for the governor as they had been instructed to do. Governor Persons let both Sheriff Ralph Matthews and Deputy Chief Sheriff Albert Fuller know that General Hanna and the National Guard were there to see Phenix City cleaned up and would remain there until it was done. He also let them know that he had spoken with General Harper, the commanding general at Fort Benning, and asked him to put the entire city off-limits to all military personnel. General Harper also agreed to seal the bridges with military police who will be checking all traffic into and out of the city.
When the eulogies were done, a funeral cortege of 100 cars followed the hearse 85 miles across Alabama to the country cemetery in Tallapoosa County where Albert Patterson was born. There, John Patterson told Hugh Bentley that he would stand for election to the post of the attorney general in his father’s place. He had pledged himself to carry out his father’s program against crime in Alabama.
On the same day as Albert Patterson’s funeral, turmoil continued in Birmingham. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Alta King heard rumors of a possible link between the voter fraud in Birmingham and the death of Albert Patterson in Phenix City. The judge called the Jefferson County Grand Jury before him for special charges to pinpoint those who have violated election laws and discover any connection between what happened in Phenix City with vote stealing in Jefferson County.
This resulted in Judge King instructing State Attorney General Si Garrett and Russell County Solicitor Arch Ferrell to be brought before the grand jury to tell what they know. Si Garrett arrived confident in his powers as attorney general. After ten hours of testimony, he left hollow-eyed and haggard. He told reporters he was leaving the state to turn himself into a psychiatric clinic in Galveston, Texas for rest and recovery from the Phenix City ordeal.
L - R: Russell County Solicitor Arch Ferrell, State Attorney General Si Garrett, and Russell County Sheriff Ralph Matthews
Arch Ferrell never showed up. He instead issued a written statement about his hard work. Not persuaded of the integrity of Ferrell’s effort, the governor appointed Bernard Sykes – the assistant in the attorney general’s office – to go to Phenix City to conduct the investigation. On arrival, Sykes questioned Ferrell for ten hours, then removed him from the case. Next, he removed the investigative offices out of Sheriff Matthews office and into the Ralston Hotel in Columbus. The Jefferson County Grand Jury was reeling from its findings. This time, Lamar Reid began to sing. He told the whole truth beginning with the phone call from Si Garrett on the night of the June 1st run-off. When he had finished, the grand jury, reviewing all of the evidence, returned an indictment against Si Garrett, Arch Ferrell, and Lamar Reid for vote fraud in changing the runoff election totals by 600 votes in favor of Lee Porter. They also concluded their report with the statement: “Albert Patterson’s murder was the climax of dirty politics, financed by a gang of unlawful men and engaged in by persons with unlawful motives. Lethargy and inaction by the public and by law enforcement agencies set the state for this horrible murder. The army of criminals must be halted.” The governor’s first step was to appoint George C. Johnson to replace Arch Ferrell as Russell County Solicitor. Next, he appointed Judge Walter B. Jones to replace Judge Julius B. Hicks, who was relieved of all duties in circuit criminal court. Lamar Reid was arrested in Birmingham and Sheriff Matthews had the duty to arrest Arch Ferrell. Both Reid and Ferrell were booked, fingerprinted, locked up, and later released on bond. Garrett was still in Texas in the psychiatric hospital.
Behind closed doors, the people of Phenix City speculated among themselves. Patterson, it was agreed, had been killed because of his stand against crime and his pledge to clean up corruption. Some said he had been killed by a hit man hired by the racketeers. Others argued that because the shooting happened at close range, the killer was no stranger. The third, most persistent theory was that the killing was tied to the vote fraud. Publicly, the people of Phenix City said nothing. On the night of the murder, Sheriff Ralph Matthews, who should have been on the scene conducting the investigation, had instead hung around the hospital chatting with people in the hallway while a curious crowd trampled through the murder scene smashing down evidence. Albert Fuller, despite his reputation for fast guns and gunplay, was wearing an empty holster, and for a time had disappeared on some other mission. Police Chief Pal Daniel was like a man walking through a nightmare, paralyzed by the events, and allowing Night Police Chief Buddy Jowers to take charge. Nothing was being done and worse yet, they were seeing to it that nothing was being done, masking their misdeeds behind pleasantries and smiles. Continuing his work with his counterintelligence team, General Hanna began meeting clandestinely with informers. Night after night, information was gathered on the depth of crime and corruption that involved every level of law enforcement in Phenix City and Russell County. General Hanna went to the governor with what he found and asked for the governor to declare Martial Law. Governor Gordon Persons (pictured below on the left) wanted the Guard to keep the peace and that was all. He didn’t want to declare Martial Law.
Not until he was publicly criticized of his handling of the situation in an open letter from the editor of the Birmingham Post Herald and had to answer questions from the Jefferson County Grand Jury did Governor Persons eventually agree to declare a state of emergency and replace all law enforcement in Phenix City with Martial Rule. Unlike Martial Law, which is declared during civil riots or disasters, Martial Rule was unprecedented. There had never before been a circumstance requiring the replacement of all elected law enforcement. The sheriff, police chief, and all of their deputies and officers were relieved of duty and replaced with National Guard.
Within 32 hours, the real raids began. Troops, trucks, and equipment were taken to the Dillingham Street bridge. They began breaking down doors to the clubs and the infamous Bridge Grocery. They found brass knuckles, dynamite, two-way mirrors, peepholes, sawed-off shotguns, gaming equipment, roulette wheels, gaming tables, billboards for posting the day’s winners, and a series of secret passageways. They quickly found evidence they needed with 13 truckloads and 50 arrests.
Godwin Davis was sick and tired of trouble. Ever since the divorce trial of his son, Bubber and Gloria Floyd Davis, there had been one thing after another. By the time Head Revel had finished putting the finger on him in open court for running a lottery, the IRS had never given him a moment’s peace. He and his son were soon charged with 44 counts each on running a lottery with a bond set at $500 for each count.
As the jails began to fill up and night began to fall, Pal Daniel became the first of the Phenix City officials to break his silence. Painfully, he told General Hanna that he had received a “hands-off” policy on the arrest of Phenix City gamblers from higher up. Pressed, he and fourteen Phenix City policemen admitted that it was orders from Mayor Elmer Reese. Reese was soon arrested and led past a mountain of gambling machines piled up in the jail yard as evidence. Albert Fuller was then arrested from a hospital bed (allegedly, Buddy Jowers beat him within an inch of his life - but he claimed he fell off a horse) for six counts of violating election laws.
Godwin Davis had had enough of jails and with a sea of trouble, he decided to sell out and told the Jefferson County Grand Jury the whole sordid story of the assessments made for money to buy the run-off election for Lee Porter. He named names, dates, places, and amounts of money. Porter then turns on Arch Ferrell and Si Garrett. Ferrell was arrested in Phenix City, drunk.
General Hanna and his troops continued to dig up more evidence. On a routine check by Warrant Officer Forney Hughes for gambling and lottery equipment at the Eldorado Club, the investigation into crime and corruption took a new turn. While there, Hughes learned that Billy Clark, son of the club’s chief operator, was in violation of his parole. When he was taken into custody, Billy attempted to excuse a recent pistol whipping he was involved with at the Eldorado – their club had no gambling, they just had girls.
When word got out that Billy Clark was in jail, anonymous calls began coming into the office. Girls, forced into prostitution, wanted to talk and tell what they knew about the vice ring, but only with the promise of protection. The B-Girl and Prostitution Ring was being broken and the safety and protection of witnesses was being assured by the National Guard. Fifty women soon came forward. On the basis of testimony of these witnesses, General Hanna ordered the pickup and arrests of all suspects. This included Rudene Smith, Frank Gullatt, and Cliff Entrekin.
It also included one lady you might not know and one you do. Fanny Belle Chance, known locally as the Queen of Hearts and co-owner of the Cotton Club with former Night Police Chief Buddy Jowers, had come to Phenix City two years before looking for the good life and a fast buck. She began as a $14 a week B-Girl, then quickly advanced her ambitions by marrying six men, some of them concurrently, which afforded her a collection of government bonds and monthly allotments from those stationed overseas. Her biggest conquest was adding Buddy Jowers to her list of suitors. Despite warnings from his uncle, Mayor Elmer Reese, Buddy co-partnered with Fanny the ownership of the Cotton Club with Fanny providing entertainment and Buddy providing protection.
Sixty-nine-year-old Beachie Howard, better known as Ma Beachie, was the most famous cabaret owner in all of Phenix City. She was indicted with the others. Frail, white-haired, and bespectacled, wearing her prim signature starched white uniform and a pained look, Ma Beachie complained she was not guilty, and her place was so clean that the ladies of the church used to come there for donations. Left with five children and a grocery store when her husband died thirty years before, Ma had visited New Orleans’ night clubs on her second honeymoon and made up her mind to set up one herself when she returned to Phenix City. At her club, she sat on a stool in her starched white uniform like a pristine high priestess and kept a gun at her side in case of trouble, but she liked to indulge in the pretensions that it was as sinless as a Sunday school.
As the vice cases increased in 1954, the investigation broadened. A dice factory was discovered where marked cards and loaded dice were manufactured. A college for safe crackers was uncovered where criminals throughout the country came to learn the expertise of quickly and efficiently breaking the combination of a strong box. And then, the rumors of baby sales and an abortion clinic.
Hoyt Shepherd did not expect to be arrested. He remined newsmen that he had gotten out of the gambling business back in 1951 when the federal government required a gambling stamp and gone respectable. General Hanna and Solicitor George Johnson were determined to see justice done and not let Hoyt slip through the net. Hoyt Shepherd and Jimmie Matthews were arrested on four counts of leasing buildings for the purpose of gambling.
Days were spent searching the law books until a statute was found. An 1873 “gypsy law” still on the books, designed to prevent gypsy bands and riverboat gamblers from plying their trade, made it a misdemeanor for anyone to rent or lease property for the purpose of gambling. Hoyt and Jimmie owned buildings that housed the Ritz Café, Red Cook’s Old Original Barbecue, Clyde Yarbrough’s Café, and the Golden Rule Café. They were taken to jail and locked up with bond set at $1,000 for each of the four counts. The gambling community was thoroughly shaken. They couldn’t believe that the Kingpin himself had been arrested.
While Hoyt was in jail, Bernard Sykes – head of the Patterson investigation – called him in to question him. With the investigation being twelve weeks old at this point, would this be a break in the case? General Hanna didn’t think so. While Hoyt may have been as crooked as they came, he wasn’t dumb. Hanna felt that Hoyt would have figured out the odds and that hell would have fallen on his head for killing the attorney general-elect.
At their trial, to the surprise of everyone in the courtroom, Hoyt and Jimmie pled guilty and accepted a sentence of ninety days hard labor and a $1,000 fine. This unexpected turn of events paved the way for a flood of other guilty pleas by lesser gamblers in the hundreds of indictments handed down by the Russell County Grand Jury.
Back in the sheriff’s office, 500 more subpoenas were being served on witnesses to be called before the Russell County Grand Jury when they reconvened in September. The report was that a key figure would be a former Russell County official, who spent lavishly, keeping more than 29 women as his own in the past three years, and was known to have supported three of them with all of their needs including homes and cars - former Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller.
On the first of October, General Hanna pulled a surprise raid on Fuller’s house. Fuller, lying in bed listening to the World Series on the radio chatted amiably with the National Guard who searched his apartment from ceiling to floor. When the drawer to Fuller’s bedside table was opened, a handful of documents were found. The papers contained a list of 200 names, some with anti-vice affiliations, who had contributed to the Phenix City machine for the last three elections, a handwritten list of gamblers and racketeers with sums of money noted by their names, and pages of names from the voting list with ballot box numbers and sums of money, most frequently, three dollars. After presenting it to the Russell County Grand Jury, indictments for ten more counts of bribery were handed down against Fuller, the maximum penalty, 100 years in prison.
On November 2nd, the general election in Phenix City was held under the watchful eye of the National Guard. Lamar Murphy was elected Sheriff of Russell County, John Patterson won his father’s seat as Attorney General, and Jim Folsom was elected Governor of Alabama. By November 11th, the Russell County Grand Jury, which had been in almost continuous session since August, filed its fifth report bringing the total number of indictments to 734.
Albert Fuller was convicted of bribery and sentenced to seven years in the state penitentiary, but his attorneys notified the court they would file for an appeal, and he was put under house arrest with a bond set at $2,500. By the end of November, most of the indictments had been cleared away with guilty pleas, and when the Russell County Grand Jury reconvened near the end of November, the long-awaited investigation into the murder of Albert Patterson began.
James Radius Taylor, the cab driver who had been near the scene the night of the murder, had witnessed a man running away and taken a vow of silence, could no longer battle with his conscience. Guaranteed his safety by General Hanna and the National Guard, Taylor came forward to testify as did Quinnie Kelley, the courthouse janitor who was standing on the courthouse steps when Patterson was shot. In prison, Bill Littleton, the cab driver arrested by the National Guard, tried and convicted of the 1950 killing of Private George Outlaw, decided he, too, would testify and tell what he had seen the night Patterson was killed. Former police chief Pal Daniel, Hoyt Shepherd, Jimmie Matthews, and Godwin Davis were also among those who were brought to testify.
Testimony of witnesses went on for ten days ending with John Patterson (pictured above) who told the Grand Jurors that the political scheme to prevent his father’s election began in the May Primary when a concerted effort was made to buy the election. On December 9th, the Russell County Grand Jury handed down three indictments. Albert Fuller, Arch Ferrell, and Si Garrett were each identically charged with “unlawfully and with malice aforethought killing and murdering Albert L. Patterson by shooting him with a gun.”
Fuller and Ferrell were arrested. Fuller was put under house arrest due to his continued injuries from “falling off a horse” on July 4th. Ferrell was put in the same jail cell Ma Beachie had previously occupied. Si Garrett was still in the psychiatric facility in Texas and the sheriff was denied service of the fugitive warrant and extradition. His attorney and doctor said his condition was where he needed to remain in the hospital and once able to be discharged, he would return to Alabama.
As the investigations and vice and vote fraud trials were ending and the year was coming to a close, Governor-elect Jim Folsom announced that General Hanna would be replaced as commanding general of the National Guard by his friend, William D. Partlow. General Hanna stated to Hugh Bentley, “The price of the purchase was worth it. Phenix City is rid of the gangsters who have run this town for 100 years and you have the free elections you’ve always worked for. And, it isn’t likely this will happen here again. The whoremasters won’t have the police helping them anymore.”
However, before Martial Rule ended and the troops returned home, General Hanna had a medal struck and awarded to each man for his service.
Bill Littleton testified he saw he saw Albert Fuller and Arch Ferrell standing in front of the Coulter Building. James Radius Taylor testified he saw Albert Fuller run out between some buildings toward a car parked parallel to the curb with the right door open and then sped down 14th Street. Quinnie Kelley saw Arch Ferrell running down a pathway behind the Post Office toward the courthouse. There were attempts to discredit all of the witnesses.
The trial of Albert Fuller lasted for 26 days. The jury found him guilty of murder. Arch Ferrell was found not guilty on the vote fraud and murder charges in two separate trials. Ray Jenkins, the young reporter assigned by the Columbus Ledger to cover the Phenix City story on the night of the murder was committed had followed the story through to its end. He asked a disappointed John Patterson what he thought of Ferrell’s verdict. “No man,” Patterson said, “is acquitted at the bar of his own conscience.”
In Phenix City, the gambling was gone, and the racketeers were in jail. Out of the hundreds of convictions in the vice and vote fraud trials, not a single case was overturned in appeals. Across the river, there was great rejoicing in the Columbus Ledger office when Robert Brown and his staff of reporters won for the newspaper the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting of the Phenix City story and the political assassination of Albert Patterson.
Albert Fuller appealed his conviction, but it was denied. He served seven years before being paroled. While working as a parolee, he fell on his head from a ten-foot ladder, and after nine months and several operations, he died in Phenix City.
Arch Ferrell, acquitted in both the vote fraud and murder trials, was disbarred by the Alabama Bar Association. Several months after the death of Albert Fuller, he was reinstated and resumed his law practice in Phenix City.
Lamar Reid, indicted in Jefferson County along with Arch Ferrell and Si Garrett for vote fraud in changing the vote totals, pleaded nolo contendere, was fined $500, sentenced to six months at hard labor, and given one year probation.
Charges against Si Garrett lingered in the courts for nine years. Shortly thereafter, Garrett died.
Night scene from The Phenix City Story, photo by H. Austin Starling. 1954.