Episode 74 The Sin City Murder of Albert Patterson

In 1954, Albert Patterson campaigned as a “man against crime”, vowing he would run the mob out of Phenix City Alabama if he won the race for Alabama Attorney General. Within days of winning, Patterson was assassinated in Phenix City, which had been labelled the “Wickedest City in America”.

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Phenix City, in Russell County Alabama, is situated along the west bank of the Chattahoochee River. The river separates the city from Columbus, Georgia and nearby Fort Benning. 

Back in 2007 BusinessWeek named Phenix City America’s Best Affordable Suburb for raising a family. Look magazine named it an All-American City in 1955. A big leap forward for the city designated by US Secretary of War Henry Stimson as “ … the wickedest city in America” in 1940. At that time, it was known as Sin City because of some good ole boys, known as the Dixie Mafia. 

Phenix City, Alabama. Photo: PhenixCityAl.US

The mob in Alabama wasn’t the mob most of us envision when we think of Vegas, Chicago and New York. The Dixie Mafia were good ole boys with Southern drawls. They weren’t part of one  big syndicate. There were several Dixie Mafias between the 1930s and 1970s, all along the Gulf Coast. From Texas to Alabama, they operated bootlegging and gambling operations that thrived after prohibition ended in 1933. Some Southern states and counties had remained dry for decades after prohibition. Those dry counties and states gave bootleggers money making opportunities as they ran illegal booze and gambling operations in the areas along with prostitution rings.

Phenix City was the perfect hub for the Dixie Mafia in Alabama because city leaders were desperate for money. They opened a door to legally allow alcohol just after the Great Depression. The city had racked up a little over one million dollars of debt and went bankrupt. Businesses were shutting down and times were tough. Phenix City leaders agreed that the crime and corruption that had been slowly creeping into the city was a sort of necessary evil. 

They agreed to legalize the sale of beer and offer liquor licenses so they could tax the alcohol and to bring in revenue for the city. While the state of Alabama was still dry, Phenix City was open for business and in came the Dixie Mafia .  

Phenix City police tended to turn a blind eye as crime was moving in with the mafia. Russell County deputies occasionally carried out raids at seedy nightclubs that lined the streets downtown. As the revenue stream grew, the city created a system to prop it up. They created fines for gambling and liquor sales licenses while ignoring the criminal activity associated with the fines and licenses.

By 1940, the murder and crime rate in Phenix city caught the attention of the federal government. There were serious concerns because Fort Benning was just across the river from Phenix City. Soldiers loved the clubs, gambling halls, and brothels in Phenix City and with 100,000 men on the base during World War II, business was booming at those establishments.

The defense department had soldiers on leave, crossing the river to have fun in the wickedest city in America. Some of those soldiers were beaten and robbed. Some were murdered. 

In 1941, General George Patton took over command of the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Benning. When Patton saw the damage being done to his men who visited Phenix City, he threatened to move tanks across the river and flatten the city if things didn’t change. 

During World War II Phenix City officials did make an effort to improve its police force and start cracking down on crime. But the Dixie Mafia, the Phenix City Machine, viewed the war as an opportunity. They expanded operations by running narcotics through Phenix City and into nearby Georgia.

Meanwhile, Dixie Mafia bosses were befriending Phenix city officials and law enforcement and getting some help in buying votes in local elections. The partners who headed up the Phenix City syndicate, Hoyt Shepherd and Jimmie Matthews, worked with their associates to gain footing and credibility in Phenix City where they were welcomed in with appointments to school and hospital boards and the chamber of commerce. In return, they helped their community, positioning themselves as philanthropists as they helped fund construction of the city hospital and some local churches. They even sponsored little league baseball teams. 

All of this was in exchange for folks turning a blind eye to what was happening at clubs like the Bama Club which attracted big-time gamblers from Chicago, Birmingham, New York and Boston. 

From the outside looking in, the dixie mafia owned phenix city.

Locals businessman, Hugh Bentley, was one of many locals who were embarrassed by what had happened in Phenix City and Russell County. The corruption wasn’t hidden. It was out in the open for everyone to see and no one seemed willing to oppose it.

Hugh Bentley decided it was time to start cleaning things up. He founded several associations and organizations to bring together Phenix City residents together to oppose organized crime. He didn’t get the best response from his Good Government League, Citizens Committee, and Ministerial Alliances. His friend Albert Patterson, suggested he create an organization that did more than speak out against crime. The group could work to actively stop corruption. Bentley liked the idea and launched the Russell Betterment Association in 1950 with Patterson as an original member.

Albert Patterson, center, with members of Russell Betterment Association. Ledger-Enquirer Archives

Patterson had relocated his family to Phenix City in 1933. He was a successful lawyer who launched his political career in the city he came to love. After a run in local politics, Patteron was elected to the Alabama State Senate Seat in 1946. 

As a member of the Russell Betterment Association, he joined locals in working to fight voter fraud by monitoring polls for suspicious activity. They publicly campaigned for accountability for law enforcement in the region and worked to end illegal gambling and prostitution. 

Sen. Albert Patterson reading a comic book on the floor of the Alabama State Senate.

Early on, the RBA as they were known, held secret meetings to protect their families and businesses from potential backlash. They knew their work to bring an end to organized crime could endanger themselves and the people they loved. Hugh Bentley would be the first member to pay a price for this work when his house was bombed on January 9th 1952. Bentley was driving home when the explosion happened. He was relieved to find that his wife and children had survived the explosion. The force of the bomb had propelled them out of the house before it was completely destroyed by the resulting fire. No suspect was ever identified or arrested.

Hugh Bentley was featured on “This Is Your Life” in the 1950s.

Five months later, Bentley was monitoring voter polls with his son Hughbo and several members of the Betterment Association when they were beaten by members of the mob for working to protect the integrity of polling places. 

After the second attack Bentley hoped the state would send in help to maintain law and order and fight crime in Phenix City. The local authorities were helping and violence was escalating. But no help would come from the state of Alabama. Bentley and Patterson knew why. The reach of the dirty money that had corrupted Phenix City, local and county law enforcement and politicians, extended all the way up to the Alabama Attorney General. 

Alabama Attorney General Silas “Si” Garrett . Ledger-Enquirer Archives

Which is why Hugh Bentley and the Betterment Association urged Albert Patterson to make a run for that office. There was a lack of trust that things were on the up and up in that office.

The Betterment Association made a few strides in cutting down on crime in Phenix City. Had gotten a few trusted candidates into local elected office. But when they tried to make a big change, impeach Russell County Sheriff Ralph Matthews due to his mob connections, they failed. Sitting Attorney General Si Garrett spoke out in Matthews’ defense saying he knew just about every sheriff in Alabama and Ralph Mattews was among the best. 

That endorsement of Matthews, despite his department’s known connections to the mob and corruption, made it clear that Alabama needed a new Attorney General.

Albert Patterson’s 1954 Campaign Appearance on Birmingham Radio

Albert Patteson’s decision to run for Attorney General was not impulsive. He weighed the risks against the opportunity to bring about the change Alabama and Russell County needed.

Patterson campaigned on the character and strength of his family and his discipline to run a tough race. 

Albert Patterson had left his family home in Alabama at the age of 16 to work in Texas oil fields. He joined the Texas National Guard and served in World War I and was awarded the Purple Heart after he was shot in the leg during the way. His injury left him permanently disabled and in need of a cane to walk but he used his injury as a symbol of fighting on and surviving.

He returned to his home state of Alabama to attend college. He taught school in several counties while he studied law. Once he passed the bar he opened a law practice in Alexander City Alabama before relocating his practice to Phenix City in the 1930s. 

This legal practice is how Albert Patterson became connected to the very mob he wanted to dismantle in Phenix City. When Patterson ran for state senate in 1946, he was backed by the Phenix City Machine. He didn’t ask for their backing and never made commitments to thembut they claimed him and he won. 

Crime boss Hoyt Shepherd, had really taken a liking to Albert Patterson after he defended him on murder charges in September 1946. Shepherd threw all the money he could at lawyers when he was accused of killing Fayette Leeburn, a Georgia man who had tried to move in on Hoyt’s business dealings in Phenix City. Shepherd would be acquitted and Patterson would earn the largest retainer of his life for winning the case. 

Hoyt Shepherd, right, and brother Snooks after they were acquitted of killing Faye Leebern. Ledger-Enquirer Archives

Patterson’s connection with the mob in Phenix City would begin to fracture two years later when he was hired to defend mobster Head Revel against extradition to Florida. Revel was wanted for the murder of an associate who had agreed to work with the FBI to bring charges against Revel for his illegal liquor sales. Patterson lost the case, was threatened by Revel’s associates and vowed to never again take a client that was associated with crime in Phenix City. 

Albert Patterson wasn’t involved in their crimes but he felt guilt over defending these clients he knew were wreaking havoc in the region. He regretted not being vocal in his opposition sooner. 

That’s why Patteron ran for Attorney General as the quote: “man against crime”. 

Patterson 1954 Campaign poster

When you’ve defended the head of the Phenix City mob and then run for Attorney General so you can clean up Phenix City and the state, you make it clear that you are now the enemy of the machine that was propping up Phenix City.

The machine did everything in its power to cause chaos and sow doubt among voters who considered voting for Patterson. First, they embraced Patterson as their candidate, even as he was working to separate himself from the machine. 

By the time voters went to the polls on primary day in May 1954, voter intimidation and vote buying was widespread. Patterson had the support he needed to move on to a runoff when he won the three-candidate primary by 70,000 votes. 

The runoff would be against Lee Porter, the candidate who was really taking money from the mob. Porter believed he had the election all wrapped up, after all, his backers had spent a lot of money on votes. They were shocked that by the end of the June runoff, Albert Patterson won by about 1,000 votes. 

A recount was called and despite election interference and intimidation from the Phenix City Machine, Albert Patterson won the Democratic nomination for Alabama Attorney General. 

At the time of this election, there was no republican opponent to take on Patterson. This meant Patterson would be the automatic winner in the general election. To Patterson, this meant immediately going to work to create a strategy to fulfill his promise to clean up Phenix City.  

But someone had other plans for him.

Hear the rest of the story in Episode 74.

Albert Patterson’s car shortly after his assassination. Ledger Enquirer

Book RecommendationsDixie Mafia and Phenix City

Book Recommendations – John Patterson

Documentary

Episode Sources

“Albert Patterson’s 1954 Campaign Appearance on Birmingham Radio” YouTube, uploaded by Brion McClanahan, 19 June, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YUjtW01dX0

Worstman, Gene & Strickland, Edwin. Phenix City.  Vulcan Press, 1955.

Grady, Alan. When Good Men Do Nothing: The Assassination Of Albert Patterson. University of Alabama Press, 2003.

‘Wickedest City in America’. Tuscaloosa News. October 2003.

West Virginia’s Four Governors. West Virginia Archives and History. April 1946.

Albert L. Patterson. Encyclopedia of Alabama. May 2015.

Hugh Bentley. Encyclopedia of Alabama. August 2009. Phenix City: then and now. Opelika Observer. October 2016.

Music

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Panthernburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use

Additional Music

Lightless Dawn, Resolution, Long Note One, Long Note Two, Silver Flame, Lamentation by Kevin MacLeod. Magic Forest by Sir Cubworth; Tupelo Train by Chris Haughen; Loneliest Road in America by Jesse Gallager; I have a reservation by Track Tribe; There’s Probably No Time by Chris Zabriske Licensed under Creative Commons.



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