Growing up in Auburn, Ala., in the 1970s, Ace Atkins would ride with his family through Phenix City on the way to Columbus.
And inevitably, when they hit the Alabama border town, his mom would tell stories about her own passage through the city in the 1950s.
"She would say that when they would go over to Columbus to go shopping, the girls would hide down, like sneak down in their car, because they were so afraid that they were passing through the downtown of Phenix City," Atkins said.
"They were so afraid someone was going to get them."
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They had their choice of bogeymen: Crooked gambling club owners. Prostitution ring kingpins looking for new girls to pimp. Rowdy drunks still reeling from Friday night revelries.
Atkins' mom remembered her own father’s warnings, too. “Her father always used to say, "If you could drain the Chattahoochee at that point, between Phenix City and Columbus, there was no telling how many bodies you would find.' "
Horrible stories. True stories.
And just the stuff to feed the imagination of a budding young writer.
He filed it away, behind years of college football and work as a newspaper reporter. But later, after he’d started penning novels, the idea resurfaced.
His novel, “Wicked City,” was released Thursday. It’s set largely in the aftermath of the 1954 slaying of attorney general nominee Albert Patterson that marked the zenith of Phenix City’s nefarious red-light district.
“Wicked City” is a work of fiction. It reads almost like a western set in the shadowy streets and neon-lit alleys of the mid-century, part Elmore Leonard, part Zane Grey. But the characters are real people. There’s Albert Patterson’s son, John. There’s Lamar Murphy, a service station owner who’d become sheriff. There’s District Attorney Arch Ferrell, and crooked assistant sheriff Albert Fuller.
The book’s dialogue is coarse sometimes, and its unflinching descriptions of the bustle, and especially the hustle, of the city’s vice district after dark or behind closed doors will furrow some brows.
“My goal in doing this is to bring this world to life,” Atkins says, “and there’s no way a history book or a nonfiction book can bring this story to living color the way a novel can.”
But it’s a world that P h e n i x C i t y re s i d e n t s worked hard to kill, to put behind them. Some survivors of those days aren’t happy to see someone revive the past, yet again.
“I think we’ve hashed it o ve r t o o m a n y t i m e s already,” said Lee Lott, who was Phenix City mayor from 1965 to 1968. “About once a year a book comes out. It doesn’t do the city any good. It doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Atkins interviewed John Patterson, the son who became attorney general in his slain father’s place, while researching his book. John Patterson, 86, understands Lott’s position.
“There’s a lot of people in Phenix City that would like to put that thing behind them and put it in the past,” he said. “This kind of thing revives it, and some people don’t like that. But I have no c o n t ro l ove r t h a t , a n d nobody else does. Mr. Atkins can write about anything he wants to.
“I’ve no problem with the novel,” John Patterson added. “It’s a good read.”
Atkins, who grew up in Auburn and whose father is the revered football player and coach Billy Atkins, is not insensitive to such concerns.
“I think it’s a stigma, a reputation, they’ve had to live with a very long time. I’m sure some people will feel like I’m drumming up bad stories,” he said. “But it has been 50 years. It’s part of the history now, not part of the reputation.”Wicked history
Younger generations who only know Phenix City as the sleepy Alabama border town, Columbus’ kissing cousin, might be surprised to learn of the city’s dark reputation during the first half of the 20th century.
Cross the Chattahoochee River from Columbus at either of the two bridges that spanned it at the time — at 14th Street or on Dillingham — and you were greeted by clusters of shotgun-style casinos, cafés and loan companies that stayed open late. The districts were small, but bright and loud. By 1954, there were three high-end clubs on Dillingham and about a dozen on 14th.
The Oyster bar, on 14th Street, operated gambling tables conveniently below the Phenix Finance Company, which was ready to put cash into hands fast.
Even the seemingly innocent cafés were dangerous. A report for the National Guard general who would run the city during the 1954 crackdown said soldiers dining in the wrong restaurant could get drugged or robbed. Female escorts, or B-girls, were instructed to escort drunken soldiers to casinos to blow their money on crooked games.
At least seven illegal lotteries were run in the town, as well as five prostitution rings operated by hotels and social clubs — not counting some of the B-girls who sold themselves on the side.
Most folks knew better than to complain about crooked games or watereddown drinks. And some who ran even more afoul of what Atkins calls the “Phenix City Machine” could find a more serious retribution than a roughing up by a bouncer.
“They fished a body out of the river frequently over the years,” John Patterson said.
Atkins spent more than a year researching the city’s history, learning far more than he included in the book.
“It had always been an outlaw town, even going back to the Civil War,” he said. “It was a place where bootleggers used to frequent during prohibition in the 1920s.”
In the wake of the Great Depression, city leaders decided to use gambling as a means to bring in needed revenue and offer jobs. “The city leaders said, ‘Let’s go ahead and make this town a vice town, to save our town, because our people are so broke,’ ” Atkins said, “and that’s when the walls really fell down.
“In World War II, Fort B e n n i n g wa s a b o u t t o explode,” he added. “All these restless teenagers with money in their pockets came over with prostitutes and gambling and drinking, that kind of thing. It just became immensely powerful. People really couldn’t complain, especially during wartime, (because) it was an entertainment district for soldiers. And anything to help the soldiers during that time was considered a good thing.”
The vice districts generated enough money for the city ’s power-mongers to become a force to be reckoned with statewide. Local elections were rigged by the local kingpins and could swing state elections.
A l b e r t Pa tt e rs o n wa s determined to clean up the city when he garnered the Democratic nomination for state attorney general. And when it looked like he was going to win, despite the racketeers’ best efforts to steal votes, they murdered him in the alley between the Coulter Building and the Elite Café, near the city’s courthouse.
His murder is what led the U.S. government to declare martial law — kicking out local police and shutting down the city to all but its residents.Lamar Murphy’s law
Even those apprehensive about the release of “Wicked City” are happy about one thing: In it, Lamar Murphy finally gets his due.
W h i l e m o s t h i s t o r i e s reflect the point of view of the Patterson family, who sparked the events that would lead to the end of Phenix City’s vice district, Atkins tells his story from the point of view of the man who was asked to become sheriff in the wake of the killing.
“I had read about Lamar Murphy as a footnote. The note at the bottom said, ‘Former prizefighter Lamar Murphy was the first man to take the job as the first honest sheriff,’ ” Atkins said.
“That one little bit about former professional prize fighter,” he thought. “Man, t h i s gu y ’s go t t o b e amazing.”
Murphy liked boxing and raising walking horses. He had just a high school education and was running a service station in the early 1950s. He was a trusted member of the county’s Russell Betterment Association, a group Albert Patterson formed to fight the city’s corruption. After the National Guard stepped in, with growing concern that the existing police were corrupt, Murphy was the one they tapped to wear a badge.
“Lamar deserves a lot more credit than he got,” said John Patterson, who was friends with Murphy until the former sheriff died in 1993.
“He got along with everybody, because he was fair and evenhanded in his dealings,” he added. “See, people trusted Lamar when they didn’t trust the strangers in town that were doing the investigation. And when they asked people to come forward, . . . they’d go to Lamar rather than going to the acting attorney general.”
So he was a great choice for Atkins’ protagonist.
But: “Lamar didn’t like to be interviewed, and he did not like to be the center of attention,” the writer said. “And he did not trust reporters. So that’s why not very much was written about him.”
Atkins befriended Murphy’s daughter and even got to see the former boxer’s training equipment, hanging at his old home.
“My dad would not have wanted a story written with him as a main character, and I really didn’t know what angle the book would have when Ace and I talked and emailed at the beginning,” said Nuria Chaparro, Murphy’s daughter.
“What Ace says when he talks about men having courage to stand up for what they believe to be right hit me,” she said. “My dad did that and at the same time he stressed the importance of the children being protected — all of us.”
After martial law was lifted in town, Murphy was elected to the post of sheriff. And re-elected. And reelected again, on until he retired in 1978. “You couldn’t have found a better man for sheriff during that period of time,” John Patterson said.