Ace Atkins: Wicked City

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Ace Atkins Wicked City
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    Wicked City
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In 1955, Look magazine called Phenix City, Alabama, “The Wickedest City in America,” but even that may have been an understatement. It was a stew of organized crime and corruption, run by a machine that dealt with complaints forcefully and with dispatch. No one dared cross them – no one even tried. And then the machine killed the wrong man. When crime – fighting attorney Albert Patterson is gunned down in a Phenix City alley in the spring of 1954, the entire town seems to pause just for a moment – and when it starts up again, there is something different about it. A small group of men meet and decide that they have had enough, but what that means and where it will take them is something they could not have foreseen. Over the course of the next several months, lives will change, people will die, and unexpected heroes will emerge – like “a Randolph Scott western,” one of them remarks, “played out not with horses and Winchesters but with Chevys and.38s and switchblades.” Peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters, both real and fictional, Wicked City is a novel of uncommon intensity – rich with atmosphere and filled with sensuality and surprise.

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Ace Atkins


Wicked City

Copyright © 2008 by Ace Atkins

For Billy

You could climb a tall tree, spit in any direction, and where the wind wafted the splutter, there you would find organized crime, corruption, sex and human depravity.

– EDWIN STRICKLAND AND GENE WORTSMAN,

Phenix City: The Wickedest City in America, 1955

Woe unto the fighter that goes into battle with the thought of keeping his features regular and his hair parted neatly in the center. He is a sucker for the rough, tough, one-track-minded youngster who carries mayhem in each foot and murder in his heart.

– Scientific Boxing by a Fistic Expert, 1936


Many of the large events in this novel are true. However, some characters have been drawn as composites to share space alongside historical figures, and in several instances time has been compressed for brevity. That said, no author could ever exaggerate the sin, sleaze, and moral decay of Phenix City, Alabama, in the fifties or the courage of the people who stood up to fight it.


WELCOME TO PHENIX CITY,Alabama, population 23,305. Located across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, we offer all the basic amenities of small-town Southern life. There’s Cobb’s Barber Shop, where kindly gray-headed gentlemen discuss local politics and current affairs between the buzz of the clippers and local radio ag reports. And we have the friendly Elite Café, where Mr. Ross Gibson will cook you up the best plate of eggs and grits with red-eye gravy you ever tasted. We have a small but bustling downtown filled with Seymour’s Ready-to-Wear Shop, Bentley’s Grocery, the Phenix City Pharmacy, and the wonderful Palace Theater, where on Saturdays a kid can get in for fifty cents and watch the latest B westerns or the new adventures of Francis the Talking Mule. Phenix City also boasts Idle Hour Amusement Park – you can take a miniature train from downtown into the hills and roller-skate, bowl, and swim. There is even a little zoo there with bears and lions and monkeys. All of this mixed with dozens of churches, Christian and civic clubs, and one of the best hospitals in east Alabama make Phenix City an ideal place for the family.

Not to mention the world-famous nightclubs, clip joints, and brothels. Phenix City is probably known best for its whores.

We have only the bawdiest of burlesque down on Fourteenth Street. Many of the acts come in straight from Nevada or Tijuana, showing off women who can smoke cigarettes and cigars from their privates and dish out cut-rate favors in back rooms. Perhaps that’s the reason we are the chosen nightspot for GIs in from Fort Benning and the overworked businessman visiting Atlanta or Columbus.

Folks come from all the United States for our games of chance, too. But don’t expect a winner; here in Phenix City every pair of dice is loaded and every stack of cards marked. And complaints? Yes, sir, we deal with complaints with speed in this Southern town. Usually, unfriendly words from outsiders are met with the point of a pistol or the blade of a knife slicing across your throat before being dumped through a trapdoor directly into the swirling waters of the Chattahoochee.

But don’t let that worry you. Most of the joints – the Hillbilly Club, the Atomic Bomb Café, the Bamboo – are more than gambling halls. Almost all are equipped with back rooms with skinny metal beds, a pillow or two, and stained mattresses. You could take your pick from the B-girls and the whores and dancers out on Fourteenth Street and out on Opelika Road, where the motor courts and trailer parks all work on an hourly rental.

Any deviant can find the most bizarre of sexual acts to his liking.

And all whores must register with the chief deputy of Russell County – Bert Fuller – where their teeth and bodies are inspected and noted before being tattooed and sent out to please the customer.

Of course, any stories about Phenix City have the occasional negative words by newspapermen and the like. Look magazine called us “The Wickedest City in America,” and, during the war, it was noted that General George S. Patton thought the entire town should be bulldozed on account he was losing too many soldiers.

But where else would grotesque black-and-white pornographic movies be shot or babies of whores put up for sale to the highest bidder?

Phenix City may be a small town, but it’s a giant in Alabama when it comes to the state’s economics and politics.

Just ask newly elected governor Big Jim Folsom. There he is, smiling into the camera at a fund-raiser with Chief Deputy Bert Fuller and our county solicitor Arch Ferrell, a man who hasn’t prosecuted a single clip joint operator, moonshiner, or whoremaster in his tenure.

Look at the smiles on those boys’ faces. That’s the look of power.

Maybe because just a few weeks back about a dozen cars left from Phenix City, all loaded down with briefcases full of cash. They drove from Auburn to Slapout, Alabama, distributing Phenix City’s might to local officials and sheriffs, and, by God, they pulled out for ole Big Jim.

So who are They?

This is the redneck mafia, the Syndicate, the Phenix City Machine, a group of gamblers, pimps, thieves, and dope dealers big enough to fill a football stadium. There’s the old guard, the duo who built this town, Jimmie Matthews and Hoyt Shepherd. And then there’s Miss Fannie Belle, the redheaded devil who feels as comfortable calling a murder as getting a manicure and her hair done. And we could jump from Johnnie Benefield to Godwin Davis to Clyde Yarborough, a man whose face resembled fleshy pudding from dozens of skin grafts.

Sometimes it’s a chore to find out who works for who and exactly who to trust. The night Mr. Patterson was killed, the list of suspects was about as big as the city itself, because, after all, Mr. Patterson won the state attorney general run-off on a platform of a Man Against Crime.

What followed his murder was a movie, a Randolph Scott western, played out not with horses and Winchesters but with Chevys and Fords and.38s and switchblades, until the city was dismantled, stacked in vacant fields, and left to burn in smoldering trash heaps for the entire state to see.

The fires burned all that fall, filling your eyes and nose and clothes with that acrid smell.

We never rebuilt.

How could we?

I’ll always remember that bonfire smoke in ’54, when it all came tumbling down to the bugles of Guard troops. The burnings seemed to last for months, destroying the guts of the Machine, huge trailing snakes of blackness high up into the fall sky. I remember thinking to myself: This is a hell of a place to raise a family.

1

THE SPRING OF 1954 had slipped into summer with little notice. My routine hadn’t changed much; there was always the jog down Crawford Road at daybreak and then back to the little brick house I shared with my wife and two kids. As my wife, Joyce, would start coffee, I’d finish with a few rounds against the heavy bag hung on chains in an old shed and then maybe jump some rope or hook my feet under a pipe and do sit-ups until my stomach ached. That morning, a Friday, June eighteenth, my daughter, Anne, walked outside, still in her pajamas, and asked if she could work out with me, and I smiled, out of breath, my bald head slick with sweat, and reached into the shed for an apple crate. Anne, just eleven, with the same slight space in her teeth as me and the same fair skin and hair, stood on top of the shaky wood and began to work the leather of the speed bag with her tiny fists.

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