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Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016

Tullahoma man witnessed famous shooting

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Jack Culpepper looks over a map of Phenix City, Ala. as he recalls the night that the state's Attorney General-elect was assassinated in 1954. Culpepper saw the killer waiting for his victim 30 seconds before the murder.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely)
First of a five-part series.

Imagine growing up in a town so wicked you witness your first murder at the age of 13.

It was called "Sin City" and it really existed.

There was a movie made about it, but it wasn't the recent Robert Rodriguez film noir effort with an all-star cast.

It's called Phenix City, Ala., which for the first half of the 20th Century was widely known as the most corrupt city in the nation, with gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, drugs, white slavery, theft and murder and even a black market baby adoption racket being the rule of the day.

There was no point in calling the police; they were all on the take. That went for the sheriff, the judges and the chief prosecutor of the county -- all on the payroll of gangsters.

Soldiers from nearby Fort Benning in town for a good time could find themselves drugged and rolled by the ladies of the evening, severely beaten for objecting to the rigged games of chance or found floating face down in the Chattahoochee River if they made too much of a noise about it. The town was so crooked that Gen. George S. Patton once threatened to roll his tanks across the river from Ft. Benning and destroy it.

It finally took the 1954 assassination of the Alabama State Attorney General-elect and the declaration of martial law by the governor to shut down Sin City, an assassination where one man who now resides in this area found himself caught up in and wondering if he would be next.

Jack Culpepper of Tullahoma, born in Sin City in 1922, was orphaned at the age of 6; his mother died 10 weeks after giving birth and his father was murdered in 1928. A courthouse fire destroyed all the records of his family and it wasn't until high school that he found out what his real name was. He was 70 years old before he saw a photograph of his mother.

Adopted by his half sister, Jack's upbringing was typical of the day -- eight hours of school followed by an equal amount of time working in the cotton mills that hugged the banks of the Chattohooche, sweeping up lint off the floors for a few cents a day.

It was a hard life made even harder by the fact that he was growing up in what Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson would later call "the wickedest city in America."

Sin City

Before the June 18, 1954, gunning down of Albert F. Patterson, it was all business as usual in Phenix City and Russell County, Ala.

The Southern town had been a pit of corruption and vice for decades and along with the neighboring town of Girard, which later merged with Phenix City, a tradition of sinfulness continued as it had for nearly 100 years. During World War I, Phenix City had the dubious honor of having the nation's highest rate of venereal disease.

But when Fort Benning was built just across the Chattahoochee River in 1918, the money really started rolling in, with new recruits -- most of them away from home for the first time -- hitting the bars, gambling joints and cat houses. During World War II, officials at the Army base estimated that 80 percent of their 80,000 personnel spent more than half of their pay in Phenix City, making the total take of all the rackets about $100 million a year, nearly $1 billion by today's standards.

During Prohibition, the area was a mecca for illegal booze since it was next to the state line and local officials tended to look the other way.

This was the atmosphere Jack was raised in, although during his early years he stayed out of the area where the prostitution and gambling was concentrated, a two block strip next to the river. The rest of the community was much like any other small town of the time period.

The Great Depression brought another worry for the city: bankruptcy. With an inadequate tax base, and to prevent the town from going into receivership, the city fathers actually voted to illegally authorize gambling and collected revenue by licensing these operations, an unspoken agreement that laws would be selectively enforced in exchange for contribution to the town's treasury.

Most of the racketeers were long-time, well-known members of the community and the town leaders tolerated the illegal activities due to the revenue they brought in the form of licenses, fines and forfeited bonds. Raids would be conducted and arrests made, but the gangsters were warned well in advance and they would normally write it off as the cost of doing business. Lawmen could say they were doing their job and gamblers would use the raids to part ways with worn out gaming devices.

Men like Hoyt Shepard and Jimmy Matthews ran the syndicate and kept their operations in a positive light through local philanthropy, some genuine ... others with calculated motives. Shepard and Matthews helped fund everything from Little League baseball to the construction of the city's only hospital, as well as church building programs.

The city of 23,000 souls was infamous nationwide for its casinos, honky tonks, prostitution and boozing, all of which was not behind closed doors but in the open for all to see by the 14th Street and Dillingham Street bridges, open 24 hours a day.

Monday: Culpepper gets acquainted with Phenix City's steamier side.

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