Second of a five part series of Jack Culpepper's memories of growing up in Phenix City, Ala., widely known for years until 1954 as the most corrupt city in the nation. Culpepper, 83, now resides in Tullahoma.
Jack Culpepper's first run-in with the steamier side of Phenix City life occurred in the 1930s, at the age of 11, while he was making money like many boys did in those days -- delivering newspapers. He and his lifelong friend Joe Freeman would head across the river to Columbus, Ga., to pick up the papers for delivery in the wee hours of the morning.
It was a routine the pair would repeat for years: catching a midnight show at the movies, doing their delivery job and then in bed by 4 in the morning. This explains why a boy of that age would be in a sleazy honky-tonk at 3 a.m. on a Sunday.
"I was just a kid and they only messed with me that one time," Jack said. He would cross the 14th Street bridge on his bicycle, which led into where most of the criminal activity was centered. While Joe attended to his deliveries across the street, Jack entered the Blue Bonnet Cafe and was only there to collect his two dimes for the papers when suddenly he heard. "Look, it's a virgin, let's get him!"
Someone grabbed him and thrust him into the lap of a woman who obviously made her living with her body.
"Scared the daylights out of me," Jack remembered. Just as quickly, he heard "Leave him alone, he's just a kid," at which point other women of ill repute set upon the one who had grabbed Jack.
"I left a pile of 'em in the floor ... of women ... working her over, I guess."
But while it was the only time the criminal element would deliberately accost the young Jack, another early morning newspaper delivery at the age of 13 would leave quite an impression on him.
Entering the "Merry-Go-Round" to deliver his papers, Jack found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently, two drunken soldiers decided to reenact a scene that made the archer William Tell famous throughout the ages, except instead of using an apple and a bow and arrow, the pair chose a shot glass and a .45 automatic pistol.
However, the solider with the .45 shot a bit lower than he intended and Jack was splattered with brains, blood and pieces of skull from the unfortunate man with the shot glass on top of his head. "I didn't witness it, I felt it!" Jack said. "Part of his head hit my shoulder!"
His head and shoulders covered with the blood of the dead man, Jack fled the murder scene so quickly that he left his brand new Fleetwood Stream bicycle with chrome fenders -- "the Cadillac of bicycles" at the time -- containing over a hundred papers on the sidewalk.
He ran six blocks to his house where he lived with his half sister and her husband, the couple who were like a mother and father to him. His sister took one look at the bloodied Jack and dropped to the floor in a dead faint.
His brother-in-law ripped Jack's shirt off and got a bucket of water to wash the blood off. Then an hour later, he went back to the scene of the crime to retrieve Jack's bike, and Jack continued delivering the papers like nothing had happened.
Jack was close to another shooting in Phenix City some years later while he shared a 10 cent taxi ride with an unknown man. He has trouble recalling what year the shooting took place or what the circumstances were, but he definitely remembers they were riding through the 14th Street Bridge area.
"All I remember was a man on the sidewalk pointing a gun at the taxi. I heard 'Hit the ground!' and he went and bailed out the door and when he did, I went out the other side ... but I don't remember much after that," Jack said. "The cab driver, he sped away and left us there."
It was in 1940 when Gen. George S. Patton made his threat to level the town and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, after reading the classified reports of how some of America's fighting men were treated, gave the town its "wickedest city" label, a title it took Phenix City years to shake.
Gambling kingpins encouraged children to play with the slot machines and went as far as to install kiddie chairs. There were slot machines in nearly every business, including the post office. One factory produced loaded dice and marked cards, and there was a school that taught crooks how to crack safes.
When Jack was a teenager, there was only one of the infamous locations he ever entered, the business run on the west side of town by Beachie Howard, also known as "Ma Beachie." Ma looked and sounded like the stereotypical sweet little Southern lady, except she ran Beachie's Swing Club, which had strippers, gambling and liquor.
"Don't mess with him, he's with me," is what Jack's older friend told those inside during his one and only visit helping deliver bread. Across the street from Ma's club were three rental properties she owned. Ma would claim ignorance of what her renters did to earn their rent money, but ....
"It had a sign up there that said 'rooms for rent by the hour, day or week' ... so you knew what that was," Jack said.
Ma Beachie was actually known to be one of the kindliest people doing business in Sin City; she helped out drunken soldiers by keeping track of their money and holding it for them as they patronized her nightclub. They would wake the next morning to find a note in their pockets from Ma telling them how much they had and that she was holding it for them. Others in Sin City would simply keep it.
Women could be had for a dollar an hour or $20 a night by the eager, young soldiers, who would frequently lose every penny in the gambling parlors, due to all the games being rigged, or due to being drugged and robbed by the prostitutes. For those that were broke, short-term loan establishments and pawn shops could be found anywhere along 14th Street, all under the control of the syndicate.
Some of the small town girls that came to Phenix City looking for work might find themselves thrown in jail without charges for several days, and then a procurer for prostitutes would come calling and offer to pay the fine -- if the girl would work for them. If she refused, the girl stayed in jail and was charged as a criminal, either until she could pay the "fine" or accept the offer of "work."
Tuesday: Was Phenix City tied to a nationwide white slavery racket?