We got trouble, right here in Phenix City

James E. Merritt

February 17, 1993|By James E. Merritt

KENO can "take you broke" quicker than any of the games played in the Las Vegas casinos. I write from experience.

If the Maryland General Assembly manages to dismantle this latest revenue-raising scheme of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, it may be for the best. Success could lead to more objectionable forms of licensed gambling such as casinos, with their contemptible lures for new customers, especially the young.

For those who want to see keno continue -- it is, after all, an instant numbers game sanctioned by the state -- or Las Vegas-style casinos in Maryland, here is a true story dedicated to mind-changing:

In the 1930s, I was a resident of Phenix City, Ala., a town that lies along the Chattahoochee River across from Columbus, Georgia's second-largest city. The latter bristled with textile mills producing everything from ladies' hosiery to tire fabric. If this industry failed to provide enough economic stability, the great Fort Benning military reservation, home of the world's largest infantry school, was a mere six miles to the southeast. Its fortnightly paydays poured millions into the Columbus/Phenix City economy.

As did a majority of Phenix City residents, I commuted daily to my job in Columbus. This left Phenix with the Russell County courthouse, a small cotton mill, a few honky-tonks and, above all, the "bug." This was what the natives called a numbers game based on the three middle digits of the total number of shares traded daily on the New York Stock Exchange. The bug "fell" at 4 p.m. when the exchange closed.

The original bug operators were long-respected residents of the town whose reputations were enhanced by their paying all hits promptly and in full. The pay-off was 700 to 1, less a 10 percent deduction for the writer (as was the rule in Baltimore when the numbers game was more prevalent). In that Depression era, bets as low as a quarter were welcomed.

But, perhaps unknowingly, these men were creating a climate that was bound to foster growth of noxious weeds. Slot machines began to appear all over town. The honky-tonks became bases for organized prostitution, and the sale of drugs began.

Violence emerged shortly thereafter when a Columbus entrepreneur made the mistake of announcing that he "reckoned it was about time I took over that bug game across the river." It was not long before he lost more than his money in a Phenix card game.

The next calamity was the bombing of the home of the president of the Russell Betterment Association (RBA), a community group dedicated to clean living. Fortunately, nobody was injured.

Convinced that more trouble was about to emerge, I went to see my good friend, the neighborhood druggist. He was a young man with political ambitions who recently had been elected to the City Commission. I told him I thought the commission should strive for legalized gambling to stop the violence.

"That's a great idea," he agreed, "but we could never effect it. The churches, the RBA, the police and the bug men would fight it tooth and nail, and I'm afraid that's an unbeatable combination." He then made a prophecy that marked him wise beyond his years: "The only thing that will save this town is more and worse violence."

And that is exactly what happened.

In 1954, Albert Patterson, a prominent Phenix City attorney, was elected attorney general of Alabama. One of his campaign promises had been to clean up his home town once and for all. He never got the chance. Before he could be sworn in, he was gunned down one evening on a downtown Phenix City street.

Shortly after, the governor of Alabama put the town under martial law. Fort Benning declared it off limits. National Guard MPs directed traffic, and the slot machines found a home in the muddy bottom of the Chattahoochee. All other gambling ceased.

After a long trial featuring a special prosecutor, a Russell County deputy sheriff was found guilty of Patterson's murder and sentenced to life in the penitentiary.

However, the deed had widespread ramifications. Young John Patterson, Albert's son, was elected governor of Alabama in 1958. Helped by a strong sympathy vote, he defeated George Wallace, who was making his first run for the office. It was after this defeat that Wallace made his infamous vow never to be "outniggered" again. And the "Phoenix City Story," produced by Allied Artists with a distinguished cast, still pops up now and again on late-night TV.

James E. Merritt now lives and tells tales at Charlestown, a retirement community in Catonsville.

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