PHENIX CITY, Ala. (WRBL) — Some will know the name “Sodom” from the biblical story “Sodom and Gamora,” but Phenix City locals may not know another Sodom once resided right where they live.
“In 1833, a section about a quarter mile below the Dillingham Street Bridge was know as ‘Sodom,’” said long-time Citizen of East Alabama journalist Mark Clark. The journalist added this name only applied in this particular area of Girard.
The area was known to host the dregs of the surrounding society, with some Columbus-natives crossing the Chattahoochee River, to escape Georgia law.
In a Citizen of East Alabama reprint of selections from the book “The History of Opelika and Her Agricultural Tributary Territory,” originally written in the late 1800s by Rev. F.L. Cherry, he said the population consisted of a “mixture of gambler, black-leg, murderer, thief and drunkard” who “produced a moral odor offensive to the very idea of good morals.”
While Cherry asserts 1833 legislature which officially made Girard an Alabama City positively impacted “her morals and character,” history indicates this was a temporary recovery.
By the mid-1900s, rampant crime in the area had earned it the nickname “Sin City.”
Despite governmental efforts to tamp down illegal liquor sales in the area leading up to the Prohibition recounted by Historic Columbus, crime in the area did not subside.
The official history page on Phenix City’s website refers to the Great Depression era of Phenix City stating, “At the time, local authorities rationalized widespread crime and corruption in Phenix City as being a necessary revenue producer in the absence of other businesses.”
It was around the 1940s, much like in the biblical story of Sodom, a high-powered local official threatened to destroy the city, some sources say.
“Indeed, when Gen. George S. Patton [Jr.] was stationed at Fort Benning during World War II, he publicly threatened to cross the river and flatten Phenix City with his tanks,” states an entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama about the history behind the 1955 film noir picture “The Phenix City Story.”
This account is also reiterated by an article for National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) which adds, “Young soldiers from Fort Benning [now Fort Moore] …were easy targets in Phenix City’s bars and brothels.”
Clark highlights a 2018 interview with Patton’s Grandson George Patton “Pat” Waters with the Georgetown Times. His Citizen reprint of the interview focuses on Waters recalling his grandfather once positioned a tank outside a Phenix City prison to threaten for the release of a soldier.
Phenix City’s website reports the city was still rife with organized crime during the 1940s. It states crime bosses held Chamber of Commerce positions while also running gambling rings, narcotics business and prostitution rings.
Although community members like Hugh Bentley, a local entrepreneur, pushed to rectify the city’s disreputable image, they were met with violent action. Bentley’s house was exploded with dynamite and he was later beaten.
NGAUS states Albert Patterson, a well-known lawyer in the area left his firm in 1954 to run for Attorney General, pledging reform. He was assassinated outside his office in June that year, prompting swift intervention by Maj. Gen. Walter J. “Crack” Hanna.
“He was the ‘soldier’s soldier’ and the ‘warrior general.’…There was hell to pay if anyone took advantage of a woman or one of his soldiers, but God save the soldier who broke ranks and disobeyed an order,” states an article by Historic Columbus about Hanna.
Hanna used counterintelligence to gain information about local crime dens, leaders and affiliates and petitioned Alabama Governor Gordon Persons to enact martial law. Persons, with trepidation, granted martial rule.
“Unlike Martial Law, which is declared during civil riots or disasters, Martial Rule was unprecedented. There had never before been a circumstance requiring the replacement of all elected law enforcement.”
Hanna and his troops spent the next months ending Phenix City’s days of sin, raiding and imprisoning the corrupt. Martial rule over Phenix City was lifted in January 1955 and NGAUS reports 600 Alabama National Guardsmen received the Phenix City Disturbance medal for their participation in the effort.