I had heard from childhood stories about Phenix City, Alabama, a supposed cesspool of crime and corruption, that preyed on soldiers from Fort Benning, across the river in Columbus, GA. It was part of the mythology of the recent Georgia past in which I grew up immersed. In The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama (1998) Margaret Anne Barnes narrates that story. This is not a well written book. It’s prosaic and long-winded at points, and it makes use, especially in early chapters, of recreated scenes that quote dialogue verbatim, as if Barnes was there listening when she was not. I suspect she based these scenes on factual accounts in newspapers, her own interviews, and other sources, so that she felt free to create them based on what she knew. At other points, as effective as she is in narrating the history of Phenix City, especially during the late 1940s and early 1950s, she doesn’t think as analytically as one would hope—she explains how, but not why, Phenix City got to be what it became. Despite its flaws, this was a fascinating book that I could barely put down. Barnes did a thorough and painstaking job of investigating the story of Phenix City.
Gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, extortion, murder, assault, rape, kidnapping, ballot stuffing, drugs, slave labor, voter intimidation, and assassination are the subject of this book. An attorney general-elect of Alabama was assassinated, and the standing attorney general along with the attorney and deputy sheriff for Phenix City were implicated in the killing (only the deputy sheriff was convicted). The absence of interstate highways, of reliable communication, were one reason why crime and criminals in Phenix City could thrive. Corruption was everywhere, from the saloons of Phenix City on up to the state house in Montgomery. This story amazed me. It made clear that the wild frontier hadn’t disappeared by the middle of the 20th century in certain parts of the nation. As recent events in Alabama have made clear, corruption in government there remains a problem.