Albert Patterson Albert Patterson (1894-1954) was a prominent Alabama attorney and politician. As the Democratic nominee for state attorney general in 1954, Patterson promised to “clean up” Phenix City, Russell County, which was largely run by organized crime and corrupt politicians. On June 18, 1954, soon after his primary victory, Patterson was brutally murdered, shocking the state government into action. Patterson had predicted that it would take the state 10 years to accomplish the eradication of Phenix City’s institutionalized vice and corruption. His murder sparked changes that achieved that goal in only seven months. In 1955, Allied Artists released the film The Phenix City Story, which dramatizes the events surrounding Patterson’s murder.
Albert Leon Patterson was born in New Site in Tallapoosa County some time between 1891 and 1897, depending on which source is consulted. Patterson’s driver’s license at the time of his death listed his date of birth as January 27, 1894. His parents were Robert D. and Mary G. Patterson, and Albert grew up in a farming household that included at least six and possibly nine siblings. Brother LaFayette Lee Patterson represented Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District from November 1928 until March 1933.
As a teenager, Patterson left Alabama for better economic opportunities in east Texas. He worked as a day laborer during this period but never lost sight of the value of education. He finished high school even as he worked at farms and oil fields in and around the town of Fairfield, Texas. In 1916 Patterson enlisted in the Third Texas Infantry and the following year was commissioned as a second lieutenant. While on leave in Alabama, Patterson began dating Agnes Benson, from Colbert County. The couple married on July 14, 1917, and would have six children together, two of whom died in early childhood. (John, the oldest son, was elected as Alabama’s attorney general in 1954 and governor in 1958.) In July 1918, Patterson departed for France as an officer with the 36th Infantry Division. He was seriously wounded in a skirmish near present-day St. Etienne. For his valor, Patterson won France’s Croix de Guerre with silver gilt star. He was discharged as a first lieutenant and underwent a lengthy convalescence, walking with a cane for the rest of his life.
John M. Patterson Undeterred by his war wounds, Patterson returned to Alabama and completed a two-year teacher-certification program at Jacksonville Normal School (now Jacksonville State University), working at odd jobs to pay his way. Upon graduation in 1921, Patterson became principal of Clay County High School in Ashland and later served as principal of Coosa County High School in Rockford. Patterson continued his studies while working in education and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Alabama in 1924 with a bachelor’s degree in history. In 1926, Patterson entered the legal profession, and in only a year received his law degree from Cumberland Law School in Lebanon, Tennessee. He opened a law practice in Opelika in 1927, relocated to Alexander City the following year, and settled in Phenix City in 1933.
Situated on the Chattahoochee River across from Columbus, Georgia, Phenix City had a 120-year-old history of illegal gambling, prostitution, and alcohol sales and at the time was known in the popular press as “the wickedest city in America.” It was also well known that the Phenix City and Russell County governments allowed and protected those illegal activities.
Ferrel, Arch, Garret, Si, Mathews, Ralph Fueled by the steady incomes of U.S. Army trainees from nearby Fort Benning (now Fort Moore), the blatant existence and operation of the criminal enterprises in Phenix City had, by mid-century, become unbearable to many of the residents, including Albert Patterson. In 1937, Patterson began his political career as an appointed member of the Phenix City Board of Education and joined the Russell County Draft Board in 1940 as chairman. In 1946, Patterson was elected to the Alabama Senate and served from 1947 to 1951. He served on the committees of privileges and elections, enrolled bills, forestry and conservation, seaports, and judiciary and chaired the committee on education. He was instrumental in enacting some significant legislation during this period, most notably the Wallace-Cater Acts, two-part legislation that authorized the use of state and municipal bonds to finance the construction of new industrial plants, and the Trade School Act, an appropriations bill that provided funding for the construction of many of Alabama’s trade schools. In 1950, while still serving in the Senate, Patterson ran for lieutenant governor, but influential politicians and organized crime leaders opposed him and he lost. These forces again tried to derail his political efforts two years later when he ran as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, but this time they failed.
In the early 1950s, Patterson was one of the first members of the Russell Betterment Association (RBA), whose purpose was to fight corruption in Russell County. Attempts by the RBA to elect reformers to local offices were met with election fraud and violence at the polls. The group then decided to promote one of their own for a high-level state position. As a former state senator, Patterson was the obvious choice, and in early 1954 he announced his candidacy for Alabama attorney general.
Scene of Albert Patterson’s Murder In the Democratic primary election of May 1954, Patterson won the most votes in the multi-candidate race, but not enough to avoid a runoff with his nearest competitor, Lee “Red” Porter of Gadsden. In June, when the first returns of the runoff election again showed Patterson with a huge lead, some of Porter’s Phenix City supporters allegedly bought and stole votes throughout the state in an effort to give Porter the win. For days, the unofficial vote count teetered back and forth between Patterson and Porter until June 10, when the Democratic executive committee declared Patterson the winner of the Democratic primary by a tiny percentage. On the evening of June 18, Patterson left his law office in Phenix City’s Coulter Building at about 9:00 p.m. As he was entering his car in a nearby parking lot, an assailant approached the car and shot him three times. Patterson stumbled back to the sidewalk and died within minutes. The assailant was not identified by the people who rushed to help Patterson.
Gordon Persons Alabamians were predictably shocked and outraged at the news of Patterson’s murder. Within a few weeks Gov. Gordon Persons declared limited martial rule and ordered the Alabama National Guard to take over law enforcement duties from the local police and sheriff’s deputies. Special prosecutors, along with Circuit Court Judge Walter B. Jones of Montgomery, were dispatched to Russell County to replace the local judiciary. In addition, the Alabama Department of Public Safety sent special agents from its Investigative and Identification Division (now the Alabama Bureau of Investigation) to investigate Patterson’s murder, again supplanting local authorities.
Jones, Walter Thanks to their efforts, the organized crime syndicate running Phenix City was completely dismantled within six months. A special grand jury brought 734 indictments, including charges against many law enforcement officers, local business owners connected to organized crime, and elected officials. The local chief deputy, the local circuit solicitor (now called district attorney), and the outgoing state attorney general, Si Garrett, were indicted for Patterson’s murder. Albert Fuller, the chief deputy, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but Arch Ferrell, the circuit solicitor, was acquitted. Si Garrett, the attorney general, was never brought to trial, and spent time convalescing in a mental hospital for much of the first year or so after Patterson’s murder. Although he was never removed from office, his term ended in January 1955, seven months after Patterson’s murder. Bernard Sykes was appointed acting attorney general from 1954 to 1955 and oversaw both the Patterson murder investigation and the vice and corruption investigations that led to the indictments. John Patterson took office as attorney general in 1955 after running on a platform of fighting organized crime.
Although tragic, the assassination of Albert Patterson was probably the impetus for the successful cleanup of Phenix City in such a short period of time. Far greater than its influence on local events, however, Patterson’s murder affected Alabama as a whole because state officials have since taken a more watchful stance over errant local governments. Patterson was inducted into the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame on May 1, 2015.
- Grady, Alan. When Good Men Do Nothing: The Assassination of Albert Patterson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.