Extortion. Gambling rings. Brothels. Bootlegging and rumrunning, rigged elections and assassinations. No, it’s not Chicago or Jersey City we’re talking about this time, but—Alabama? Mississippi? What? That’s right—instead of Italian or Irish syndicates, let us introduce you to a bunch of good ol’ boys who got up to some very evil deeds. Called the Dixie Mafia, they’re the mob you never knew.
Active mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, the Dixie Mafia is more accurately understood as several different Dixie mafias, spread across the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. Though national prohibition had ended in 1933, many Southern states and counties stayed dry for decades afterward, generating deep networks of illegal activity beginning first with bootlegging, then with every other crime that came in tow.
Take, for instance, Faith Serafin’s account of southeast Alabama, in her book Wicked Phenix City. Serafin details one of the most vice-riven cities in America, in which corrupt local sheriffs and deputies regularly extorted local businesses, aided prostitution, and in some cases murdered their political opponents in cold blood. At seedy joints such as the Silver Slipper, the Hi-Lo Club, the Blue Goose, and the granddaddy of them all, the BAMA Club, local capos (of the redneck variety) kept a firm hand in the till, relying on beatings, bombings, kidnappings, and murder in order to keep control of the town.
In Phenix City, Serafin writes, things got so bad that after the bloody assassination of a local reformer named Albert Patterson, the governor of Alabama was forced to declare martial law, and bring in a decorated World War II general to straighten the town out.
The Dixie mafia wasn’t yet done, as Janice Branch Tracy records in her book Mississippi Moonshine Politics: How Bootleggers & the Law Kept a Dry State Soaked—after the cleanup of Phenix City, many of those same criminals from east Alabama simply moved west across the state line, where they could set up shop once more. Again, because bootlegging was such big business, Tracy writes, local law enforcement in Mississippi often turned a blind eye to distilling hooch: the profits simply benefited their own counties, towns, and (sometimes) families too much.
Just like in Alabama, organized crime flourished in Mississippi, both in the era of Prohibition as well as in the boom years after the end of World War II. Particularly along the Gulf Coast, in cities like Gulfport and Biloxi, gambling and drinking dens sprang up like kudzu, right next to hotels and local harbors (hotspots for raids by federal authorities).
Here clubs such as the Shangri-La and Paradise Point, or the beautifully-named Chez Joey’s and the Gay Paree, profited from boozehounds and gamblers arriving both by land and by water. While violence was somewhat less prevalent here than in Alabama, it wasn’t until a sheriff’s raid on a lavish party in Jackson—attended by none other than Paul B. Johnson, the Governor of Mississippi itself—that the river of vice began to slow.
What happened when that raid forced Governor Johnson’s hand? And how did those Dixie mafiosi on the coast respond when statewide Prohibition ended in 1966? For that, you’ll have to read Tracy’s book, which has all the juicy details—but as the saying goes, they weren’t here for a long time, they were here for a good time. What can we say? Bless their hearts.
Learn more about the Dixie Mafia
Books referenced in this article:
About the Book:
For most states, the repeal of prohibition meant a return to a state of legally drunken normalcy, but not so in Mississippi. The Magnolia State went dry over a decade before the nation, leaving bootleggers to establish political and financial holds they were unwilling to lose. For nearly sixty years, bootlegging flourished, and Mississippi became known as the “wettest dry state in the country.” Law enforcement tried in vain to control crime that followed each empty bottle. Until statewide prohibition was finally repealed in 1966, illegal booze fueled a corrupt political machine that intimidated journalists who dared to speak against it and fixed juries that threatened its interests. Author and native Mississippian Janice Branch Tracy delivers an intimate look at the story of Mississippi’s moonshine empire.
About the Book:
Before Las Vegas, there was Phenix City, Alabama–the original sin city. Once the sprawling capital of the Muscogee Indian Empire, the region took a sinister turn when a holy war engulfed the southern territories in 1812, leading to the murder of the infamous Chief William McIntosh. Later, atrocities continued at Fort Mitchell, the killing grounds for early Georgia politicians who fought to the death over rival politics and bitter feuds. By the 1950s, Phenix City was home to the “Dixie Mafia,” and crime and corruption ruled over the little riverfront city. Take a walk with author Faith Serafin as she travels through the darkest recesses of Phenix City’s past.