History: Phenix City was not first city placed under martial law in Russell County

History: Phenix City was not first city placed under martial law in Russell County

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

Contrary to popular belief, Phenix City was not placed under martial law on June 18, 1954 – the night Alabama Attorney General-elect Albert Patterson was assassinated in the alleyway between the Coulter Building and the Elite Café. Alabama Governor Gordon Persons did not take that action until consulting with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on July 22, 1954. Gov. Persons made the decision to make the declaration when the investigation into Patterson’s death was being hampered by the criminal element that had controlled the city for decades. By November of 1954, Phenix City and Russell County had its first free elections in years. With the situation stabilized, martial law was rescinded in January 1955 and control of the community was returned to civilian authorities.

That is the only time martial law was declared within Russell County – or was it?

On Wednesday, May 17, 1916, according to a story in the Phenix-Girard Journal of May 18, 1916, martial law was declared in the City of Girard in Russell County. The declaration was made nearly 38 years before what became known as the “Clean-up” in Phenix City mentioned above. It seems Russell County and its largest municipalities have had a long and storied history of major criminal activity.

Here is the story as it appeared in the May 18, 1916 edition of the Phenix-Girard Journal:

“GIRARD WAS RAIDED BY THE STATE AUTHORITIES WEDNESDAY

Many Stores Forcibly

Entered, Much Whiskey

And Beer Seized.

Militia Come to Back

Up Raiders.

The city of Girard was treated to a sensation Wednesday morning such as was never experienced before, and probably never will again, as Girard has always been noted for quietly conducting its own affairs without interfering with anyone outside, and will no doubt continue to do so.

The sensation mentioned was in the shape of 50 or 75 deputies from Montgomery, Birmingham and Opelika, who when the legal hour of 8:00 o’clock arrived, proceeded to enter at least twelve places where it was alleged intoxicating liquor was stored in violation of the new prohibition law.

The raiders were headed by M.A. Baughn, state law agent of the department of justice of Alabama, and they proceeded to do their work in a quiet and methodical manner.

The raid was a complete surprise in some respects, but it appears that someone had been warned of its coming and the state agent charged that some of the goods had been removed. He claimed to have search warrants for seventeen places, but up to this morning only thirteen had been visited. The following places had been raided up to Wednesday night and various amounts of liquor were reported found:

Richard’s building, Kittrell building, Ginhouse stock, Old distillery building of H.L. Sprinkle Co., Blacksmith shop, rear of distillery building, Arey building, River Bluff, Two old barns in open field between Upper and Lower Girard. Four of the specified places visited were found to contain nothing of an illicit nature, which shows that the information given the state authorities was not absolutely correct. With about eighty possemen at his back, Mr. Baughn made a clean sweep, but it is thought that the value of the goods seized was greatly overestimated.

In addition to the large number of deputies, some of whom are said to have been sworn in in Columbus, the state agent called on Attorney General Martin for militia to aid him in the work, and the Opelika company was ordered to Girard.

As for disorder or any attempt to resist the legal process under way, there was absolutely none, for Girard never was more quiet and orderly than on Wednesday and Wednesday night. There were quite a large number of people on the streets after the news of the raid spread, but there was nothing shown except idle curiosity as the crowds followed the officers around from place to place. As the majority of the men of Girard and Phenix City go to their work between 6 and 7 o’clock in the morning, this crowd was composed mostly of idlers and loafers augmented by many from Columbus who seem to have gotten word of it before it was launched, and auto cars flocked across the bridge filled with curious people.

About 6 o’clock Wednesday night a proclamation was made by megaphone at the corner of First street and Second avenue by an officer of the Opelika militia company, that martial law was in force in Girard, and there appeared immediately on the street armed guards who challenged every passerby, ordering them to get off the streets. The officer made a most friendly talk, stressing the fact the state agents were engaged in a serious business, and that it behooved every good citizen to be law abiding and orderly, and when he requested them to go to their homes the streets were soon cleared of all but the armed sentries who patrolled every nearby street and alley in the town. This arrangement was to last only from 6 o’clock p.m. to 8 o’clock next morning. Indication that the business would not be completed until Friday were given out by the state agent.”

The Opelika militia was relieved of its duty to enforce martial law on July 27, 1915 and all of its duties were transferred to civil authorities in Girard. The raids in Girard led to several court cases and the destroying of the confiscated liquor. The raids also led to the impeachment of the Russell County Sheriff and his removal from office for knowing of and allowing games of chance to be played in Girard, knowing and allowing the storage and distribution of illegal liquor including storing of illegal liquor on his own premises and for knowingly providing false reports and statements to the governor and to the attorney general of Alabama. Others had their liquor destroyed and were fined for violating the prohibition law.