History: Prohibition led to prosecution of many in ‘Phenix City liquor conspiracy’ in 1931

History: Prohibition led to prosecution of many in ‘Phenix City liquor conspiracy’ in 1931

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. 

In 1920, the United States approved the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the legal manufacture and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The intent of the law was to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses and improve health and hygiene in America. The “noble experiment” did not quite work out like it was intended. Instead, the law created a large illegal market for criminals for the production, trafficking and sale of alcohol. The economy took a major hit because of the law, losing tax revenue and legal jobs. 

It was the beginning of the Great Depression that made American citizens change their attitudes toward prohibition. Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

But in November of 1931, prohibition reared its ugly head in Phenix City and the surrounding area as several citizens, including two state representatives and a former mayor were acquitted of conspiracy charges relating to the law. The story of the Federal lawsuit concerning the local citizenry appeared in the Phenix-Girard Journal on November 7. 1931:

“2 Reps. Cleared”

“Reps. Gullatt and

Clayton cleared by

Court.”

“Ex-Mayor Sherrer Acquitted”

“Federal” court engaged in the trial of conspiracy cases at Opelika last Saturday and at noon adjourned until Monday. Before adjournment however, nine defendants were stricken from the list of those on trial for conspiracy to violate the national prohibition laws at Phenix City as Judge Charles B. Kennemar granted motions for directed verdicts of acquittal after the government rested.

Two state representatives, Charles T. Clayton of Russell, and C. B. Gullatt, Sr., of Lee, who was also a former city commissioner in Phenix City, were among the nine discharged by the order.

Others discharged were, Frank Gullatt, E.B. McCann, Annie Barnes, Charles Parker, J.O. Fuller, Judson Nix, and C.B. Gullatt, Jr.

The trial grew out of charges filed under what is known as the “Phenix City liquor conspiracy.” The 58 defendants were caught in a huge “dragnet” that was drawn by special representatives of the Department of Justice following several months investigation by David W. Palmer, special agent, who was in charge of the investigation. A sentence of two years in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta was imposed on J.M. Blair, former chief of police of Phenix City, Ala., who, with four members of his force, were convicted by a jury in United States district court Thursday of a charge of conspiracy to violate the national prohibition laws.

Sentence was passed by Judge Charles B. Kennemar a few moments after the jury reported a verdict bringing to an end to a ten-day trial, on a blanket indictment in which fifty-six persons were charged with conspiracy.

In addition to Blair, Judge Kennemar sentenced the other eleven persons convicted and the sixteen who entered pleas of guilty, some of whom testified for the government. The sentences ranged from $250 to two years in the federal prison at Atlanta.

Sherrer is Acquitted

Walter E. Sherrer, former mayor of Phenix City, was acquitted. Sheriff Robert J. Flanders, Calhoun county, Florida, and L.G. Herndon, Columbus, Ga., sheet metal contractor also were freed. Others acquitted were E.L. Barnes, Mrs. Ada Cash, Roy Clegg, Enoch Conway, former patrolman, Chick Culpepper, Earl Gullatt, E.A. Gullatt, W.P. Gullatt, Will R. Johnson, Richard Pittman, Mrs. Virgie Mae Scott, John A. Ratliff, Pete Clark and Mrs. Beechie Howard, all of the Phenix City vicinity.

Those convicted by the jury were sentenced as follows: Arthur Chesser, 18 months Atlanta federal penitentiary suspended; Harry C. Edwards, fined $250 and a fifteen month sentence in Atlanta penitentiary suspended; Willie T. Edwards, fined $100 and eighteen months Atlanta penitentiary sentence suspended; Monroe Griggs, eighteen months Atlanta penitentiary; Gary Browning, 20 months in Atlanta penitentiary; Jess Greene, J.E. Patterson, Judge L. Johnson and G. Berry Pittman, all former patrolmen were given 15 months each in Atlanta penitentiary; George Davis, Miami, Fla., was fined $1,000 and sentenced to two years in Atlanta penitentiary with sentence suspended on payment of the fine, and Pete Hargett, Columbus, Ga., and Daytona Beach, Fla., two years in Atlanta penitentiary.

Others Are Sentenced

These entered pleas of guilty and were sentenced: Mrs. Annie Carmack, two years in the women’s prison in West Virginia, suspended; Sam Cohn, fined $500; E.L. White, former city commissioner of Phenix City, fined $200; Huel A. White, a year and a day in Chillicothe, Ohio prison; Howard (Bud) Smith 18 months in Atlanta penitentiary; William B. Cook, a year and a day in Chillicothe prison; Willie VZ. Edwards two years in Chillicothe suspended; Albert Howard, 13 months in Atlanta penitentiary; Thomas E. Lane, two years in Atlanta suspended; Claude Golden, a year and a day in Atlanta penitentiary; Stewart McCollister, two years in Chillicothe suspended; Aaron Sanders two years in Chillicothe suspended. Sentencing of Houston Gatlin and C.C. Griggs was continued.

In each instance Judge Kennemar suspended the sentence, he stated the person favored would be placed on five years probation. During the trial more than two hundred witnesses were heard with the government showing that thousands of gallons of liquor were transported into Phenix City for distribution.

While no formal notices of appeals were filed, attorneys indicated such action might be taken in behalf of Blair and some of the others convicted. They asked the amount of appeal bond which Judge Kennemar fixed at $5,000.

Several Make Bonds

Immediately the defendants were sentenced, they were placed in custody of a United States marshal with the exception of two or three who made appearance bonds and whose sentences were suspended until Dec. 15.

The following composed the jury in whose hands were the fate of the defendants:

A.J. Wise, farmer of Clayton, Ala., W.J. Stewart, farmer of Clayton, Joe T. Knowles, farmer of Headland, Norman Webster, of East Tallassee, O.J. Mooney, farmer of Weogufka, R.T. Carlisle, dairyman of Kellyton, Chaster Mims, clerk of Clanton, Julius C. Beall, farmer of Luverne, J.W. Grantham, farmer of Capps, O.L. Patterson, of Brundidge, D.L. Hightower, auto dealer of Clayton and Robert Sullivan, carpenter of Red Level.