Article byPosted Featured Authorin 2016
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home… , takes bread from the mouths of little children,… then I am certainly against it,
If when you say whisky you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed with good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their’ lips,… then I am certainly for it.
It’s been eighty years now. The panic of 1937 in the East Jackson area of Mississippi was rather different from the Panic of 1837 that had been inaugurated by Andy Jackson with his Specie Circular,3 issued only a few months before poor Martin Van Buren was elected to inherit the nation’s financial contretemps.
Sam E. Seaney was riding high in Rankin County, king pin of a family prominent in vice, liquor and gambling. On the other hand, in 1937 alone, District Attorney — and future circuit judge and longtime state supreme court justice — Percy Mercer Lee filed at least seven bills of complaint4 charging one or more of the Seaneys with maintaining nuisances involving liquor, gambling and other real or imagined sins.
These “bills” demanded court issued injunctions that in practical effect — and if enforced — could have shut the Seaneys down. D. A. Lee was proceeding under a statute that said the district attorney could go into chancery court and on proper proof obtain an order the effect of which supposedly was to “abate” a “common nuisance.”5
A more complete 1937 inventory of Gold Coast entrepreneurs and other proprietors, nocturnally operating variety and otherwise, also included Pat Hudson, believed to have been the first to see “gold” in the area,6 Sam and the Seaney family, Guysell McPhail7 who became the lead raidee and defendant in a most important judicial contribution to Gold Coast lore, N. E. Muse, Ed Garrett, Lee Graves, Joe Catchings and his Rocket Lounge, and also the Green Frog and the Wild Owl which may or may not have been the enterprise called the Owl’s Nest in the June 1937 lists compiled by the National Guard.
To say that over the era there may have been close to fifty “places of business” packed into the Casey’s Lane and Fannin Road corner of the county only partially sets the stage. The ambiance of the Gold Coast was as important as raw numbers. People are still compiling lists of those that operated and were a source of such shady vibrance ‘cross the river from Jackson.
In 1937 the Stamps brothers — Charlie, Clift and Bill — opened a hotel, including a club and restaurant, catering to African American patrons from throughout the South. The hotel’s large dance floor and the Rankin Auditorium were attractive features not offered in other Gold Coast venues.8 An aspect of flourishing Gold Coast entertainment that at times created more controversy than free flowing whiskey and gambling was its failure to observe then prevalent racial separation mores.
Today, hie thee to the WLBT Television premises — SE corner of South Jefferson St. and Silas Brown St., thence easterly across the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, thence easterly to Highway 468 West, thence northerly. The double sided Blues Trail marker9 just off the public parking area on the east side of Crystal Lake is helpful but incomplete. One problem is that the venues were fluid, they came and they went. Others never had a formal name, much less neon lights out front that folk would remember.
Governor Hugh L. White had taken office in January of 1936 for the first of his two terms. Personally and politically he was pro-“dry.” In time the new Governor acceded to a plea from Rankin County residents to visit their westerly environs and see for himself the extent of illegal liquor and gambling operations.
On December 6, 1936, White made his move. He marshaled the National Guard. In relevant part, White’s executive order provided
In view of the conditions existing in East Jackson, Rankin County, Mississippi, I … do hereby order the Adjutant General of Mississippi to order out such part of the Mississippi National Guard as he may deem necessary for the purpose of assisting in enforcing the criminal laws of the State of Mississippi in the county aforesaid. The number of troops used and the amount of expenditures shall be held to a minimum, compatible with the mission to be performed. The senior officer will be in direct command of the troops ordered out, and will use such force of arms as may be necessary in his opinion to accomplish the mission of the troops … The officers and men ordered out will remain on duty until relieved by order from the Adjutant General of Mississippi.10
The yield of this effort was enough to pass the buck back to D. A. Lee. Again and again. At seemingly regular intervals, and following each raid, Lee began filing not-so-civil chancery court bills of complaint to abate common nuisances. This less than garden variety prosecutorial process is worthy of note.
At least since 1918, when Mississippi became the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, state law has authorized proceedings for the abatement of common nuisances,11 not necessarily among “the criminal laws of the State of Mississippi,” at least in the formal sense. By legislative command, intoxicating liquor was one core element of such a nuisance. Gambling was another.
The law specified particular venues where common nuisances were likely to be practiced, viz., “[a]ny club, vessel or boat, place or room where liquors are found, kept or possessed.” Also swept up in the cumbersome and legalistic text was “any person with intoxicating liquor in their possession or under their control.” All in all, the simultaneous and continued existence of such facts and circumstances “in this state shall be deemed to be a common nuisance.”
By the time the calendar turned to 1937, so many common nuisances across the state had been found in need of abatement — and so frequently — that the prosecuting attorneys developed a two page, small print, legal sized paper, fill-in-the-blanks, one-size-fits-all form that enjoyed the generic title of “Bill of Complaint”.12
Whether this form Bill of Complaint originated on the Gold Coast or the Gulf Coast is not known. It was surely one of the two.
After completing the names of parties, jurisdiction and venue, the boilerplate wording took over. The formal charge began, “That defendants, in flagrant disregard and open defiance of the statutes of Mississippi… ” One would have thought that more than enough wording to leave no doubt that illegal possession of “intoxicating and spirituous liquors” was being charged. Nothing in the statute said more was needed.
The judge would issue the injunction, if, of course, the State proved its case. Gilding the lily, however, the form’s draftsmen added “and in detriment to the welfare, morals and well-being of the citizens of Mississippi… ”
Normally, a plaintiff is expected to prove the truth of the facts he alleges. In Mississippi in the late 1930s — and for many years thereafter — many would have thought no proof needed regarding the morals or social utility of booze. The good church goer teetotalers certainly required no such proof.
And so one can image a devilish defense lawyer challenging the State to prove in the conventional way what it had alleged, that the particulars of possessing whiskey were “detriment[al… ] to the welfare, morals and well-being of the citizens of Mississippi.” And after the D. A. had made his speech sufficient until the next election, then moving the chancery judge to dismiss for failure to prove an essential element of the charge it had brought.
Of course, the legalistic answer from a good D. A. would have been that the law does not require that such a detrimental effect be established, and he would have been correct. Clever counsel for the defense would retort, “of course proof of this detrimental effect on morals is essential and must be shown, else the learned D. A. would never have included this claim in his boilerplate form in the first place.”
The same fun could have been had with the next clause in the printed form. The defendants “have on numerous occasions—fill in the dates—illegally kept and possessed large quantities of intoxicating and spirituous liquors in and on the premises hereinafter described.” Again, nothing in Section 2007 — the applicable code section in the 1930s, Section 99-27-23 today — required anything beyond a simple showing of “possession” of “intoxicating liquor.”
Many more lines of legalese followed with a blank then left for the premises to be described, almost as though lands were being conveyed.
Then it got better. This (in)famous form charged that the defendants have — of all things — “kept the same [intoxicating and spirituous liquors] in open view and have allowed the general public to have free access to said premises.”
Then — horror upon horrors — the form bill of complaint to abate common nuisances alleged that “the general public had congregated there and purchased from the defendants and drunk on said premises large quantities of intoxicating and spirituous liquors.”
The name of each person believed in need of abatement was then typed into a blank space after which each was formally charged by form, viz., their actions “constitute an insult to the law, order and morals of Mississippi and if allowed to continue will weaken respect for law, order and morals, encourage violations of law, tend to promote breaches of peace and be detrimental to the general welfare of the public.”
And all of this takes up just part of the first page of this fine boilerplate form.
On March 31, 1937, District Attorney Lee filed in the Chancery Court of Rankin County thirteen such bills of complaint to abate common nuisances, the yield of a raid of Gold Coast night spots.13 Thirty or more defendants are named in these complaints including members of the Seaney clan who are named twice.14
Another raid a couple of months later led to fifteen new common nuisance bills of complaint being filed June 2, 1937.15 Among the more than thirty new defendants were Pat Hudson,16 the colorful “Doc” Steed and his wife,17 and, of course, Sam Seaney.18 A late September raid produced fewer bills of complaint — only nine.19 A. A. Seaney and son Frank were among the guests of honor in bills filed on September 28, 1937.20
Two months later came yet another raid, and another nine nuisances that needed abating.21 “Historical documents indicate that Governor White alone ordered over a dozen raids on Gold Coast establishments between 1937 and 1939.”22 Sam Seaney maintained his good reputation.23
In late 1937, Major T. B. Birdsong led some sixty-eight armed national guardsmen as they invaded the Gold Coast. Large quantities of bonded though illegal liquors were seized. Gambling equipment and paraphernalia were destroyed. Many arrests followed. The next morning found a number of familiar nightclubs and other facilities padlocked.24 One of the November 1937 defendants was Guysell McPhail, sued along with his brother Stanley McPhail.25
In the late Fall of 1937, McPhail came before Chancery Judge A. B. Amis of Meridian.
A respected legal and judicial practitioner, Amis had published Divorce and Separation in Mississippi in 1934, reflecting scholarly and practical insights in a field at the heart of chancery court jurisdiction and practice.
Perhaps Judge Amis was not as caught up in local passions of the times, because as the crow flies the Gold Coast was about as far away from his home court in Meridian as one could get and still be in that chancery district as it was then configured.
On December 11, 1937, Judge Amis sent the State packing on its case against McPhail, on grounds that Governor White’s use of guardsmen as auxiliary local police officers exceeded his authority.26 In his ruling Judge Amis made clear his view of the “strictly limited” authority of the Governor regarding the National Guard, adding that what Hugh White had done “strikes at the very foundation of our republican form of government.”27 The reference, of course, is to the guarantee in the Constitution of the United States, Art. IV, § 4, that each state shall enjoy “a republican form of government.”
The State appealed. It assigned as error and charged that it had indeed produced enough evidence at trial to show a common nuisance under Section 2007, which presumably the State could not do without the physical evidence the National Guard seized when it raided McPhail’s premises. More than that, there was a complete breakdown in law and order on the Gold Coast.
But while all of this was pending, the Legislature came to town, to Jackson that is, ‘Cross the River a few miles to the west. Always an adventure, then as now.
There is little evidence elucidating how this nuisance abatement strategy came to be regarded, and, for that matter, what the public thought of the role the National Guard was playing, and what the costs might have been.
Arguably, common nuisance proceedings in chancery were more efficient than individualized criminal grand juries, indictments and prosecutions, and where those accused would have more extensive rights. No multi-party indictments in those days.
Moreover, there was no presumption of innocence in chancery. Proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was not required. Juries may or may not have been reluctant to convict. Put otherwise, a juror or two who was not prepared to deny all access to booze may have presented the district attorney with a serious practical obstacle.
Without serious doubt, Judge Amis’ ruling in the McPhail case — whatever else it may have said — raised questions about the common nuisance in chancery strategy and its viability going forward.
What we do know is that once — in January of 1938 — the lawmakers had settled into their respective houses in the state capitol, they swung into action. Gov. White—fresh from his special session victory for his Balance Agriculture with Industry program28 — was feeling his oats.
White excoriated the prevalence of “gambling devices,” particularly the “illegal operation and crooked construction of these slot machines, so called one-armed bandits,” noting that in some communities
“they are operated on the morals of young people, even very small children being robbed and corrupted thereby. No gunman with his pistol pressed against the vitals of his intended victim is more certain of his booty than are these mechanical highwaymen that mercilessly extract from their victims money that in many instances should go to pay honest debts or to buy food and clothing for needy children.29
Representatives Gerald Chatham and N. A. Spencer, both of DeSoto County, introduced a series of bills aimed at strengthening the prosecution’s hand in proceedings for abatement of common nuisances. On February 7, 1938, Chatham and Spencer moved to up the ante for those practicing the gambling or liquor trades. A prospective sanction would be an enhanced deterrent.
Upon a judicial finding for the prosecution, the common nuisance practitioner “may be required by the court to enter into a good and sufficient bond in such amount as may be deemed proper by the court to be conditioned that he or they would not commit a similar offense for the next two years.”
Adding teeth to the bonding authority, the failure to make such a bond would be a contempt of court by reason of which the nuisance operator would be placed behind bars in the county jail until some of his associates came to the rescue and provided the bond, which, of course, would create an inference that such friends or relations might themselves be in the common nuisance business.
House Bill No. 497 then tacked this sledgehammer on to the state’s anti-gambling laws. House Bill No. 498 would so amend the laws condemning intoxicating liquors.30
On February 10, committee chairman T. N. Gore of Quitman County quickly called up both bills and each was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives.31 The Senate soon followed suit.
On February 21, and on motion by Senator Walter W. Capers of Jackson in Hinds County, the rules were suspended and H. B. 497 concerning the common nuisance of gambling passed 35 to 4 with 10 senators absent or not voting. In short order, Senator Capers also brought up H. B. 498 which concerning liquor prohibition and it passed 36 to 5, with 8 senators abstaining or not voting.32 On February 23, 1938, White signed both bills into law.33
A bit of perspective may be needed here. Practically every article or other publication concerning the Gold Coast in its heyday mentions that legislators were among its patrons, in addition to many of the more prominent citizens of Jackson.
In October of 1939, one time Jackson journalist Craddock Goins reported “It is generally understood that several legislators are financially interested in Gold Coast gambling joints; certainly many are frequent patrons.”34
State v. McPhail, 182 Miss. 360, 180 So. 387 (1938) is a great case. Almost every paragraph is worthy of careful study and thoughtful reflection. A fine legal essay. But three cases cited — only one from Mississippi — more for their prose than points of law.
Meaning and understanding are afforded the Governor’s constitutional charge that he see that the laws be faithfully executed.35 And the limits of that power.
How many readers — without being told — reach that famous “but whenever” clause about halfway through the third paragraph from the end,36 and realize that the rest of the opinion is straight out of Magna Carta?
Is Justice Virgil A. Griffith proceeding with malice aforethought? Or was it just chance — fortuity — that Griffith’s thinking in 1938 was so close to the core of the still extant remains of what was said at Runnymede in June of 1215?
All that need be said for the moment is that the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the matter for trial in the chancery court on the Bill of Complaint to Abate a Nuisance said to be being practiced by Guysell McPhail.
But nothing happened. For almost a year, no docket entries.
On March 22, 1939, Chancellor Amis entered an intriguing order. Its heading itemizes fifty pending cases brought by the district attorney against well over a hundred Gold Coast operatives to abate fifty common nuisances said to be being jointly or severally practiced. Most of the cases had been filed between late March and late November of 1937.
Spell out the names of the “et als” in the case styles and you have a roll call of just about everyone doing business on the Gold Coast in 1937, and the trade names of most. Of course, some like the Seaneys make multiple appearances.
In this omnibus order, Judge Amis found
that no action has been taken in any of the above entitled causes during the last two terms of court and that neither the complainant nor the defendants have appeared during this term to either prosecute or defend these causes.
By this time Percy M. Lee had moved on to the office of circuit judge.
Tom Barnett of Carthage had become the new district attorney and had fresher fish to fry. Regular National Guard raids in the early weeks of 1939 had afforded Barnett more than enough new cases to prosecute. The usual suspects had been rounded up anew. In consequence Judge Amis ordered
“that all of said causes be and the same hereby are passed to the files of this court and that no further action be taken thereon until and unless some person interested therein shall appear and move the court to restore the same… for action thereon.37
One of the cases passed to the files was No. 4203, State vs. Guysell McPhail on remand from the Supreme Court of Mississippi by virtue of its decision of April 1938. It does not appear than any of these fifty cases was ever restored to the court’s active docket for any action thereon.
In the late 1930s, legislators proved quite creative when it came to dealing with sin on the Gold Coast. We saw above how they augmented the common nuisance statutes to authorize a form of no-more-sin bonds, backed by the threat of jail time if an acceptable bond was not filed.38
The ingenious legislation so prominent eighty years ago remains in place, requiring of those found to have maintained one of those dreaded common nuisances — illegal liquor trafficking or illegal gambling — that they post a bond to assure that they will sin no more, at least not for two years.39
Liquor is now legal, and so is gambling, though both are well regulated. But for those who might contemplate creating other nuisances — of one or both of the big two, without a license — you can never be sure when old law might fit the fancy of latter day judges. With a few amendments, Sections 95-3-25 and 99-27-23 are still on the books.
Justice Virgil Griffith’s articulation of Mississippi’s constitutional adoption of the core of Magna Carta remains unexcelled. But how well do we practice what the great teacher taught?