Mafiosos, Murders and Gay Extortion in Biloxi

On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.

“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”

Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.

At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.

“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.

When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.

Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.

Mississippi legitimized legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out or rebuilt after the soaking by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. City fathers allow that the Dixie Mafia may still be operating on the Gulf Coast, but as a mere shadow of its former might and ruthlessness.

Gingerbread Home

Every culture has dishes prepared for special occasions , but over time many recipes that our ancestors prepared on a regular basis have been needlessly consigned to specific holidays. How often do you roast a turkey or make a fruitcake? What’s particularly sad as well as paradoxical about this occasional consignment is that many dishes we prepare only for the holidays are those that bring us the most comfort, that make us feel most at home and closest to the heart of our lives and those we love.

Gingerbread is an extreme example of this culinary exile, particularly because when gingerbread is prepared even for the holidays it’s most often make into cookies or constructed into houses, the latter a bizarre case of misguided nostalgia, since a gingerbread house was where a cannibalistic witch lured the outcast Hansel and Gretel. Unlike most recipes, gingerbread has a very specific culinary history, having been brought to Europe by an Armenian monk—Europe was swarming with monks back then—first to France (of course) and from there the bread spread throughout the western hemisphere (the French consider this a natural progression). Ginger has always been thought of as an aid to digestion, and Beard maintains that in this country gingerbread was eaten on a regular basis much like savory bread up until the first decades of the 20th century, when it became a food for children or the holiday table, specifically for the Christmas table as anthropomorphic cookies.

Let’s bring gingerbread back into our homes on a regular basis if for no other reason than that it is a most aromatic dish with an infusion of cinnamon, clove, allspice and ginger in an exotic melange rising above the mellow scents of vanilla, molasses and brown sugar. This is another recipe you should have in your repertoire for any day of the year, any time of the day, particularly for us Southerners, since we have access to the finest molasses in the world, namely sorghum molasses, the nectar of any god. This recipe is not complicated at all and by far surpasses those awful mixes you’ll find that the supermarket that have doubtless been on the shelf nearby the birthday candles for months.

First, this is a buttermilk recipe, so instead of baking powder, bicarbonate of soda provides the leavening; second, know that you need to use a strong blackstrap molasses, not Karo Dark, and certainly not honey; finally, use more ginger than you might feel comfortable about. You’re going to find a lot of recipes that employ a teaspoon of ground ginger with equal amounts of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, but this is gingerbread, not spice bread. The ginger needs to shine in the taste of the bread itself.

Cream a stick of softened unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar, beat until fluffy and mix well with two eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Mix one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a quarter teaspoon each of ground cloves and allspice. Add two teaspoons pure vanilla extract and a half cup buttermilk. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 350 for about an hour. If you have the willpower, cool before slicing.

Parakeets in the Pines

It was a beautiful little bird, a brilliant green for the most part, with a yellow head and a line of red bordering the bill and extending under the eye. The forewings were edged with orange. In flight, it must have resembled a jewel; in clusters, a mandala of color. The Carolina parakeet, the only parrot native to North America, ranged across the eastern half of the continent north to Michigan, west to Texas, but nowhere more numerous than in the South, where raucous flocks darted through the virgin forests feeding on mostly on acorns and grains, but their fondness for early fruit proved their doom. They were easily kept from ravaging settlers’ orchards because when one bird fell to the gun, others would cluster around it crying before the gunfire resumed, and they were slaughtered.

Audubon kept one as a pet; Wilson found them in Natchez in 1811, but records are spotty. Chances are they were never that numerous, just fleeting, noisy accents among the trees along rivers in the virgin forests such as you might expect of parrots in any jungle. The Carolina parakeets died out in the early 20th century; the last flock was recorded in Florida. The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. This was a male, Incas, who died within a year of his mate, Lady Jane. In a case of tragic irony, Incas died in the same aviary cage in which the last passenger pigeon, Martha, had died nearly four years earlier. In 1939 the Carolina parakeet was declared extinct. Some believed a few may have been smuggled out of the country and repopulated elsewhere, but that’s no more than wishful thinking.

Foodways: A Review

After the publication of the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, C. Vann Woodward suggested that the work deserved expansion. This affirmed what the editors knew already, that their initial effort, an 8-pound tome published in 1989, merely scratched the surface of the many-layered, multi-faceted South.

The first volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, focusing on religion, hit the shelves 17 years later, quickly followed by others scrutinizing topics  such as the environment, ethnicity and history. This, the seventh volume, issued in August 2007, sets forth a cornucopia of lore and learning about a subject very close to the Southern heart: Food. In the general introduction to “Foodways” the editors state emphatically that this work is not an apologist tract for any perceived decline in Southern foodstuffs. “Instead, the entries that follow constitute an attempt to transcend the quips and stereotypes, to document and showcase southern foodstuffs and cookery . . . in all their diversity.” A subsequent essay, “Southern Foodways,” by Joe Gray Taylor and John T. Edge, sets the table. The authors take a predictable but informative tour of the region’s culinary history, emphasizing the key roles of corn, pork and the “great triumvirate of southern vegetables”: turnips, cowpeas and sweet potatoes. They document the impact of cheap flour on the South during the late 19th century, which made “wheat flour biscuits as common as cornbread,” and maintain that food patterns formed on the southern frontier “persisted . . . until after World War II in many small towns and rural areas.” They also note that the most basic change in southern foodways since the mid-20th century has been the explosive growth in “eating out” and the rise of “so-called fast foods,” a trend some might decry as an abasement of the cuisine, but the authors point out that “chicken and catfish . . . have been a part of the southern diet for over 200 years. Furthermore, they are still fried!”

Well of course they are. What follows this essay, the 148 encyclopedia entries proper, makes for a feast of information and diversion. Each entry comes supplied with a bibliography, the names of the contributors and their locations. Globalization has clearly set in: You have a guy in Spain writing about catfish and hot peppers, the “Civil War” entry is from Brooklyn and the ground zero on “Greens” is from (southern) California. Then you have Wiley C. Prewitt, Jr., a damn good writer from Lodi, Mississippi, who declares, “While folks in other regions of the country may have equated the consumption of wildlife with unsuccessful farmers and shiftless backwoods folks, southerners have generally exalted the hunting, cooking, and eating of game.” Here Prewitt echoes a defensive theme first expressed in the opening paragraph of the introductory essay: “southerners have borne chips on their shoulders about all manner of our cultural creations,” a statement that might have bearing on the encyclopedia itself, its perceived purpose, and its audience. If for Southerners, then why, and if for others, then who? Well, for whoever wants to know, and for whatever reason, of course. That’s why encyclopedias exist, and the South deserves a great one, no apology needed.

It’s poignant that we need a primer of sorts for the likes of grits, Goo-Goo Clusters and Justin Wilson, but “Foodways” is much more than a textbook. The scholars, writers and occasional epicures who did the legwork on this volume deserve to put their feet up under any groaning board between Austin and Annapolis. The niggling geek in me wants a full bibliography at the end of the volume in addition to the citations below individual entries (we’ll assume a full bibliography for the entire publication is in the far future offing), but that’s nit-picking. On an even more personal note, I’m so, so glad that Ernie Mickler made the cut. He’d be so proud. The thought and care that went into this volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture makes it a court of authority on southern foodways, pit, spit, whole hog and hominy, a fun, lucid and occasionally eloquent record of our table.

A Magnolia in Zaire

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible is an exercise in endurance. Kingsolver is a beautiful writer, her voice is a perfect vehicle for this patchwork narrative and you’ll find her prose by turns ponderous, on other curves playful, a cadenced eye cast on what can only be described as life lured or provoked into that tenuous balance between being and living where the differences are uncertain.

Kingsolver is a native of Kentucky, yet good writing knows no geography, and while Kingsolver might find comparisons to Oxford’s oracle flattering, she might well find it annoying. Faulkner, more than any other American writer in the past century, has been used by countless critics and academics as a rough rule of thumb for superiority among writers whose sentences involve any degree of rhetorical convolutions, and though this is a measure of the length of his shadow, the comparison has become far too trite to be taken seriously in any context.

What confounds this parity with The Poisonwood Bible, the tragedy of Orleanna Price, is that she is from Pearl, Mississippi. Why Kingsolver chose Pearl of all places as the hometown for this woman, the wife of a religious fanatic who sacrifices his family out of zealotry, is a question only she can answer, but one worth asking.