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(EDITOR’S NOTE: In connection with Texarkana’s impending 140th birthday, our editorial page editor looks at some of the more notorious chapters in Twin Cities history. This is the first part of a two-part series that concludes Monday.)

 

The name is familiar to anyone who lived in the Twin Cities and just about anywhere else in the South during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

It inspired much fear and no little curiosity. It was said by many to be a mysterious and secretive organization of criminal masterminds, the evil force behind scores of murders and robberies. Or maybe, as others suggested, it was just a loose confederation of thugs that got too much credit from the police and the press.

The Dixie Mafia.

There are many stories about the Dixie Mafia. A lot of them are true. More than a few are fiction.

What was it really? 

To understand the Dixie Mafia, it’s first essential to understand what it was not. It was not Cosa Nostra—the Italian-American Mafia.

Only men of Italian descent can become full or “made” members of Cosa Nostra. They swear a blood oath to put the organization first, before their wives and children if need be, and they accept the absolute authority of those above them.

At the top of the Cosa Nostra hierarchy is the boss. Below him are the underboss and the consigliere or counselor.

On the next level down are capos, or captains. Each capo will have a number of solders—the lowest level of initiated member—under their command.

Finally, each soldier will have a crew of associates under him. Associates are not made men and can be of any ethnic background.

The money always goes up in Cosa Nostra. An associate kicks up part of a score to his soldier. The soldier kicks up part of everything he makes to his capo. The capos kick up to the underboss and boss.

The Dixie Mafia was nothing like that. There were no initiations, no rituals, no bosses, no ranks of any kind. A man’s standing within the network was based on his brains, ability to generate money, how he stood up under pressure and how ruthless he was with those who crossed him.

One thing the Dixie Mafia and the Italians had in common, though, was a hatred of informants. Keeping your mouth shut was the golden rule. Stand up. Never roll over for the cops. The Italians called it omerta. The Dixie Mafia called it the only way to stay alive. In the underworld, being a rat was the fastest path to a funeral.

The Dixie Mafia is best described not as an organization, but as a network of criminals who knew each other, if not personally, then at least by reputation, and who worked together from time to time. While there were men who formed long-term criminal partnerships within the network, for the most part, relationships were fluid, the criminals coming together for specific jobs and then going on their way. Frequently, they would work together again, but there were no guarantees. Things change—and life in that fast lane was often short.

They didn’t even call themselves the Dixie Mafia, at least not at first. Some accepted the name later, but most in the network hated it. It brought too much heat.

That’s what it was intended to do. Rex Armistead, an investigator with Mississippi State Police, coined the name in the 1960s to draw police and media attention to the connections between these Southern criminals. Before the label stuck, their crimes were often seen as individual acts rather than part of a larger picture. Armistead thought a collective name would raise public awareness and prompt law enforcement agencies to better work together against the network and devote more resources to the fight.

He was right. 

 

Who Were They?

The core of the Dixie Mafia was a group of traveling career criminals who concentrated their activities in just a few states—Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. But they would go anywhere if they though there was a big score to be made or a good time to be had.

Their crime of choice was robbery—burglaries, armed robberies, home invasions—whatever it took to make a score. They would hit banks and high-dollar jewelry and department stores, as well as gas stations and liquor stores. If there was a buck to be made, they were there. 

A common target was other criminals. Illegal card and dice games were hijacked and the homes of bookies and fences broken into. They knew their victims would have a hard time going to the cops.

But they didn’t limit themselves to theft. Many were pimps, running one, two or more girls around to various brothels on a circuit. The girls would work a week or two in one town and then be moved on to the next. Some pimps even put their own wives to work.

Some in the Dixie Mafia network were accomplished card and dice cheats and plied their trade in private games, illegal casinos and the back rooms of bars and at conventions. Most company and sales conventions, gatherings of fraternal organizations and reunions of military veterans had a room set aside where the alcohol flowed and clandestine card and dice games ran for hours on end. They proved easy pickings for Dixie Mafia crossroaders.

Contract murder. Debt collecting. Extortion. Blackmail. Gun running. Selling drugs—especially amphetamine and barbiturate pills, which were often used by criminals to stay awake for a job and get some sleep afterward. Bootlegging alcohol into dry counties. Arson for hire. Major and minor con games. Just about everything was fair game for the Dixie Mafia if there was a buck to be made.

If the traveling criminals were the core of the Dixie Mafia, the key to its success was a group of lawyers; bail bondsmen; hotel, restaurant and bar owners; fences; bookmakers; brothel keepers; chop shop operators and local crime bosses across the South who provided the essential services that allowed the group to operate.

One of the key ways law enforcement identified members of the Dixie Mafia network was through their associations—and it wasn’t just people they were arrested with or did time with that told the tale.

In any particular town, the traveling criminals would always hang out at the same bars, eat at the same cafes, stay at the same hotels and motels. They all seemed to meet with the same local residents, both legit and not so legit. If they got into a scrape in that town, they all used the same bail bondsman and the same lawyer. The pattern repeated itself all across the South.

In every town of any size there was a local crime boss—sometimes more than one. He usually had a legitimate business—it could be anything—and some degree of political influence. But he was also the guy who knew what was what and where the bodies were buried. If you wanted to get down a bet, find some companionship, get a place to lay low for a while, get help with a big burglary or armed robbery, fence some stolen property—whatever—he could do it or knew who could.

For a price, of course. 

These local operators were crucial to the traveling criminals. They provided an informal intelligence network. They knew who was in town, who was in jail, where a potential accomplice or target might be found. They kept confidences, relayed messages as needed, set up scores and collected their cut.

The traveling criminals got most of the press, but the Dixie Mafia could not have functioned without the local connections that facilitated their activities. 

There was a degree of trust among these criminals. Trust built over years of pulling jobs, keeping their mouths shut if caught and doing time like a man. That’s what held the Dixie Mafia together. And breaking that trust—as sometimes happened—was usually fatal.

In addition, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of others on the fringes of the Dixie Mafia who made things work. Lower-level thieves might be used in certain jobs. Wives and girlfriends sometimes held things together while their men were behind bars. Bartenders, motel keepers, grifters, b-girls, strippers, prostitutes, shoplifters, junkies, destitute gamblers and others provided tips on scores, relayed messages, stashed guns or stolen property, kept a lookout for the cops, helped with alibis and more. These fringe players didn’t have much status or clout and were highly expendable, but they served their purpose.

 

Making a Score

Here’s how a job might work. Let’s say a man in Gulfport, Miss., owes you $5,000 from a drug deal gone bad. He offers to pay off part of his debt by putting you onto a high stakes poker game that is just waiting to be robbed. You take the deal.

You’re going to need some help. So you call a guy in Bossier City you have pulled a couple of heists with on other occasions. He is willing.

The problem is you don’t know Gulfport very well. You are going to need a good driver for the getaway car—someone who knows the area well.

Fortunately, you do know a guy in Biloxi—a guy who runs a few strip joints and seedy bars and fences stolen property. He knows the score and everyone who is anyone in the area.

You give him a call. He knows someone who would be a good driver. He can also provide you with a safe place to meet up before the heist and afterward to divide the loot.

Let’s say everything goes well. You pull off the job and come away with $40,000 cash and some expensive watches and rings. You, your associate from Bossier and the driver divide the proceeds according to whatever agreement you came up with. You give a taste to the man in Biloxi, maybe fence the jewelry with him as well, and the guy who tipped you to the game gets some or all of his debt wiped clean.

You may all work together some day. You may never see each other again. You may do time together. Who knows?

That is if all goes well.

What could go wrong? Lots of things.

One of the players at the poker game may decide to play hero and someone could get shot or killed. The driver could fall asleep in the getaway car, or he could be hopped up on pills, get nervous and run a stop sign in front of a patrol car. When you divide up the spoils, someone could get greedy and decide to take all the money. He could even decide to kill the others involved. A few weeks or months down the road, one of your accomplices could get busted for something less serious and decide to rat you out to save his own skin.

Those are just a few examples. Here are a couple more: You might get a contract and have to kill one of the guys you once partnered up with, or one of them may come gunning for you. 

It was a treacherous life.

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