WELCOME TO EAST JACKSON. Part I.

by David McCarty

In which we visit a Lost City long gone:  a world where bootleggers were demigods, whiskey was good as gold, and the blues ruled supreme.

Let me tell you a story about a Lost City just a few minutes from where you’re sitting right now.  A place where millions of dollars changed hands; where blood was spilled; where the legends of blues and r & b played.

To find it, head over to Hal & Mal’s, and maybe grab a glass of Southern Pecan.  Then head south down Commerce, and hang a left on Old Brandon Road.  You’ll cross the Pearl, low and brown and muddy in its summer doldrums, and then the impeccably pruned levee on your left.  You’re in Rankin County now, but you can still catch a glimpse of downtown’s skyscrapers in your rearview mirror.

Go slow; there’s speed traps sometimes, although there’s little traffic.  There’s some tumbledown shacks on your left, an old-timey gas station, and then you’re at Flowood Drive, not far from Trustmark Park and a M-Braves game.  If you bear left a bit and snake down Fannin Road you’re still only five minutes from downtown.

What you didn’t see on that stretch was an invisible city called East Jackson, the Gold Coast of Mississippi.  From the 1920s until the mid 1960s it was a haven for no-label Mason jar whisky, illegal blackjack, and the finest music in the country.  For forty years it reigned supreme as a haven for wildness and lawlessness, a miniature burst of New Orleans, complete with its own river.  East Jackson was so spectacular it earned its own theme song in 1928 by a local bluesman.

In 1919, the United States banned alcohol, and the nation was completely rid of intoxicating liquors.  Rid of them in theory: in reality, bootlegging was such a huge business that entire economies sprung up around it.  One of those was our lost city of East Jackson.  Mississippi had gone dry in 1908 and stayed dry even after the federal ban on alcohol was lifted in ’33.  We just had a little 10% tax on whisky sales, is all, even if selling whisky was technically illegal.

One thing you have to understand about Jackson is that the physical nature of the City hasn’t changed much in the years since old Louis LeFleur pitched camp on a bluff in 1821.  The downtown has hewed to the same general roads since it was laid out.  The main thing that’s changed is the Pearl River, and the role it plays in the City’s life.  One of the main reasons the City even exists is because you could navigate the Pearl to get here.  Cars have only been common for a few decades, and the highway system as we know it now is less than sixty years old.  If you wanted to travel, or wanted to move goods, you used water.

And if you wanted to sell whisky, you did it on the Pearl.  LeFleur’s Bluff was picked as the state’s new capital (over Natchez) in part because it was the most central part of the state that wasn’t a complete swamp.  By the 1920’s, you could ride that Pearl Highway right up to East Jackson to an astounding collection of juke joints, dance halls, restaurants, and gambling outfits.  There were dozens of businesses running in a completely parallel economy to the rest of Mississippi, to the rest of the United States.

 The businesses ran on bootlegged hooch, tumbling dice, and blues.  All that decline-of-empire finery was soaked in cash and spilled blood.  East Jackson wasn’t wholly outside the law but it was close, and fights and even murder were constants in the calculus of the locale.  East Jackson was considered not just bad but Wrong; a cradle of sin.  There’s a 1939 Mississippi Supreme Court murder case that talks about how one tough (convicted of stabbing a fella to death after a bar fight) had first drove across the Pearl River over to the Gold Coast to pick up a half pint of liquor, after which they drove around Jackson drinking it.  You can almost see the arched eyebrow of the justice writing the case.

In other words, it was probably the damned grandest place our grandparents and great-grandparents ever snuck off to.  It was so stellar that when Bo Carter sang about it in 1928, he murmured that “some people say that East Jackson blues ain’t sad.”

Even the blues could be happy in East Jackson.  But not for long.

Next:  The Music of the Gold Coast; the Governor Declares War on East Jackson; and the One Day That Killed a City. 

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About hiltopa

pioneer of unknown Jackson
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37 Responses to WELCOME TO EAST JACKSON. Part I.

  1. Ada Toney says:

    My mother who RAISED me was married to XL Hydrick (little Red) his brother was BIG RED (GW Hydrick), my biological father was XL, Jr (the mother who raised me was his mother.. my grandmother raised me from a baby). My grandmother (GreatGrandMother by biological means, Grandmother to ME ) was Big Mama, Ada Zell Hawthorne Comfort Muse). I have pics, bottles from running whishley, etc… i LOVE this stuff!

    • caleb says:

      ms ada, i read some of your other posts on another site.. my kin folk are that of buster jones and sam seaney..my mothers mother was married to sam.. i would love to see your photos and bottles and such.. i tried to email you at vood00 email but it wouldnt work.. my email is llslick@ymail.com

    • hi I am jerry handfield. i spent part of my youth in jackson miss. i grew up with a XL Hydrick (downing) (somewhere around 1956-57) his father was in prison and i believe they called him jr . just wondering if this is the same one.

      • s.hutchins says:

        you may know the same XL downing I know

      • ada marie says:

        BOBBIE RAY DOWNING- daughter to Ada Muse & Carl Comfort
        married XL Hydrick / Little Red- brother to GW Hydrick (Big Red)
        they had a child – XL (jr)
        BOBBIE RAY – remarried to Van Downing Jr (Bub)
        BOBBIE & VAN Jr Bub) adopted XL Jr (Hydrick changed to Downing)
        they had child- Van Downing III
        XL Jr- married Judy Johnson later- they had ME (Ada Downing)
        BOBBIE & VAN JR- adopted ME as a baby

      • Ken Flessas says:

        Thanks Ada, nice to know that someone kept up with all that went on. I got some of it right, though!!!
        Still doing my family tree, will send you an ancestry list after I add all of this in.
        Ken

      • Ken Flessas says:

        XL “Little Red” Hydrick was my biological father by his first wife, Doris Sewell of Pensacola. They married in 1938 and divorced in 1943. XL had several wives, (at least 5 by his admission), one of which was Bobbie Comfort, who was married to a Downing ahd had one son, Van Downing, by him. They lived in Jackson, After marrying XL, she had a son, XL Hydrick, Jr. This is the XL Jr. that you knew. I visited that home as a youngster and knew Van and Jr. Jr. died at a young age in a hunting accident, but did have a child, Ada Marie Toney. She was raised by her grandmother, Bobbie. Hope this helps clarify. If you have any stories to share, I would love to hear them. My home email is kflessas@aol.com Look forward to hearing from you.

      • Jerry, I have a photo of our 6th grad Class Day at Duling. Think you are in it. My name was Pat Hatch. Wallace McMillan spotted you in the photo

    • van bowman says:

      My dad is Spencer bowman who was good friends with Jr downings i grew up hearing stories about the good old days and hunting and fishing in the lake where your grandmother’s house was

  2. H Day says:

    Louis Lefleur settled his trading post at present day Jackson before 1800 and his son Greenwood Lefleur was born there (along with other siblings) around that time also.

  3. This is AWESOME! Keep it up!

  4. Pingback: EVEN THE BLUES AIN’T SAD IN EAST JACKSON « PrettyFakes

  5. joosyjosh says:

    love it, gorjus piece!

  6. Pingback: Crystal Lake, Flowood (East JXN) « Kayak JXN

  7. Jessica Kinnison says:

    Makes me want to come home.

  8. Ken (Hydrick) Flessas says:

    Good starting article on the old Pike and the Joints along the Pearl River. I would really like to see more detail on who owned/ran each one. I am the son of XL “Little Red” Hydrick, who, along with “Big Red” Hydrick ran two of the Joints. I can remember the little shacks out back and all of the traffic that came from Jackson (politicians, lawyers, judges, preachers, etc.) that drove by the shack, reached out to take that little brown bag and pass money back. My birth name was Henry Kendrall Hydrick. I have begun a Hydrick Family tree on Ancestry.com, if anyone is interested in adding to it, let me know.

  9. D.Mclaurin says:

    Anyone remember boot legger named Snowy Night?

  10. J. Jordan says:

    I am doing research on G. W. (Red) Hydrick and I see this statement in the article above. “In other words, it was probably the damned grandest place our grandparents and great-grandparents ever snuck off to.” I see all of the romance and fun thought of bootlegging in Jackson, and I am glad that all of you can reminisce with Grandparents about it because the reason that I am looking for this person is that he was driving drunk and ran over my Grandmother, my uncle was caught on the running board and carried for blocks while my Grandmother was projected into the air and landed beside a fire hydrant. She looked up at her 10 year old daughter and said, “I.m ok baby” took her last breath and died. There were six children from 18 months to 15 years old, left without a Mother. There are twenty-two grandchildren that never knew the love of that angel of a Grandmother, so good that your grandparents had a good time sneaking off to get drunk on bootleg whiskey. That grand place is where my Grandparent’s were living and raising their family. That grand place is where my Grandmother had her life taken away. I am not increminating anyone, but the circumstances of this horrible event will never change.

  11. jenny bell says:

    who were your grand parents and uncle?

    • Kendrall Hydrick Flessas says:

      Grandparents – Lewis & Fanny Hydrick
      Father – XL (Little Red) Hydrick
      Uncle -GW (Big Red) Hydrick

  12. john r says:

    if i rememmberr X L Downing, was killed by his wife on Pearl River,,whie they was campig out,,bout 1969,,or so

  13. john r says:

    i used to work with a Dan Bradshaw from Florence MS. he was married to Red s daughter

  14. Kendrall Hydrick Flessas says:

    XL Downing (XL Hydrick, Jr) was killed in an accident. He on a hunting trip, as he got out of his vehicle with is rifle in his hand, he tripped and the rifle fired, killing him. If anyone has any additional information on what happened that day, please let me know.
    John r, Big Red’s daughter was Willie Mae (Hydrick) Bradshaw.

  15. vera says:

    My parents moved to Pearl during my junior year in high school. Around 1959 – ·1960. I was horrified because Pearl did not have a really good reputation among my friends. The bootleggers, etc. After I moved, I learned that most of their fathers made a trip down the Gold Coast Road about once a week. There was a girl in school who drove a big Cadillac convertible to school and on occasions, her mink coat. Her name was Sandy Seaney and I was told her father had one of the places that you drove behind and got your liquor. Also there were a couple of guys whose father’s drove modified cars to bring in liquor from out of state. Last name of one was Nickolic.

  16. AdaMarie says:

    Xl nr was my biological father. I was raised and adopted by his mother. I grrw up in the hoise with him and to me he was my brother. He dies when I was7. Little eed his father..aka xl… was my biological paternal grandfather. Yall have no iideas what the hell yall are talking about. I have the autopsies and this is my family! So stop allegating if you weren’t there and dont know!

  17. AdaMarie says:

    Where in the doubled damned hell do you people (EXCLUDING KEN) get your distorted and idiotic recollections? Unless you were there…shut your pie holes. Yes. I have EVERY right to speak my mind. THIS was my biological father and grandfather. I LIVED IN THE HOUSE WITHJR AND HIS MOTHER RAISED ME (ADOPTED ME) and SHE WAS MARRIED TO XL (LITTLE RED) TWICE! I have lived my entire life with them. I HAVE autopsies, funeral home logs, photos…I was a child (7) when Jr was burried. If you don’t KNOW what the f you are talking about then shut up!

    • AdaMarie says:

      AND, the TRUTH about their TRUE causes of DEATH is CERTAINLY none of your business! Xl (little Red) was cynder blocked to the bottom of a river boat…my mother (grandmother biologically but ADOPTED ME) did not kill him! You are a f’ing idiot! And xl Jr (ny biological father who I grew up calling my brother because I was adopted and raised by his mother) did NOT die from hunting…he Did Die from a gunshot wound that hit his adrenaline glands 3 days after the shot. He was 32 years old. He was married to a whore (my biological mother) who needed the screw anyone… I have the colt .22 the beer can the wallet suitcase cigarette pack and autopsy. My mother (grandmother) grieved24 hours a day from the death of her two children. I grew up as an only child after they died. Van died at 27 from a brain tumor and all YOU misinformed idiots need to know as to hownJr. Died was from a .22bullet. It’s none of anyone’s business … but some of the bile posted here is absolutely LUDACRIS and hurtful.

      • jenny bell says:

        All of you can believe what Ada is saying .It is the truth. Bobbie was one of the best people I have known. She and Van were great parents. Jr.(xl) and Van(The son ) and Ada were very much loved by Bobbie and Van and Ms. Ada. So if you do not know do not talk about them. I know you do not have the right to say things that hurt people.

      • Kenny (Hydrick) Flessas says:

        You tell ’em Jenny!! You are right on!! I was there when Jr. and Van were kids. Visited Grandmother Hydrick, Big Red and Lottie, XL and Bobbie almost every summer after my mother, Doris, and XL divorced.

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