Dixie, Dirt and a Determined Daughter
“Mississippi Mud” is, as author Edward Humes’s introductory words explain, the name of that particular kind of poker where the cards themselves become irrelevant and the only thing that really counts is the ability to bluff and betray. It is also the name of a sweet, rich pie made from chocolate, eggs, sugar, vanilla and corn syrup (and according to some recipes, vanilla ice cream and/or whipped cream). In this book, “Mississippi Mud” is Humes’s term of reference for the loosely organized group of people otherwise known as the “Dixie Mafia,” whose members not so long ago used to leave traces of their unsavory plots all over the “Old South,” from Louisiana to Texas and beyond. And one day in September 1987, their activities hit home in the Gulf Coast resort city of Biloxi, Mississippi.
Not that this should necessarily have come as a complete surprise, you will say, if you’ve heard the gossip about the city’s one-time notoriety, if you know some of the historic facts that have contributed to those rumors (such as early 18th century con artist John Law’s get-rich-quick scheme which crushed the hopes of thousands of European settlers, or the exploits of James Copeland, arguably the “Dixie Mafia”‘s 19th century forefather), or if you have made it all the way through this book’s first third to read Humes’s account of Biloxi’s past. And of course, from New York to Atlantic City, Chicago, Las Vegas, Palermo, Corleone, Moscow, Hong Kong and Macau, there are plenty of cities large and small all over the world that have at one time or another seen their share of mafia, mob and triad activity; and gambling, illegal liquor and sex schemes often, although not necessarily, have something to do with it. More than once, those who have made it their business to rake out the mud get bogged down by it and die, instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice thus adding to the list of casualties in the seemingly never ending war against organized crime. And all too often the culprits get away with murder: literally so.
Well, not here, however, and that is the difference in this story – or one of them, anyway. Granted, the “Dixie Mafia” may not have been as intricately organized as the Chinese triads, any of their Italian and Russian counterparts or the organizations run by the likes of Al Capone, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano and John Gotti; but Humes’s account of a city government and a police force partly unwilling and partly too incompetent to mount a proper investigation into the murder of an outspoken critic of official corruption and of her husband, a prominent judge, sounds eerily familiar; and so does the involvement of a contender for public office with a group of notorious criminals running a scam out of a supposedly high security prison, with little to no interference from prison officials, and with a shadowy organizer pulling his strings in the background. The odds of successfully pitting a sole determined woman – the victims’ eldest daughter – and her dogged investigator against the combined forces of political clout, an endless supply of seedy money, utter ruthlessness and sheer police incompetence were slim to none. Yet, Lynne Sposito persevered, and after ten years, finally got justice for her murdered parents.
Edward Humes tells the story of Sposito’s quest with a journalist’s detachment; in a chilling matter-of-fact style and with an excellent eye for detail. He does not fall into the trap of glorifying the victims; both Vincent and Margaret Sherry were far from perfect, and the reader learns about their flaws and personal pitfalls as well as their strengths and, in particular, Margaret Sherry’s undying commitment to rooting out corruption in Biloxi. Nor does Humes unduly vilify those involved in the conspiracy (although given their colorful personal and criminal histories and their various roles in the conspiracy to kill the Sherrys, any further vilification would have been unnecessary anyway and would actually have taken away a lot of the narrative’s effectiveness). Equally unsettling as “In Cold Blood,” to this day the benchmark of all true crime literature, although less literary in its description than Truman Capote’s account or, for that matter, John Behrendt’s famous “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Humes’s “Mississippi Mud” unravels the web of corruption and crime in which much (although undoubtedly not all) of Biloxi’s society once used to be caught. And although the consequences of the events related here won’t be as terminal for any of the conspirators as they are for Lynne Sposito and her parents, Mrs. Sposito can now at last, as Humes quotes her at the end of the book’s paperback edition (which updates the narrative’s conclusion vis-a-vis the earlier hardcover version), “get a good night’s sleep” again – thus eerily echoing the sentiment expressed in Eliot Ness’s (Kevin Costner’s) final comment in Brian de Palma’s “The Untouchables,” who, when asked by a reporter what he will do after prohibition has been lifted, drily responds: “I’m going to have a drink.”