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Bill Spell was at the center of Mississippi’s most sordid, bizarre political campaign

STARKVILLE • William E. “Bill” Spell, who died Oct. 12 at age 96, was the last major figure in what most Mississippians recall as the most sordid and bizarre political campaign in the state’s history back in 1983.

To say that Spell lived an interesting and impactful life is an understatement. A native of the tiny Copiah County hamlet of Georgetown, Spell graduated from the local high school in 1944 and then reported for duty in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he served his country honorably during World War II.

After the war, Spell graduated from Mississippi College and later the Mississippi College School of Law.

His professional career was varied — he served as a radio announcer, newspaper reporter, energy trade association executive, was a staff assistant to legendary U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, was an executive with one of the state’s leading advertising agencies, and eventually made a successful entrance into the private practice of law.

Spell’s media, trade association and governmental service brought him into the orbit of a number of players on the state’s political scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It was from that vantage point that Spell — in strong measure at the behest of successful Jackson businessmen and Republican supporters Billy Mounger, Neal Clement and Victor Smith — organized and implemented an investigation into then-Democratic Attorney General Bill Allain that shocked Mississippi politics and drew massive national attention.

Without question, the 1983 Mississippi gubernatorial campaign was the dirtiest campaign seen in this state before or since. The campaign between Allain, Republican nominee Leon Bramlett, and independents Charles Evers, Billy Taylor and Helen Williams was rocked when two weeks before the November general election, Allain was slammed with allegations of sexual liaisons with three Black male transvestite prostitutes.

Simply put, Allain was accused some 40 years ago of what was thought at the time to be conduct that no mainstream Mississippi politician could survive. Yet Allain did.

Allain — a divorced Natchez attorney and U.S. Army infantry combat veteran of the Korean Conflict — was leading Bramlett by 25 points in popularity polls before the Spell-led GOP group unveiled their allegation against him.

Allain vehemently denied the allegations. Bramlett challenged Allain to take a lie detector test and Allain eventually complied — releasing results that indicated he was telling the truth.

The allegations set off a state and national media circus — bringing in an appearance by Geraldo Rivera — who interviewed the three prostitutes and aired a story in which all three recanted their prior accusations against Allain.

But after absorbing the allegations and watching the national and local media circus unfold, Mississippi voters simply didn’t buy the allegations. Not only did voters reject the allegations against Allain, but they also politically rebuked the Republicans who made them.

Allain won the election — carrying 74 of the state’s 82 counties — and went on to serve a productive term as governor despite complaints that he served the term somewhat cloistered in the Governor's Mansion after the raucous, raunchy campaign.

Was Allain guilty of the allegations or simply the victim of a vicious smear? As a journalist, I didn’t know 40 years ago, and I don’t know today. But I do know the majority of Mississippi voters had faith in Allain — faith enough to elect him governor and faith enough to reject the campaign tactics that threatened his election.

The Allain investigation changed Mississippi politics, campaign tactics and attitudes about how far campaigns can or should go and what Mississippi voters would tolerate. There were also lessons for the media.

Spell, Mounger and others waging the 1983 campaign against Allain never wavered in their beliefs that they had a “duty” to bring the information forward. Allain died in 2013. Mounger, Clement and Smith are likewise deceased.

An affable but intense figure who played to win in all things, Bill Spell was the last major player in this peculiarly Mississippi political drama.

Bring your stories. Hold your complaints.

I received a letter from prison the other day. That’s right. Prison — joint, slammer, big house.

It never occurred to me that some of my readers might be incarcerated. It has, however, occurred to me, at least based on the email I receive, that some should be.

Nevertheless, when I looked at the inmate number stamped on the envelope, my reporting juices began flowing. This could be some notorious criminal wanting to get something off his chest. A serial killer perhaps. Maybe this is my Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” moment — a bestseller, interviews, fame.

Then, I opened the envelope. The only part of the letter that made any sense was, “I read your article.” The rest was an unintelligible mish mosh of footnotes, book recommendations, names of legislators, and I think a recipe for chutney, but I can’t be sure. I didn’t know what it all meant nor did I have any idea what he was asking me to do, if anything. The only thing that seemed clear was he doesn’t like politicians or the media, which I suppose doesn’t make him much different than the rest of us.

Still, I was disappointed. No confession, no expressions of innocence to consider, not even a cruel suggestion to “crawl back into whatever hole I crawled out of.”

I’m a dedicated consumer of crime documentaries, and it’s a common theme for the accused to use the media to tell their stories and prove their innocence. What about me? I’m here. I’m open-minded. I can tell a good story. I just won’t make one up, if that’s what you’re looking for.

I have been approached by those who found themselves sideways with our legal system.

I was once asked by a notorious fraudster to ghost write his memoir, which would include his take on how he was unjustly targeted by law enforcement, which he wasn’t. I declined. I knew he was guilty and couldn’t in good conscience write a book proclaiming his innocence, though I’m sure it would have sold well.

Better yet, I was once approached by a Nazi who wanted me to tell the world his story, or at least his story according to him. This was a bona fide Nazi, as in World War II, Third Reich and so on.

He was an SS death camp guard during the war but later made his way to the States, where he lived in relative obscurity until the feds picked him up in the early '90s. I covered his trial, and for some reason, he took a liking to me. Why me? To this day, I have to idea. Maybe it’s my face. Could be that I have a trustworthy look. Could be that I look dumb enough to buy whichever yarn someone is spinning. Either is plausible.

Anyway, the guy wasn’t in custody during the trial, and he frequently cornered me in the hallway to tell me the feds had it all wrong, that he was just a simple tool and die maker. (Is it me or is tool and die making a chosen profession for former Nazis?) One time he followed me to the bathroom to tell me that he was forced by the Nazis to work at the camp and that he actually wasn’t such a bad guy after all. I turned him down for a number of reasons, not the least of which was I didn’t want to add “Nazi sympathizer” to my CV.

The U.S. government proved that he was, indeed, a very bad guy, and he died years later while awaiting extradition to Germany on murder charges.

Perhaps I missed my chance, but I would like to declare my availability to the accused and convicted, you know, if you need to unburden yourself. Again, not that I’m advertising.

On the other hand, if you only want to complain, you’ll have to wait in line with everyone else.


Being thankful, especially in the worst of times

The past two Thanksgivings have been challenging for the Hall family.

In 2019, when I was executive editor of the Clarion Ledger, the Thursday before Thanksgiving, my then-boss called to say she was flying in to discuss a personnel matter. Since I knew we were preparing for a round of layoffs, I knew the regional boss flying in on less than a day’s notice meant the personnel matter to be discussed was me.

That Friday, she informed me that my position was being eliminated. I was allowed to stay on through the first of the year, which was nice, but it sure put a damper on Thanksgiving break.

Then came the masks, lockdowns, social distancing and virtual “learning.”

So when Thanksgiving break rolled around for my teacher wife and three children last year, we decided to hook up our camper and head into the woods. We wanted to get away.

We chose the woods because we wouldn’t be around anyone, and we couldn’t imagine the big, bad novel coronavirus bug would be lurking among the trees.

We did a little hiking. We roasted marshmallows. We threw the football around. The wife and I read. The kids biked and explored. I even found enough cell service to stream the Egg Bowl.

On that Monday, the wife started feeling bad. Exhaustion, she thought. Just worn out from the stress of the year and her body demanding rest. By that evening, she felt full-blown awful, and I had started noticing a slight scratch in my throat.

When we woke the next morning, the wife and I were the walking dead. The kids, who all felt fine, treated us like the walking dead, keeping their distance lest we turn them into zombies.

I have no idea how we broke camp, loaded up and drove home. What I do know is that by late Tuesday night we were having long swabs shoved up our noses, and the doctor was saying we tested positive for COVID-19.

For the next 12 days, the wife and I suffered what felt like the longest, worst case of the flu we have ever had. It was miserable. We were miserable.

We were also thankful. We could breathe, and no matter how bad we felt, we were healthy enough to suffer through and recover. Far too many were not so blessed.

We were thankful that our kids never showed any symptoms, unless you call stir-craziness a symptom.

We were even thankful that despite my not working for most of the year, we were able to survive. 

Today, we are even more thankful. This past year has been one of bountiful blessings. Coming to the Daily Journal has been an unbelievable journey full of professional riches. Returning to Tupelo has been surreal, but in the best way.

However, it also meant a lot of trying life changes. It meant spending a lot of time away from my family. It meant all of us — my wife, children and me — leaving behind all we had known for 10 years: friends, church, schools, Scouts, the travel baseball team, colleagues and our home. And it meant starting over with all of those things here.

Yet despite it all, as we head into the holiday season, we finally feel settled. We are immensely thankful. We are happy. We are blessed.

So to celebrate, we just bought a new-to-us RV. And we’re headed into the woods for Thanksgiving!