1940s FBI case files reveal orgies at Coffee Co Jail
by Melydia Clewell
Eyewitness News Assignment Manager
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - Recently released documents from the 1940s show agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept tabs on Sim Banks throughout his first term as sheriff of Coffee County, Tennessee.
The first documents in the file are intra-office letters written within weeks of Sims taking office in September 1942. In those briefings, Special Agent in Charge of the Eastern District of Tennessee, W.A. Murphy, told FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that he found Banks to be "grossly incompetent and a person of low moral fiber."
Most of the material in the file centers around May Act investigations being conducted in Coffee County, then home to Camp Forrest, one of the U.S. Army's largest training bases during World War Two. Named for its sponsor, Rep. Andrew May, the 1938 May Act was created in response to skyrocketing rates of venereal disease and made it a federal offense to commit vice activities, namely prostitution, near military installations.
Before becoming sheriff, Banks worked as a constable in Manchester and Tullahoma. The FBI file shows he was a known bootlegger. Most of the complaints against Banks involve allegations that he was running, or at least supporting, a prostitution ring for a close friend of his whom the feds had identified as a "notorious pimp."
Several complaints alleged ongoing immoral activities inside the Coffee County jail, including a trustee buying inmates bootlegged gin and orgies involving male and female inmates.
In a memorandum from field agents to SAC Murphy, the feds who were dealing with Sheriff Banks on a routine basis reported numerous circumstances which indicated Banks was "most ignorant and inefficient to a point of malfeasance, which makes him highly undesirable for Bureau Agents to work with."
Despite their concerns, the US District Attorney representing the district declined to prosecute Banks because he had only the word of prostitutes and other "discredited" individuals to corroborate the allegations.
In 1944, Banks won re-election by fewer than 20 votes. However, the federal investigation into his activities did not continue. In early 1945 the file was closed with a final entry that stated no federal offenses had been committed. A filing notation shows the Banks file was kept in the Confidential Room of the agency's filing unit due to its "obscene" contents.