“Little Chicago” – Johnson City, Tennessee & Al Capone

“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.” – Al Capone

 

Introduction

Perhaps the nation should have looked closer at a Tennessee precedent before Prohibition was ratified in 1919. Tennessee was the first U.S. state to pass Prohibition in 1838, largely due to mounting pressures from teetotalers and Temperance Societies. The Tennessee Prohibition stated that “spiritous liquors” couldn’t be sold for retail. Whoever did so appeared before a judge and, once the gavel pounded, was fined at the court’s discretion. By the time National Prohibition rolled around, Tennessee moonshiners and bootleggers had been manipulating this law for decades. When the liquor law took effect, the kings of Tennessee moonshine raised a collective eyebrow. And, in the northeast corner of the state, in a little place called Johnson City, tantalizing whispers from organized crime coursed through the ears. Vice was everywhere – and that meant a vast opportunity to make money. Lots of it. The liquor industry and distribution was all too happy to oblige, especially in Johnson City, which eventually garnered the nickname, “Little Chicago.”

 

Johnson City, Tennessee

The place was known as “Johnson’s Tank” in the 1850s because it provided water fill-ups for steam engines on stopovers. The name was changed to “Johnson’s Depot, then “Haynesville,” and, in 1869, officially became “Johnson City,” in honor of the first mayor, Henry Johnson.

The city’s location is quite the triple trifecta, so to speak, resting in the three counties of Washington, Carter, and Sullivan; is within the “tri-cities” area of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City (creates a triangle at the very northeast tip of Tennessee); and is within a short distance of three state borders: Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. This unique position, plus the railroad line, enhanced and enabled Prohibition defiance in the 1920s.

Railroad Crossroads of Appalachia – map from johnsonsdepot.com

The town was known as one of Appalachia’s “railroad crossroads” because it had “access to three railroads sitting within 30 miles of two other state lines.” The city was positioned midway between Chicago and Miami. And, I guess you might know where I’m going with these little geographical tidbits. Given its location, Johnson City was “a major alcohol distribution point” during Prohibition,1)Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10. and it was purportedly a stopover for certain gangsters to and from Miami. Further, Johnson City had a huge veterans’ facility called Mountain Home (still active today), where the war bureau allegedly found customers and bootleggers on the premises.2)The Sunday Star. 1921. “Mayor Defends City’s Character: Johnson City Head Scores Col. Pearsall for Attack on Municipal Morals.” The Sunday Star, Aug 21: 8. Johnson City was the perfect setting for bootleggers and smugglers. Liquor and other illegal goods were transported virtually carte blanche by railroads. Souped-up vehicles roared along backroads and highways, and taxis transported “more alcohol than passengers” during that time. Johnson City was the “center of commerce and nightlife” for East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, making it “the fifth largest city in Tennessee” between 1920 and 1930.3)Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10.

 

 

Bootleggers & Liquor

What exactly are “bootleggers”? Merriam-Webster mainly defines the word as: a person who makes or sells alcoholic liquor illegally. Different “types” of bootleggers existed.4)Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5.

  • The “doctor bootlegger” was born from a loophole in Prohibition’s Volstead Act: Alcohol could be used as medicine. So, doctors made a killing (no pun intended), earning “$40 million dollars from prescribing alcohol for their patients.”5)Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5.
  • The “apartment building bootlegger” took the two top apartments of a structure, usually on separate floors, one above the other. The top floor stored liquor. The lower floor was a speakeasy.
  • The “female bootlegger” served alcohol at establishments mainly for women, like beauty parlors. Women were often recruited because law enforcement and the court system went easy on them.
  • The “crime syndicate bootlegger.” Without the mob or local gangs – big or small – the illegal liquor business wouldn’t have been successful. One could argue that Prohibition formed organized crime. Before the ban, criminal gangs were small and “loosely organized.” Prohibition created an environment where gangs grew “into large, organized crime networks.”6)Woog, Adam. 2003. Prohibition: Banning Alcohol. San Diego: Lucent Books. p. 52 Gangs provided protection, muscle, money, bribery, and connections – and not just in larger cities. In Johnson City, local officials were corrupt and worked in tandem with bootleggers. Some allege that politicians were “financial backers of the local bootleggers.”7)Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10.

What of the liquor itself? Moonshine was easy to come by in Appalachia.8)It’s called “moonshine” because whiskey stills were worked by moonlight. Mason jars practically flew off the production line and the company itself likely made a fortune during Prohibition. Smoke from operating stills ascended deep within the mountains, ridges, and hollers. Venturing too far in one direction or another meant hearing a rifle cock or a shotgun’s pump action. East Tennessee had a “local talent for manufacturing booze” and the high proof liquor produced was often shipped to big cities.

When big time bootleggers couldn’t get the real stuff, they used moonshine, watered it down, then flavored it “to create other beverages, such as liqueurs and cordials.”9)Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5. The packaging – bottles, liquor color, etc. – was often disguised to look like the genuine brand. Bootleggers used code names. Soaps, for example, designated certain types of liquor. Ivory soap was one type while Lifebuoy was another.10)Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5.

 

Law and the Police Force

Bribing officers was fairly easy. Both top and bottom rungs made paltry wages. Corruption had a domino effect, where the top lieutenant was bought and sold, then enlisted officers below him, dangling their careers or threatening them. One Chief-of-Police, for example, was “offered five dollars a barrel on two hundred and fifty barrels a day.”11)Sullivan, Edward Dean. 1929. “I Know You, Al.” The North American Review, Sept: 257-64. In the 1920s, a police chief made (on the higher end) about $25,000 a year. Indulge me while I do a little math. Five dollars a barrel on two hundred fifty barrels amounts to $1,250 a day. Say the chief worked five days a week. He took home an extra $6,250 a week, and made an entire year’s salary in one month. That occurred all across the country.

Sometimes police departments weren’t corrupt. They were overwhelmed. Johnson City newspaper editor, Carroll King called for citizens to support police. Not only that, King said Johnson City was “under the thumb of hoodlums and undergoing a ‘reign of terror’ where police officers were seriously threatened” if they arrested the “wrong guy.”12)Bridwell, A., n.d. “Little Chicago.” Johnsons Depot. Accessed May 2021.

Criminals were brazen. The year before Prohibition was enacted, thieves broke into a Tennessee jail and loaded confiscated liquor into vehicles.13)Huddleston, Ed. 1957 (copyright). “Highjack Begins Whisky Mystery.” Nashville Banner: The Bootleg Era, 4-5. To curb crime, Appalachian judges often resorted to extreme measures. In Clay County, Kentucky, a judge sentenced an entire town to jail. The residents of Mill Creek, it seems, all decided they’d just break the law and make moonshine, no matter what. Further, they would resist arrest “by force of arms.” The judge “ordered every man and woman, and every child above the age of 12 . . . taken into custody.”

Certain incentives (or the manipulation of them) were removed as well. In 1919, a lawman received ten dollars for every still he captured. A judge in Knoxville, Tennessee, nixed that rule. Instead, the money would be paid for every still operator’s conviction. The judge states: “Under the old law, a deputy could pick up any kind of old lard can with a funnel attached to it and collect his reward from the county. He didn’t care whether he caught the operator or not.”

In Johnson City, 1926 was purportedly the worst for “vice conditions.” Newspaper editorials write about “an underground organization [that] was attempting to strangle the town.”14)Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10. By 1928, lawlessness was out of control. In a Johnson City Chronicle editorial dated October 28, 1928, the writer says the criminal activity “has caused Johnson City the embarrassment of being called the ‘Little Chicago of the South.’” The reference is the earliest mention that ties Johnson City to “Little Chicago.” Certainly, no comparison can be made between the two “Chicagos” (save the corruption, liquor distribution, or bootlegging). No “gangland shootouts” occurred in Johnson City.15)During prohibition, 800 gang members were murdered. But too many allusions and bits of circumstantial evidence points to alleged mob associations, chiefly with that of Al Capone.

Capone’s “criminal empire” was built on bootlegging. And, boy, was it profitable. According to the Chicago Crime Commission, Capone raked in $60 million annually – in the 1920s.16)Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5. He spent half of that money for protection.17)Sullivan, Edward Dean. 1929. “I Know You, Al.” The North American Review, Sept: 257-64.18)Of course that income only accounts for liquor. Capone had his iron hands in “prostitution, narcotics, gambling . . . murder,” etc.19)Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5.

 

Al Capone: a Rolling Stone?

Al Capone. He hid the left side of his face due to a large scar, hence the name “Scarface.”

According to the internet, Al Capone had hideouts in California, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. He’s almost been reduced to a Where’s Waldo phenomenon. Johnson City was thought to be one of Capone’s seven supply bases. 20)2020. Historic Johnson City TN. Directed by ?? Performed by Cluttered Compass. He “was known to personally visit” various territories to take care of businesses.21)Salvati, Polly. 2001. “The Tale of “Little Chicago”.” Johnson’s Depot. Downtown Observer. Spring/ Summer. He’s believed to have stashed liquor inside the Smoky Mountains until it was safe to transport to Chicago. Whether he is the man or the “royal he” remains a mystery.

Secondhand sources say Capone stayed at any of three places in Johnson City: the Montrose Court Apartments, John Sevier Hotel, and/or the Windsor Hotel. But how does one verify that? Capone left absolutely no paper trail back then. He “operated on a cash basis using fronts, aliases” and liaisons.22)Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10. The primary sources’  living children provide an oral history. Here are some of those stories (some anonymous):

The “Runner” of 1922

On “Johnson City as ‘Little Chicago’: The Clues23)Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10. one man’s daughter talks about her father’s encounter with Capone. When he was a young man, her father worked as a baggage carrier, moving luggage from passenger trains to various Johnson City hotels in 1922. He subsequently worked as a “runner” and had the chance to work with Capone and his men, who were “extravagant tippers.”

The 1920s Gambler

In the same post, another woman reveals a story about her father. He loved to gamble at Johnson City’s Windsor Hotel. Capone’s bodyguards joined card games and befriended the man. He met Capone once, when he “sat down and played cards with the group.” Later, the woman talks about a family vacation in Florida, where “they visited the Capone compound.” Her father talked with the bodyguards, who seemed to remember him. They weren’t allowed to enter but saw Capone from a distance.

Jones and Hall

In a Johnson City Press article by James Brooks,24)Brooks, James. 2006. “Capone Made Regular Stops in Johnson City en Route to Miami.” Johnson City Press, Aug 7. Jim Jones recounts tales told to him by his father, service station manager, R.M. “Ray” Jones and former policeman Johnny Hall. Capone had heavy security, and always rode in “armored Cadillac limousines.” (Chicago was full of gangsters itching to kill the mafia boss.) Capone, according to Jones, reserved “the entire third floor” at the John Sevier Hotel, which sat “across the street from the Southern Railway station”; and he never stayed more than one night. When he arrived, a man came by Ray’s station and told him to close the business, and service only Capone and his entourage. A bodyguard was always there to supervise Ray’s work, and, afterward, he and his men were paid almost a week’s wages. Officer Hall said while Capone was there, Johnson City experienced “no crime . . . None.”

Bonus: The Woman in Monteagle, Tennessee

The RyeMabee property in Monteagle, Tennessee, applied for the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Mrs. Irene Mabee Gibson purchased the property in 1930. A little history is provided in one section. Either Mrs. Mabee or her brother, Carl had an “unexplained association” with Al Capone. Interviews conducted from persons who lived between 1925 and 1931 reveal that Capone “came through Monteagle on a regular basis” in travels between Chicago and Miami. Photographs allegedly exist of Al Capone “being pulled up Highway 41 from Pelham, Tennessee,” when his car broke down. Irene once lived in Chicago with her mother, so there may actually be some connection between her and Capone.

 

But did he actually come to Johnson City? Maybe. Maybe not. Dave Tabler writes in “Al Capone Comes to Appalachia” on his website, Appalachian History.net (excellent Appalachian website) that Capone’s visits are unlikely. Instead, he believes “Chicago gangsters from the Capone mob came to Johnson City, Newport, Knoxville, Chattanooga and other Southern cities to make deals.” (Emphasis added)

I found a few interesting tidbits that scrape the edge of Tabler’s theory. In the 1930s, four of Capone’s men came from Miami and stopped over in Knoxville, Tennessee, where they purchased a “used black sedan for $1,050.” The men left Knoxville, went to New York, and allegedly took revenge on a man who double-crossed Capone by riddling his vehicle with “one hundred .45 caliber bullets.”25)The first time Tommy guns were used in New York.26)Parsley, Fred D. 1930. Al Capone. New York: Garden City Publishing.27)Kobler, John. 1972. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. Greenwich: Fawcett Publications. In 1933, the Tennessee Supreme Court heard a case regarding Akos Madjernick, Charles Madjernick Jr., and Basil Banghart. The latter, according to court documents, “was a notorious member of an outlaw organization . . . particularly centering their activities in and around Chicago, Illinois.” The documents state the three men were in cahoots, robbing and kidnapping. I believe members of Capone’s outfit were likely in Tennessee, including Johnson City, Appalachia’s railroad intersection.

What to make of “Little Chicago”? For decades, residents loathed the comparison and refused to discuss past happenings. Residents seem to have softened some. People are embracing and accepting the past. Maybe they’re trying to embrace warts and all, and find beauty, whether it’s a story, a past, a person, or place. Find beauty. Something good did come post-Prohibition. Runners had these fast cars made to outrun the law. What would a body do with that? Why, car racing, of course. Though people may not realize it, NASCAR celebrates the legacy of bootleggers and rum-runners every time the checkered flag is waved.28)Races are held in Bristol – one of the three tri-cities that connects to Johnson City.

 

**Featured image from Snappygoat.

References

References
1, 3, 22 Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10.
2 The Sunday Star. 1921. “Mayor Defends City’s Character: Johnson City Head Scores Col. Pearsall for Attack on Municipal Morals.” The Sunday Star, Aug 21: 8.
4, 5 Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5.
6 Woog, Adam. 2003. Prohibition: Banning Alcohol. San Diego: Lucent Books. p. 52
7, 14 Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10.
8 It’s called “moonshine” because whiskey stills were worked by moonlight.
9, 10, 16, 19 Holzwarth, Larry. 2018. “18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition.” History Collection. Aug 5.
11, 17 Sullivan, Edward Dean. 1929. “I Know You, Al.” The North American Review, Sept: 257-64.
12 Bridwell, A., n.d. “Little Chicago.” Johnsons Depot. Accessed May 2021.
13 Huddleston, Ed. 1957 (copyright). “Highjack Begins Whisky Mystery.” Nashville Banner: The Bootleg Era, 4-5.
15 During prohibition, 800 gang members were murdered.
18 Of course that income only accounts for liquor. Capone had his iron hands in “prostitution, narcotics, gambling . . . murder,” etc.
20 2020. Historic Johnson City TN. Directed by ?? Performed by Cluttered Compass.
21 Salvati, Polly. 2001. “The Tale of “Little Chicago”.” Johnson’s Depot. Downtown Observer. Spring/ Summer.
23 Bridwell, A. (updated) 2009. “Johnson City as “Little Chicago”: The Clues.” Johnson’s Depot. Jan 10.
24 Brooks, James. 2006. “Capone Made Regular Stops in Johnson City en Route to Miami.” Johnson City Press, Aug 7.
25 The first time Tommy guns were used in New York.
26 Parsley, Fred D. 1930. Al Capone. New York: Garden City Publishing.
27 Kobler, John. 1972. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. Greenwich: Fawcett Publications.
28 Races are held in Bristol – one of the three tri-cities that connects to Johnson City.

2 Comments

  1. In the 80’s, I spent two and half years in Johnson City finishing up a BS in nursing at East Tennessee State University. Unfortunately, the school left this colorful bit of local history out of the curriculum; although, I can happily report that booze was still readily available in the city. Thanks for filling in the gaps in my insufficient education

    1. Author

      Hello Jim! This was a rich and delightfully wicked journey into a gritty era. I knew East Tennessee was a different bird, but this just puts a little more seasoning on our history! The research was enlightening and I’m glad you found it entertaining and informative.

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