Did Chicago mobster Al Capone ever set foot in Johnson City, TN? During the 1920s the town was nicknamed Little Chicago. A reference acknowledging crime ties to the north? Or nothing more than an expression of local pride in the railroads, three of which ran through town? Big Chicago was known as a railroad center long before Capone came along.
Speaking of railroads, Capone bought a house in West Palm Beach, FL not long before the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, and Johnson City would have been a convenient layover town en route between Chicago and West Palm Beach in the days before regular air flight.
It is very likely that Chicago gangsters from the Capone mob came to Johnson City, Newport, Knoxville, Chattanooga and other Southern cities to make deals. One piece of circumstantial evidence that clearly puts Johnson City on this list: the town was one of the hardest hit places in the nation by a neural disorder called the “jake leg,” which killed many and left others with a distinctive hitch in their stride.
The cost of whiskey was extremely high locally, running about $1.50 and up for a flask, while Jamaican ginger, medicinal alcohol and bay rum – all containing lethal denaturants that caused the jake – sold for well under $1.
Why was the cost of whiskey so high in an area of the country where moonshining flourished ever since the first whiskey taxes were levied in 1793? Supply and demand as ever determines price, and it appears that the price of whiskey was being driven up by outside buyers.
Capone was in the alcohol business, and East Tennessee was one of the centers where moonshine was made. While it is likely that he did business with local suppliers, the question remains whether the mob head would have purchased his product lines personally, or would have sent henchmen to do it. Either way, Capone covered his tracks well, leaving no known written records tying him directly to Johnson City. Recall that he was arrested not for his vast bootlegging operations or his speakeasy establishments, but for tax evasion.
The following contemporary newspaper account, while making no mention of Capone by name, describes Johnson City’s reputation as a “wide-open city” with operating characteristics—thugs, high priced lawyers, judges on the take, hamstrung police—similar to Big Chicago. It specifically cites the liquor ring, rum runners and bootleggers as central to the problem:
“Will it require an atrocious murder? a series of holdups? a veritable reign of terror to jar the smug, self-satisfied citizens of Johnson City, Tennessee into a realization of what is going on within the city?
“TODAY JOHNSON CITY is overrun with criminals; would be criminals; thieves, thugs, gunmen, dope-peddlers, and other undesirables who working hand-in-hand with the liquor ring have so spread their evil influence that its effect has reached even into the juvenile element and more than a score of little boys are striving to emulate the lawbreakers who are apparently being ?glorified? in Johnson City and Washington County.
“Our very courts are apparently inoculated with the general tone of apathy; else they would hand out sentences sufficiently severe to make a would-be evildoer hesitate before perpetrating a crime. But the sentences are so light and it is apparently so very easy to escape the penalties of the law that the criminals scorn any fear of punishment.
“The police apprehend a criminal. Perhaps someone’s life is saved. And then a skilled attorney, operating through the mazes and technicalities of the law and employing other aids, extricates his client from the toils of the law and he goes forth to commit another crime. Why is it that it is so hard to secure a jury in Washington County that is not unfriendly or apathetic toward law enforcement? And with each trial the maze of handicaps with which the police department is burdened, is increased.
“The dry organizations demand enforcement of the laws, but if the officers encounter resistance they dare not use force or they will be confronted with the penitentiary.
If a felony is committed the public expects the officers to apprehend the offenders. But if shots are exchanged the officers are in danger of arrest for defending their own lives, or for carrying out their duty. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
“Even the Council and Commission seem to feel that the police department can get along with anything second hand or discarded. They are expected to run down rum runners yet the police patrol (car) cannot be operated and the other car is a dilapidated wreck. They are expected to quell riots, yet there is not a riot gun in Johnson City, and some of the officers do not even have revolvers.”
—DO WE WANT A REIGN OF TERROR
Johnson City Staff-News,
October 20, 1926
Editorial by Editor Carroll E. King