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Al Capone comes to Appalachia

Posted by | September 16, 2015

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.

Al Capone FBI arrest recordAl Capone’s FBI record and fingerprint samples.

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.

Johnson City’s Montrose Court Apartment complex (constructed in 1922; destroyed by fire in 1928) was reputed to be the headquarters for Capone and his friends. Photo: Burr Harrison Photographs/Archives of Appalachia/East Tennessee State University

Johnson City’s Montrose Court Apartment complex (constructed in 1922; destroyed by fire in 1928) was reputed to be the headquarters for Capone and his friends. Photo: Burr Harrison Photographs/Archives of Appalachia/East Tennessee State University


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.”

Johnson City Staff-News,
October 20, 1926
Editorial by Editor Carroll E. King



Way down yonder in the paw paw patch

Posted by | September 15, 2015

Call it the American Custard Apple or the West Virginia Banana, but it’s neither apple nor banana. It’s the Paw-paw (Asimina trilob), the largest native fruit of North America, and it grows throughout Appalachia. There are about seven other members of the genus Asimina, all growing in the southeastern U.S. Mature pawpaw trees produce fruits 2″ wide by 10″ long, which turn from green, to yellow, and then black as they ripen in the fall.

Where, oh where is pretty little Susie?
Where, oh where is pretty little Susie?
Where, oh where is pretty little Susie?
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Come on, boys [or girls, or kids], let’s go find her,
Come on, boys, let’s go find her,
Come on, boys, let’s go find her,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in her pockets,
Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in her pockets,
Pickin’ up paw-paws, puttin’ ‘em in her pockets,
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

—The Paw Paw Patch
Traditional folk song

Paw-paw fruits are rich in minerals such as magnesium, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, potassium, and phosphorus. The fruit also contains abundant concentrations of Vitamin C, proteins, and their derivative amino acids. The Peterson Field Guide mentions that the seeds, along with being an emetic, have narcotic properties.

Paw Paw treeThe paw-paw pulp may be eaten raw, made into ice cream, baked, or used as a pie filling. Some Appalachian cooks make a custard out of “Poppaws.” Seed them, mash them, add milk, a little sugar, an egg and some allspice. Pour the batter into custard cups and set those in a bread pan with some water in the bottom of the pan. Bake at a medium heat. Stick a broom straw or toothpick in, and when it comes up clean it’s done. Paw-paw also makes an excellent dry, white wine. It can be made from fresh or canned fruit.

The paw-paw is sensitive to ultraviolet light, thus, paw paw seedlings may not grow back after forests have been clear cut, and there are very few virgin forests left in the United States. Paw-paws can be found growing there abundantly, but once the forests are harvested, the paw paw will not usually re-establish.



Cab Calloway plays Cumberland

Posted by | September 14, 2015

Cab Calloway

Some of America’s most famous entertainers of the 1930s era, because they were African-Americans, were barred from staying in Cumberland, Maryland’s mainstream hotels. Such notable musicians as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and others often stayed at the Davis Tourist Home while on tour. These stays were often a week at a time when their bands came into town to play the Cadillac Lounge, Crystal Park, and other venues.

The Davis Tourist Home was located at 329 Frederick Street. The 14-room house contained a kitchen and dining room on the first floor, and was operated by John (1898-1959) and Towanda Davis (1902-2001), and then by Mrs. Davis upon John’s passing.

newspaper ad for Cab Calloway, Cumberland MDThe Davis Tourist Home also had a contract with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to provide overnight housing for the black railroad porters and dining-car employees who had to layover while working the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington. Each employee brought an official written authorization from the B&O to the Davises which allowed their stay at the Home.

sources: Western Maryland Regional Library
Cumberland Daily News, September 26, 1935

Cab+Calloway Cumberland+MD appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


A road opens — bring on the flying machines!

Posted by | September 11, 2015

“The old mud road is a road that leads down to perdition. The improved road leads upward to a better land; to better homes; to a better and broader civilization,” said West Virginia Governor Ephraim Morgan as he, along with the mayors of Kingwood and Terra Alta, untied the ceremonial ribbons and let the barrier of bunting fall away. The Terra Alta-Kingwood Road was officially open.

The weather had been cold and rainy for several days prior to September 11, 1924 and it looked as if celebrations could not be held; but on the appointed day the sun appeared and dried the roads and grounds to everyone’s satisfaction.
Work on the Morgantown-Kingwood Road
It’s hard today to imagine a mere road opening being followed by a ball game, basket picnic, airplane rides, band music and various athletic events, but the automobile was still a novel way to get around in Preston County—only 30% of the state’s residents had a car yet. And this stretch of highway was seen as a major connector to the outside world.

The road from Kingwood to Terra Alta is a part of the old Winchester and Morgantown turnpike, which was perhaps the first road designated in the county. The turnpike was, from the area’s earliest settlement, the main route through the county to Morgantown. Some of the first pioneer wagons from the east trundled over it.

The road leads from the outskirts of Kingwood to Terra Alta and joins with a concrete road built from that point to the Maryland state line. From the state line a short two mile stretch in Maryland connected to the National pike.

“The National or Cumberland Road was perhaps the most important [regional Indian trail that became a road], extending originally from Washington to Cumberland and later to Wheeling. These old roads are still in use,” noted Governor Morgan in his address. “Parts of them have been improved and hardsurfaced in recent years. The day is not far distant when the most important of these routes will constitute the main arteries of motor travel across the state over improved roads.”

The governor concluded: “I want future generations to point to these roads and say ‘There are roads that were constructed in the pioneer stage of road building in West Virginia under the first State Road Commission after the first comprehensive system was established; and they have endured to this day.’” And he headed off to catch the afternoon’s ballgame between Rowlesburg and Kingwood.


related post: “Paving Paradise”


When the Grand Jury met, he was not there to appear against me

Posted by | September 10, 2015

The following was brought by my father’s first cousin, Roy Hodges, to the family gathering following my uncle’s funeral in 1985. It was handwritten, and in pencil. James Pinkney Pittman (1855-1946) was the grandfather of my father, Victor Randolph Pittman, Jr.

James Pinkney PittmanThe handwritten text ended in mid-sentence on the last page of the steno pad. Obviously, there is or was at least one more steno pad like it that has been lost.

Judging from the markings on the pad, it appears to have been written some time in the late 1920s or early 1930s. I have endeavored to preserve the original misspellings. No doubt, I have added a few of my own.

—Victor Darrell Pittman, James Pinkney’s great-grandson, June 1997

“I got into truble. I went hunting with two men, one was midal eag, the other was young. The young man got killed out in the woods and the other man told evry body that I killed him. Well, I was arested, tryed and put under a ten thousand dollar bond untill the grand jury met. The county seat was Ashville Ala. I did not know a sole in the town. I ask the Sharif what he was going to do with me. I dident want to be put in jale. “Can you make a bond?” “I can try.”

“It w now getting dark when w come down out of the court house. Seemed I had the simpthy of older men. Went into a large store. The croud of men folowed us in. I ask the propreator if he would go on a tempry bond untill I could make bond, but when he found out how much the bond was he shook his head. One man in the crowed said he would, then another. So there was a lot of them went on the bond, a temporary bound. I gave my bond to a frend of mine from Springville to see if he could make bond in Springville for me. I wated sevrel days. So I ask the men that signed my bond if tha wood let me go to Springville and try to make my bond, that if I couldent make bond I wood come back. They told me to go.

St. Clair Courthouse, Ashville ALSt. Clair Courthouse, Ashville, AL

“Now there was a Mr. Wood and Miss Vick that was sumoned as witnesses at the trile. Mr. Wood had been going with Miss Vick and wanted her to mary him. So he told her that they w send me to the pen or hang him so she told him that wouldent do him no good, that she would mary me before I went. You see hur friend tryed to keep hur from maring me because I drink a little two much, but that dident do any good.

“Well, back to the bond. I made the bond and sent it in. My friends in Springville went to work on the case. They corned the man that acused me out where the young man was killed and ask him where he was standing when the young man was killed. He showed them & thay traced the shot came from on the undergroth that killed the man. So he got scared and run away. So whe the grand jury met, he was not there to appear against me. So my case w throon out of court and I was clared. You see, he was the onley wittnes. God knows I dident kill him. It was all done axedently.”

Full memoir at: The Memoirs of James Pinkney Pittman

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