We’ve all heard stories about mobsters during the Prohibition era, about bootlegging, speakeasies, and rings of organized crime. And from those stories, no figure is more notorious than Chicago’s Al Capone.
But here’s what you may not have heard: in those days, Chicago wasn’t the only center of vice in the United States. In fact, one little town in Northeast Tennessee was gaining plenty of notoriety for debauchery.
And that little town—was our very own Johnson City.
In those days, Johnson City was considered the “crossroads of the Eastern United States.” Located on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, the city was certainly no stranger to “corn liquor culture.” And because it was built at a major railroad junction, Johnson City was the perfect headquarters for a major bootlegging operation, as trains full of liquor set out for speakeasies across the east.
And for Al Capone, it was the perfect stopover between his homes in Chicago and Miami.
Now, plenty of people say that Capone frequented Johnson City to evade authorities; and that he made his shipping headquarters at Montrose Court. And even though there’s no real evidence to prove his ties with Johnson City, there’s no real evidence to disprove them either. (After all, since when do mobsters leave public documentation of their locations anyway?)
So, Johnson City soon earned the moniker “Little Chicago.” Even as recently as 1952, Johnson City was named one of the Top 25 Hotspots of Vice in the Country. (But don’t expect to see a plaque in Fountain Square advertising it.)
In fact, not much remains of “Little Chicago” anymore. The city itself has actually become quite charming and calm—less vice, more nice. And the streets don’t run rampant with sin and debauchery anymore, though you can go by Montrose Court and see Capone’s alleged home-away-from-home. And plenty of downtown businesses show evidence of being popular speakeasies back in the day.
Oh, and there’s the annual “Little Chicago Blues Festival” at the Down Home, which helps support the local public radio station, WETS-FM.
But other than that, the story of “Little Chicago” is now just a legend in the history of this now-charming city.
I’m not sure about you, but I like it that way.