You thought a lively man would die
When you made the country dry
When you made it so that he couldn’t get not another drop of rye.
Well, I know that you will feel bad when you see what he has had ...
He’s got those jake leg blues.
— Jake Leg Blues (1930)
The 18th Amendment was a failed and costly experiment in legislating abstinence from alcohol. That is one of the themes of filmmaker Ken Burn’s latest documentary, “Prohibition.” Another lesson from the three-part series, which ran on PBS last week, is never pass a law telling an American he or she can no longer do something that they had been able to do legally before.
Because if you do, you might find some people (as author Pete Hamill noted in the documentary) with no particular thirst for alcohol looking to imbibe just so they can spit in the eye of authority. This particular species of “stubbornness Americanus” mistrusts government to begin with, and has no patience with its trying to legislate temperance.
Prohibition saw the nation divided between the “wets” and the “drys.” Big cities versus rural communities. The law-abiding ratting out the lawbreakers.
There were hypocrites and scoundrels on both sides. There were the politicians who guzzled gin in the darkened smoke-filled rooms while making public speeches about the evils of demon rum. And there were the bootleggers who didn’t care how many people were killed by their rot-gut poison.
Profits were made, families were ruined and organized crime flourished. As Burns points out in his documentary, one of the most notorious and well-known of this period was Chicago mob boss Al Capone. No mention, however, was made in the documentary concerning Capone’s supposed connection to Johnson City, or of this city’s very real involvement in the “jake leg” epidemic.
Some old-timers insist Capone got off the train regularly in Johnson City while traveling to and from his vacation home in Miami. There is no official documentation to substantiate this. There are no photos of Scarface strolling past Fountain Square. And there are only sketchy reports of people who might have seen Capone during one of his alleged stays at Montrose Court or the Windsor Hotel.
Even so, it’s an intriguing story that gets its legs from the fact Johnson City was actually called “Little Chicago” then. The city was known in the 1920s as a place abundant with bootleggers, “speakeasies” and corrupt cops. Go to www.johnsonsdepot.com — the excellent website on Johnson City’s history — and read an editorial from the Johnson City Staff-News in 1926 defending police officials from criticism of being negligent in enforcing Prohibition.
Addressing the police department’s critics, the paper notes “you go home and take a drink out of the private stock delivered to you the night before by your pet bootlegger. Yes you do. Hundreds of you. Men who are supposed to be the best citizens of Johnson City. Men who attend church every Sunday morning and who frequently enter church with a brown taste in their mouths from the effects of the night before.”
Although the Capone connection to Johnson City cannot be confirmed, it has been pretty well documented that Johnson City was one of the communities hardest hit by the jake leg epidemic. I first learned of this peculiar infliction from reading an article written by Dan Baum in the Sept. 13, 2003, issue of The New Yorker.
Victims of the jake leg experienced “foot-floppiness” and walked with a “rubber-legged gait” that often ended in paralysis. The cause was linked to their consumption of a patent medicine known as jake — Jamaica ginger extract. While this so-called medicine was sold legally under the Volstead Act, it packed the wallop of four jiggers of scotch. At nearly 85 percent alcohol, jake was mostly consumed by the urban poor in small cities.
Baum wrote that the jake epidemic was first seen as a “mystery plague” that “smote Johnson City, Tennessee, particularly hard.” (Another mystery plague would have a similarly devastating impact on Johnson City in the 1980s. Read “My Own Country” by Abraham Verghese to learn more about that.) The cause of the jake leg was suspected to be a plasticizer — tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate — added by the manufacturer to get around federal regulations restricting alcohol content. It’s also interesting to note the plasticizer was made by only two companies in the country at the time — Eastman Kodak and the Celluloid Corporation of Newark, N.J.
The repeal of the Volstead Act, along with new federal regulations, eventually put an end to the jake leg epidemic, but not before many people had died. A man told me last week he has a relative buried in the city’s Oak Hill Cemetery who was a victim of the jake leg.
Johnson City’s reputation as Little Chicago continued well into the late 1950s. As noted on the Johnson’s Depot website, Look magazine listed Johnson City as one of 25 cities known as “a hotbed of vice conditions.”
The decline of the downtown area, along with the end of passenger rail, put an end to Little Chicago. That is until Johnson City became the first municipality in the region to pass liquor by the drink in the early 1980s.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.