By Dave Ongie, News Editor
For nearly a century, notorious mobster Al Capone has been tied to Johnson City through little more than circumstantial evidence and hearsay.
It would have made plenty of sense for Capone – the poster child for illegal alcohol distribution during Prohibition – to do business in a place like Johnson City in the 1920s. Moonshining in our region was as much a part of the culture as bluegrass music and Sunday church services, meaning alcohol practically flowed like water out of the hills and hollers into the emerging metropolis of Johnson City.
When you add the railroads to the equation, Johnson City would have been an attractive hub for Capone as he labored to pair the fleeting supply of illegal alcohol with the overwhelming demand that existed during those dry days of Prohibition.
Many folks who lived in Johnson City in those days handed down stories about Capone frequenting the place that became known as “Little Chicago.” Likewise, Steve Blevins grew up going to family gatherings where the adults sat around the table and reminisced about the old days. Every now and then, the name Al Capone would come up in relation to his grandfather, but it didn’t mean a whole lot to him.
“I didn’t know who Al Capone was as a kid,” Blevins said. “I didn’t care.”
However, Blevins has recently begun researching his family history, which extends back to the earliest days of white settlement in our area. After establishing his bloodlines, Blevins started trying to shed some light on the rumors and tall tales he heard at those family gatherings.
He combed through digital archives of newspapers both local and regional in search of proof that his grandfather Alfred Wheelock had direct ties to Capone. It didn’t take Blevins long to tap into the exploits of his bootlegging ancestors, who were distilling liquor from the moment they arrived in the new country and didn’t let Prohibition stop them.
“One of the first articles I found was when (my great-grandfather) Sam Wheelock got busted at the train depot downtown with 3,672 bottles of Jamaican ginger, which was about 90 percent moonshine,” Blevins said. “They were trying to transition to selling it like it was medicine.”
The bust in the spring of 1930 was the largest in Johnson City to that point and was part of a larger federal sting that netted 73 individuals from several states. Jamaican ginger was being marketed as medicine in order to exploit a loophole in the Volstead Act discovered by lawyer-turned-mobster George Ramus, who bought up many of the whisky manufacturers located around Cincinnati, Ohio, and begun legally producing bonded liquor legally and selling it on the black market.
As it happened, the 51 cases of liquor intercepted by federal agents at the railroad depot in Johnson City came from Queen City Distributing Company of Cincinnati. Sam Wheelock was eventually convicted on seven federal counts and sent to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
That article – which Blevins says establishes Johnson City and his family at the epicenter of the federal war on bootlegging that Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables” were fighting out of Chicago – was just the tip of the iceberg. Sam and his wife Carrie were merchants in Johnson City who owned several storefronts conducting legitimate business, but the speakeasies behind the scenes got the Wheelocks and their three sons – Don, Bruce and Blevins’ grandfather Alfred – into repeated run-ins with law enforcement.
After successfully slipping out of custody on another charge, Don eventually joined his father in the Atlanta Penitentiary after being caught transporting illegal liquor. That federal charge trumped the state charges he faced, so he was shipped to Atlanta, where he wound up working alongside Capone tailoring the overalls worn by all the inmates.
Following his release from the federal prison in Atlanta, Don had nothing but good things to say about Capone while talking to a Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter in Greeneville. Don said Capone is “a good fellow and helps a lot of the prisoners by giving them money. If you didn’t know him already, you wouldn’t recognize him as a gangster.”
In the eyes of Blevins, all this documentation taken together strengthens the case that Capone was indeed operating in Johnson City, and the town was vital to the production of illegal liquor during Prohibition.
Blevins said his grandfather Alfred served time in Brushy Mountain State Penatentary, but revealed very little to him about the family history of bootlegging. “He told me, ‘I was in prison. You don’t want to go there,’ ” Blevins recalled.
Alfred was an excellent pitcher for Brushy Mountain’s baseball team and eventually played in the minor leagues and later coached baseball following his release from prison. Alfred also invented the batting cage, which was adopted by the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees before becoming a mainstay at all levels of baseball.
Now that he knows more about his family history, Blevins is eager to carry it on with business partner Brian Smith. Blevins said he recently added to that history by becoming the first person to receive a permit to sell moonshine within the city limits, and the two men plan to open up a distillery later this year to help carry on a tradition that goes back for generations in our region.
“It is a great source of pride to be able to carry that along,” Blevins said. “This is part of Johnson City’s Prohibition history, and it proves there was a connection to Capone, which I think is important.”
The new distillery will produce Wheelock Whiskey and Blevins Shine, made from the original family recipes on both sides of Blevins’ family tree. He plans to do everything the way his ancestors did, with one important difference.
“Except I’m not going to jail,” Blevins said with a laugh.