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"And they who for their country die shall fill an honored grave, for glory lights the soldier's tomb, and beauty weeps the brave."
– Joseph Rodman Drake  
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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 5 May 2018  

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Kathy Hare

  “Nucky: The Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss”
  By Kathy Hare

   What’s the difference between a politician and a convict? Answer: The width of their pinstripes.
   OK, maybe that’s a low blow. But “Nucky,” by Frank Ferry, certainly adds credibility to the punch line. This “real story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss” takes us back to the early part of the 20th century, when city potentates ran roughshod over anyone who got in their way, including federal officials. They handpicked their political leaders by rigging elections, controlled business owners through “protection” schemes and placated the average citizen with free-flowing booze.
   And no one did it with more finesse than Enoch L. (Nucky) Johnson (1883-1968). You may be familiar with the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” loosely based on his life. While it’s a great series, television producers rarely stick to the actual facts. In addition to changing Nucky’s last name, their portrayal of his personal life is total hogwash. Plus, a major character who met a nasty death on screen, actually died in his sleep. But that’s show biz! Ferry’s account straightens all that out, as he tells the story of the dapper man who helped to turn a backwater swamp into what became known as “The World’s Famous Playground.”
   Although the heart of this story centers on the Roaring Twenties, Ferry also gives us a concise history of South Jersey, starting with the Lenni-Lenape Indians who lived off the bounty of the sea and the resources of the Pine Barrens. By 1854, Richard B. Osborne, “a young engineer,” designed a railroad line from Camden to Atlantic City. While wars and economic recessions slowed its success, by the early 1900s, it annually transported more than 300,000 “Shoobies” from Philadelphia to the shore. For the cost of a railroad ticket, Shoobies, who carried their lunch in a shoebox, could enjoy a day at the beach and return home the same evening. Unfortunately, this added little revenue to the city’s coffers.
   Atlantic City desperately needed a hook to get the hordes of tourists to part with their cash. The Boardwalk, originally built to keep visitors from tracking sand into local businesses, became home to numerous food stalls, carnival booths, side shows and gambling halls. Yet the city’s “glory days” would not come to fruition for another 20 years.
   After World War I, Europe lay in ruin, physically and economically. While America, with its manpower and industrial might, suddenly found itself front and center on the world’s stage. But none of that mattered to the average American with money in their pockets — “let the good times roll” became the national battle cry. A night on the town included all things people enjoy today: movies, shows, gambling, dinner and dancing, accompanied by a copious amount of alcohol. Occasionally, the “Volstead Act,” better known as “Prohibition,” put a damper on the celebrations.
   But as the Feds said no to alcohol, city bosses nationwide found a multitude of ways to circumvent the law, creating an environment wherein politicians united with criminals to keep their constituents satisfied. With Atlantic City leading the way, shore communities up and down the East Coast served as ports-of-call for liquor shipments from Canada, Mexico and Europe. After coming ashore, the booze was distributed through networks controlled by a number of well-known thugs, including Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, John Torrio, Al Capone and Nucky Johnson.
   While Nucky was smart enough to keep his role in the distribution chain somewhat under wraps, all that changed in 1929. Sick of losing money and men to other crime bosses who were stepping on his turf, he hosted “the first national crime convention.” He wined and dined the infamous lot at his hotels, brothels and gambling parlors; while attempting to convince them that the “bloodshed associated with prohibition was bad for business.” His efforts were successful. The crime syndicate bosses drew boundaries, ensuring each continued to rake in the booty, without infringing on each other’s territories. As journalists converged on the Boardwalk to cover the event, photographs of Nucky and Al Capone “out on the town” appeared in all the national papers.
   However, bootlegging only provided a part of Nucky’s wealth and power. As children, he and his brother, Alfred, watched their father use his position as sheriff of Mays Landing County to gain both. Learning their lessons well, the two brothers served as sheriff and undersheriff of Atlantic County, alternating positions for over two decades. But Nucky’s political power base truly became “a force to be reckoned with” when he became chairman of the South Jersey Republican Party. The position was previously held by his friend and mentor, Louis Kuehnle, “The Commodore,” who received a five-year prison sentence for election fraud.
   That didn’t deter Nucky from continuing to pay his employees to “vote early and vote often.” Nor did it stop the dead from rising every four years to cast their ballots. But as Ferry’s history reveals, these practices were not limited to Atlantic City. Read about the Democratic stronghold in Kansas that received notoriety after 67 ballots were attributed to one small farmhouse.
   Nucky used a carrot-and-stick approach to maintain his power base. After becoming Atlantic County treasurer, he controlled all building contracts. Developers in the county who didn’t line Nucky’s pockets –- didn’t work. The same was true for all business owners. Yet, in spite of his reign of corruption, Nucky was considered to be “a saint among men,” especially in the African-American community.
   As Ferry explains, before the late 1930s, no social programs existed. When seasonal jobs ended, everyone was left to fend for themselves, without the aid of food stamps or unemployment benefits. By mid-winter, the poorer communities in Atlantic City were left in dire straits, until Nucky invented his own social welfare system. He provided his employees with a small stipend to get them through the winter months. He had loads of coal dumped in poorer neighborhoods so people could heat their homes, and paid the medical expenses of his loyal employees.
   In addition, when Nucky built the Atlantic City Convention Center, the Steel Pier and a string of other complexes, he employed African-Americans in better paying occupations not open to them in the rest of the country. In return, he demanded their support at the ballot box. Perhaps the only difference between Nucky and today’s politicians, who are voted into office based on their promises, is that Nucky actually kept his promises. Unfortunately, he also pounced on those who didn’t go along with his agenda.
   For numerous decades, Nucky was the dandy of the Boardwalk, until finally convicted of tax evasion in 1941. Even after that, locals fondly recalled a time when Nucky added glitz to Atlantic City, bringing in Hollywood stars to perform at the convention center. They were joined by senators, presidential candidates and members of the underworld, who came to stroll the Boardwalk right alongside the working class.
   Read “Nucky,” then ask yourself, given the time and environment, was he a politician or a criminal?
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