Enoch "Nucky" Johnson -- Political Boss of Atlantic City
Vol. 6, No. 4, April 2009, AC History
The Rise and Fall of Nucky Johnson
By David Schwartz
The Casino Connection
Thu, Mar 26, 2009
Atlantic City's colorful political boss practiced selective law enforcement -- and for many years, it worked.
Nucky Johnson was born in Smithville in 1883, the son of a farmer who became Atlantic County sheriff and a political power in the then-dominant local Republican Party. Nucky, a member of the '00 graduating class of Atlantic City High School, was elected to the office of sheriff himself in 1908.
The position, as Johnson re-interpreted it, involved more than simple law enforcement. In fact, much of Johnson's success -- and his wealth -- came because he knew when not to enforce the law. Under his watch, gamblers and prostitutes openly plied their wares -- provided, of course, that they returned a fair share of their earnings to Johnson and his associates.
With his financial base secure, Johnson worked his way to the top of the local political pecking order, securing himself a place on the Republican County Committee, where he could maintain firm discipline within his party. Not even the election of Woodrow Wilson, a reform-minded Democratic governor, could derail Johnson's rise to the top.
In 1914, after Wilson had left the New Jersey governor's mansion for the White House, Johnson was appointed county treasurer. Officially, he was in charge of the county's finances, but in fact he entrusted the actual business to underlings.
After weathering reformer Wilson, Johnson enjoyed the boon of a quixotic national drive for progress, Prohibition. In 1923, he made a deal with New York underworld boss Lucky Luciano: in exchange for 10 percent of Luciano's syndicate, Johnson would guarantee protection for bootlegged liquor that landed in Atlantic City.
Ten percent of an entire mob's take was huge, but it was a good deal for Luciano, particularly since Johnson agreed to allow him exclusivity. While Luciano could land cargo at will and be assured that it would arrive at its destination, his competitors were sure of only one thing: if they tried to work in Nucky Johnson's fiefdom, they'd be mercilessly targeted by the local police.
The cash coming in from Luciano's enterprises only bolstered Johnson's political power. At the height of Prohibition, he was making more than a half million a year from vice alone. As Prohibition continued, he became the undisputed king of Atlantic City, a man whose influence stretched to the statehouse and beyond.
In those years, Johnson leased an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel. He held court on the Boardwalk, where he dispensed business advice, political favors and charity (Johnson was known for his generosity). At night, dressed in one of his 100 tailored suits, he'd make the rounds of the city's nightclubs and gambling spots.
Johnson even became a fixture in Manhattan's star-struck nightlife, where he gained a reputation as one of the hardest-partying men who'd ever done the town. He dated showgirls, befriended celebrities, and had front-row seats for the biggest sporting events of the era.
The political boss could enjoy himself so thoroughly after dark because he took care of business during the day. He developed a finely honed political organization that had a single aim: the promotion of Atlantic City as a tourist destination. In order to do that, Johnson had to remain in power, which required both money and votes. He ensured that there was never a shortage of either for him and his associates, and he personally hired public workers in the county, choosing those whose loyalty was guaranteed.
But the good times couldn't last forever. Prohibition ended in 1933, and by 1936 the federal government had begun investigating Johnson's empire. With an army of loyal followers obstructing agents at every turn, the investigation did not go smoothly, but in 1939 a federal grand jury indicted Johnson. The case finally went to trial in 1941. All of Johnson's power was for naught, as he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Released after four years, Johnson refused to return to power, content to merely advise the city's new power brokers. In 1968, in a Northfield nursing home, Johnson died at the age of 85. His death, coming at the nadir of Atlantic City's reputation as a tourist town, emphasized the end of an era.
Copied from online article at http://casinoconnectionac.com/issue/april__2009/article/the_rise_and_fall_of_nucky_johnson.
David G. Schwartz (www.dieiscast.com), an Atlantic City native, is the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV and the author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling.
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