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
Atlantic City didn't become America's playground overnight. It was built up over many decades through the hard work of countless men and women -- some unknown, some famous, and some infamous. One of the best-known and most influential was Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, who put his own stamp on the city during what was arguably its most successful era.

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.

Boardwalk Empire -- The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City
BOARDWALK EMPIRE, A BOOK BY NELSON JOHNSON, IS THE TRUE STORY INSPIRING AN UPCOMING 2010 HBO SERIES -- NOW IN PRODUCTION, THE SERIES FEATURES A PILOT WRITTEN BY TERENCE WINTER AND DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE. A bustling little city by the seashore, totally dependent upon money spent by tourists, Atlantic City's popularity rose in the early 20th century and peaked during Prohibition. The resort's singular purpose of providing a good time to its visitors -- whether lawful or not -- demanded a single mentality to rule the town. Success of the local economy was the only ideology, and critics and do-gooders weren't tolerated. By 1900, a political juggernaut, funded by payoffs from gambling rooms, bars, and brothels, was firmly entrenched. For the next 70 years, Atlantic City was dominated by a partnership comprised of local politicians and racketeers. This unique alliance reached full bloom in the person of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson -- the second of three bosses to head the Republican machine that dominated city politics and society. In Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Johnson, Louis "the Commodore" Kuehnle, Frank "Hap" Farley, and Atlantic City itself spring to life in all their garish splendor. Author Nelson Johnson traces "AC" from its humble beginnings as Jonathan Pitney's seaside health resort, through the notorious backroom politics and power struggles, to the city's astonishing rebirth as an entertainment and gambling mecca where anything goes. Boardwalk Empire is a colorful, irresistible history of a unique city and culture. Here is proof positive that truth is stranger -- and more compelling -- than fiction.

Chance of a Lifetime
Also, a book about Nucky, written by a Mobster's wife, is Chance of a Lifetime: Nucky Johnson, Skinny D'Amato, and How Atlantic City Became the Naughty Queen of Resorts, by Grace Anselmo D'Amato. It is a personal history of Atlantic City during its heyday as the nation's center of popular entertainment, and focuses on the decades before and after World War II, when celebrities and tourists flocked to "America's Playground" -- and political corruption, illegal gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution were all sanctioned as part of the Atlantic City experience. Beginning with the early attractions of the resort, then exploring the power base of political boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, and later Paul "Skinny" D'Amato and his famed 500 Club -- a venue that encapsulated everything good, bad, and fun about the resort town -- we are given a nostalgic tour of the "good-bad old days." This intimate account is told by insider Grace Anselmo D'Amato, whose husband managed the 500 Club for his brother Skinny. The book includes a foreword by the renowned Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi, who experienced the 500 Club at its height in the 1950s as a teenager. With an extensive private collection of celebrity, 500 Club, and historic Atlantic City images, Chance of a Lifetime is lavishly illustrated with 178 photographs specially printed on 96 gallery pages -- with additional images throughout the text. Note: Mention of the Miss America Pageant is minimal: pages 35 and 49, plus a mention of Margaret Gorman (Miss America 1921) on page 59 and Lee Meriwether (Miss America 1955) on page 182. There is no mention of Marion Bergeron. Harry Bacharach is mention on page 62 only. There is no mention of Armand Nichols or Russell Patterson.