The Czar of the Ritz: Nucky Johnson

If the people who came to town had wanted Bible readings, we’d have given ’em that. But nobody ever asked for Bible readings. They wanted booze, broads, and gambling, so that’s what we gave ’em.  Local Attorney Murray Fredericks on the success of Atlantic City

[Johnson] was born to rule: He had flair, flamboyance, was politically amoral and ruthless, and had an eidetic memory for faces and names, and a natural gift of command … [Johnson] had the reputation of being a trencherman, a hard drinker, a Herculean lover, an epicure, a sybaritic fancier of luxuries and all good things in life. Nucky Johnson’s obituary, Atlantic City Press, December 10, 1968

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A few weeks back I did a piece praising the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. In it I mentioned that the central character was based on a real historical figure Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. In the series they changed the surname to Thompson. This was probably a good idea as it gave them more artistic license. I love the TV series and I think Steve Buscemi is wonderful in the central role, but I wanted to know more about the real man.

To this end I recently read Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson (no relation to Nucky). The book looks at Atlantic City from its foundation in the 1850s to the arrival of Donald Trump in the 1980s. The star of the book is undoubtedly Johnson, the man who ran the city for almost three decades. The Czar of the Ritz would stroll along the boardwalk a dapper figure in an elegant 3-piece suit, a red carnation in his lapel, spats on his feet and a walking stick in hand. He was chauffeured around town in a powder blue limousine. He lived in a luxury suite at the Ritz hotel, but also maintained several residences. His largesse was legendary. He was a party animal who loved to host lavish bashes. He had enough servants and people willing to do his bidding to make even Lord and Lady Grantham feel envious. Who was this charismatic leader and how he was able to remain in power for three decades?

Enoch Lewis Johnson was born on January 20, 1883, in Galloway Township, New Jersey. His nickname “Nucky” is a derivation of Enoch. Johnson, who had a booming voice, was a tall, bespectacled, physically imposing man, standing one metre ninety-three and weighing more than a hundred kilos. If you have seen the HBO series, you will realise that the two Nuckys are very different.

In 1906 Nucky married his teenage sweetheart, Mabel Jeffries. Two years later he was elected Sheriff of Atlantic County when his father’s term expired. During his term as sheriff he was indicted for election fraud, but was acquitted and became a local hero and a rising political star. Then tragedy struck in 1912 when Mabel died.

With Mabel’s death, Nucky focussed all his energies on politics. He went from the sheriff’s office to the Republican Party machine. In 1911, local political boss Louis “the Commodore” Kuehnle had been convicted of electoral fraud and imprisoned, and Nucky Johnson stepped up as leader of the Republican political organization that controlled Atlantic City. He became secretary to the Republican County Committee. He may not have a salary, but it was the secretary who called meetings, established the agenda, and made decided on who was eligible to participate in the organization. Nucky was then appointed county treasurer, which may not sound particularly glamorous, but it gave him access to a lot of dough. As well as the money, he was responsible for selecting of candidates. Nucky had inherited from the Commodore a system that was working. But he was able to perfect it. A brilliant organiser and a cunning strategist, he had an acute sense of what made humans tick.

Nucky would remain county treasurer for the next 30 years. Like the Commodore he never actually sought election while he was boss. He believed that a boss should never be a candidate – running for election was beneath their dignity. Instead he would be a power broker. The Republicans had dominated Atlantic City since the end of the Civil War. Its hierarchy was based on the four voting wards of Atlantic City, which were where the party was able to crank out the votes that kept the Republicans permanently in power.

Nucky learnt another lesson from the Commodore – the poor also voted, and if you took care of them, you could count on their votes. In a time when there were no welfare provisions, he was their benefactor. Just like today’s Republican Party really! During the long winter he would see to it that people were tided over until the tourist season. A generous tipper, he even courted children, future voters. He was also loved by Atlantic City’s black population, who lived in the Northside district. He “owned” the poor vote and he could count on their presence at the polling station, sometimes more than once.  Nucky was a master in providing the large turnouts needed to produce the “right” election results.

Nucky knew that it was necessary to control the flow of money to the candidates. If you had a continuous flow of cash, you could make sure that reformers wouldn’t win. Under Nucky protection money paid by Atlantic City’s racketeers became a major source of revenue for the business of politics. These payments weren’t voluntary. If you didn’t pay up, he would shut you down.

The defenestration of the Commodore had shown Nucky that it wasn’t sufficient to be a local boss – he needed to be a force in the state of New Jersey. In 1916 he was Republican Walter Edge’s campaign manager in the latter’s run for governor. As well as raising money for Edge, Nucky began an unofficial alliance with Democrat boss Frank Hague. They struck a deal in which Edge effectively ceded North Jersey to Hague in return for keeping South Jersey for himself. When Edge became governor he rewarded Nucky by appointing him clerk of the State Supreme Court.

The system in Atlantic City was all-encompassing. You had to be on the right side of the party if you wanted to work in local government. Under a practice known as “macing”, city and county workers had to pay between 1% and 7% of their salary to the local Republican Party, if they wanted to keep their jobs.  He took an interest in everyone on the public payroll, personally interviewing and approving every person hired. Thus he established a personal link with them and they felt loyalty towards him.  Nucky also controlled every contract for public construction jobs and other tenders. But above all he controlled the police. They were his own personal force, vital for the protection of Atlantic City’s rackets and the collection of the payoffs from bars, gambling rooms, and whorehouses.

The most inaccurate part of the TV depiction of Atlantic City is the overplaying of the violence. Nucky never needed to be violent with adversaries. He worked by using the Republican Party machine to systematically destroy those that caused him trouble. The strength of the machine was so overwhelming that, if you crossed him, you would lose your government job, have your license revoked or see your business close because the customers would suddenly decide to go elsewhere.  Neither Nucky nor his followers are known to have ever had anyone killed or physically harmed. Not having to resort to violence, now that is real power. As Nelson Johnson put it – buck Nucky Johnson and you lost your livelihood, but not your life.

It was vice that made Nucky and Atlantic City so successful. The booze, broads, and gambling that the tourists demanded were what drove the local economy. Reformers or critics of the status quo were bad for business and couldn’t be allowed to prevail. There was only one ideology – economic success.  Nucky was a consummate politician who understood that what he had to deliver to maintain Republican Party hegemony. The way to achieve growth was through the protected violation of vice laws.

Early in his reign Nucky received a gift from heaven the nineteenth amendment and the Vorstead Act. Prohibition was good to Atlantic City – and to Nucky; it reduced the general availability of alcohol while greatly increasing the money available for political corruption and organized crime. It was party time and “America‘s favourite playground” knew how to give its visitors a good time. The liquor flowed and the party seemed as though it would go on forever. The real business of Atlantic City’s boss was protection money from the local rackets. He claimed a yearly salary of $36,000 – $6,000 as Republican county treasurer, and $30,000 a year in unspecified commissions. In fact, Nucky was raking in more than $500,000 a year as his share of the profits from Atlantic City’s vice industry. He got “tribute” of $6 per case on all alcohol brought into Atlantic City during Prohibition, “inspection fees” paid by brothel owners, “wire service charges” paid by horse race betting rooms, and a percentage of the profits from all the other gambling that was going on.

This was the period of the rise of the gangsters Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Johnny Torrio. Indeed, Atlantic City was chosen as the venue for the first meeting of the first nationwide crime syndicate. It was the logical choice; Nucky’s town was the envy of other mobsters. Here the rackets were immune from the police and the courts. In May 1929 the meeting took place. Long, black limousines carrying mobsters arrived in town from all over the country. They knew they would not be hassled and they would be able to experience Nucky’s legendary hospitality. The meeting marked the creation of the first nationwide criminal syndicate.

But the golden age was coming to an end. Less than six months after the meeting the stock market crashed, setting off the Great Depression. Illicit businesses were still thriving, but the hotels, restaurants and shops suffered. Then in 1933 Prohibition was repealed, which eliminated a source of income for Nucky and his machine. The final blow for Nucky came on May 10, 1939 when he was indicted for evading taxes between 1935 and 1937. In July 1941, after a two-week trial, Nucky was found guilty, and sentenced to ten years in federal prison and fined $20,000. On August 1, 1941, Nucky, now 58, remarried. His second wife was 33-year old Florence “Flossie” Osbeck, a former showgirl from Philadelphia, who had been his fiancée for three years. Ten days after the wedding Nucky entered Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Never again would Nucky reign over Atlantic City.

Nucky was paroled on August 15, 1945 and after his release lived with his wife and brother in Atlantic City. He did not seek public office instead working in sales for the Richfield Oil Company He continued to dress impeccably, including the trademark red carnation in his lapel. His popularity was undiminished and he used it to support his successor Frank S. Farley, who would also control the city for thirty years. Nucky’s health gradually deteriorated. His final days were spent drinking whiskey and talking about the glory days with his former cronies, who would pay him regular visits. On December 9, 1968, Nucky died at the age of 85; he is said to have had a smile on his face.

So there we have the singular life of Enoch Lewis Johnson. I have to admit I have an unhealthy fascination with the world of party machines, graft, gerrymandering, ballot-stuffing, kickbacks, bribes, extortion and the like. It would be comforting to see Nucky Johnson as a product of another time and place. And that is undoubtedly true. However, pick up any newspaper today and you will see that political corruption is still with us and is unlikely to go away any time soon.

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