Skip to main content

Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, And Corruption of Atlantic City


Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, And Corruption of Atlantic City

When HBO wanted to develop a crime series with the unenviable
task of following “The Sopranos,” they turned to Martin
Scorsese to produce it. The great director chose to base the show
on a history book by Nelson Johnson, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, first
published in 2002 and now re-released in paperback. The cable
drama, starring Steve Buscemi, is shooting this fall in New York
and will air next year, with Scorsese directing the pilot.

When people hear the name “Atlantic City,” they most
likely think of gambling and casinos. But probably not many know
that it was the birthplace of the American Mafia. On the Boardwalk
today is a picture of a smiling Big Al Capone in a snazzy one-piece
bathing suit on one of its historical markers. Few cities can boast
of that. In just 30 years of the 19th century, Atlantic City went
from being a 10-mile strip of sand dunes to a city based entirely
upon two things: tourism and vice.

Nelson Johnson, a New Jersey politician and judge, decided to
write the hidden history of Atlantic City; the result is this
fascinating and meticulously researched book. Decades-long visitors
to the resort like myself, as well as first-time travelers, will
find it a good read. He based BOARDWALK EMPIRE on an amazing fact.
For the first 70 years of the 20th century, Atlantic City was
controlled by just three political bosses who were also, for lack
of a better term, gangsters: Louis “the Commodore”
Kuehnle, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (no relation to the
author) and Frank “Hap” Farley.

We have often heard of how gangsters historically corrupt
elected officials and the police with bribes and payoffs. Atlantic
City was different, though, because the gangsters and the
Republican Party was one and the same organization. Atlantic City
was a one-party city for decades. And here’s the really odd
thing: the vast majority of the public did not seem to mind because
the Republican ward system was effective not only in turning out
votes, but also in meeting the needs of the people. Nucky fed the
poor. Eventually, the corrupt Republican leaders of the city would
dominate and control the entire state of New Jersey.

Johnson takes us back to the earliest days of the resort, when
it was filled with more flies and mosquitoes than people. A local
doctor named Jonathan Pitney wanted to make some money, so he
thought of creating a “health” resort on Abescon Island
in the middle of the 19th century. Resorts of any kind were unheard
of then, but Cape May, New Jersey, became the nation’s first,
catering to rich people. By 1870, a rail line linked Philadelphia,
the nearest metropolitan area, to the island; Pitney’s dream
came true, just not the way he expected it.

Atlantic City became the first resort that viewed working class
people, mostly from Philly in need of a little diversion after a
six-day work week in the factories, as vacationers. The booming
resort sought to give the workers what they wanted, which could be
summed up in three words: booze, gambling and sex. Atlantic City
was born.

The only business on the tiny island was tourism, and the
cardinal rule was that the tourists had to go home happy so they
would return with their cash the following season. Johnson quotes a
local man who said it best: “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.”

By the 1890s, a Philadelphia newspaper identified 100 brothels
on the island, but the cops looked the other way. As long as the
payoffs were made to the local Republican machine, racketeers could
operate in the open, which is amazing considering that this was
Victorian America. Hookers and illegal casinos, and selling booze
on Sundays (also unlawful at the time), were vital parts of the
town’s economy. When a reformist governor threatened to send
the state militia in to clean up Atlantic City, boss
“Commodore” Kuehnle reassured the local merchants.
Johnson writes, “…If the governor did send down the
militia, then Kuehnle would have the local whores greet them at the

Finally, a way to end war! Of course the militia never arrived,
but then America went totally insane after World War I and passed
the 19th Amendment prohibiting alcohol. This ushered in the glory
years of Atlantic City, which already had seen the rise of huge
Beaux Art and architecturally beautiful hotels that lined the
Boardwalk like giant sand castles. “Prohibition didn’t
happen in Atlantic City,” according to one expert. There was
no need for speakeasies, booze was sold openly, and the famous
beach became a major trafficking route for East Coast

At this time, Atlantic City was ruled by its most flamboyant
“decadent monarch” in the person of Enoch
“Nucky” Johnson. The author writes, “In his
prime, he strode the Boardwalk in evening clothes complete with
spats, patent leather shoes, a walking stick, and a red carnation
in his lapel. Nucky rode around town in a chauffer-driven, powder
blue Rolls Royce limousine…had a retinue of servants to
satisfy his every want, and an untaxed income of more than $500,000
a year.” He was also a virtual underboss of the Lucky
Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel New York crime family, the
founding fathers of the Mafia. When, in May 1929, organized crime
groups from around the country decided to meet to create a
nationwide “syndicate” and divide up the turf, there
was no question where they were going to hold their meeting.
Atlantic City was a wide-open town for gangsters, and Nucky was the
perfect host, both gracious and generous.

The repeal of Prohibition and the changing American leisure and
travel patterns after World War II sent Atlantic City into a long
period of decline. And in reading these pages, Johnson’s
narrative achieves a bit of a wistful feel. I was reminded of the
great Louis Malle 1980 film, Atlantic City, which captured
perfectly that time. Burt Lancaster’s character says at one
point, “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back
then.” But still, the graft, corruption and one-party rule
continued unabated until 1971, by which time the once famous resort
had nearly become a crumbling ruin.

Johnson takes his history straight through the battle to pass
legalized gambling in Atlantic City during the late 1970s and the
early decades of the casinos. He is firm in his belief that not
only did gambling save the resort from certain death, but it has
the potential to make Atlantic City great again. Some might argue
this, pointing out that the resort might have been built on a vice,
but it is still depending upon a vice to survive. Legalized
gambling has hardly been the panacea that proponents promised. Some
of the meanest streets of America in terms of poverty can be found
just blocks from the casinos. And at night, hookers, another part
of the resort’s heritage, ply their trades on those sometimes
dangerous streets, often within sight of the glittering neon

Modern-day Atlantic City is filled with ironies like that and
ghosts galore. Existing like an afterthought within the shadow of a
huge casino tower is the Ritz Hotel, now a condo, which was once
the most exclusive spot on the Boardwalk. Nucky, who at one time
ruled Atlantic City from the entire ninth floor of the Ritz, would
be happy to see the huge casino next door, but extremely
disappointed that he was not getting his share of the take.

Nelson Johnson has written a valuable history in BOARDWALK
EMPIRE. Reading this book will be good background until we find out
what Steve Buscemi does with the role of Nucky Johnson.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 22, 2010

Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, And Corruption of Atlantic City
by Nelson Johnson

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2009
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Plexus Publishing, Inc.
  • ISBN-10: 0966674855
  • ISBN-13: 9780966674859