During the Roaring Twenties, Enoch Lewis “Nucky” Johnson was an Atlantic City, New Jersey political boss and racketeer from 1911 through 1941. His ingenious but ruthless tactics working the area bootlegging and prostitution rings along with help from some of prominent gangsters of the day, provided him unprecedented riches and made Atlantic City the pinnacle of tourist destinations. His life and times have been documented in the HBO Series, Boardwalk Empire.
The Birth of Atlantic City
In South Jersey, perched on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, existed a swath of island land that builders recognized as a prime development opportunity. Atlantic City was incorporated in 1854 and railroad service from Philadelphia was built to provide a lifeline to one of the largest metropolitan areas on the planet. Recognizing the opportunity to build the area into a tourist destination, developers built the first boardwalk on the shores of the Atlantic in 1870, to help hotel owners keep the sand out of their lobbies. The boardwalk was much talked about and its popularity promoted extensions to the walk. Prior to 1944 when the boardwalk was wiped out by a hurricane, it extended 7 miles.
Hotels sprouted up and down the coast with mammoth structures such as the United States hotel and the Surf House, gained reputations as two of the largest and most luxurious hotels in the country. On Wednesday, June 16, 1880, Atlantic City officially opened for business. The first pier, Ocean Pier, was opened in 1882 and the infamous Steel Pier (located next to Trump Taj mahal) was constructed in 1898. By this time, well known hotels such as the Brighton, Chelsea, Shelburne, Ambassador, Ritz Carlton, Mayflower, and Madison House, were household names. As the Roaring Twenties came full swing, Atlantic City was primed and ready to become the nation’s premiere destination for adult entertainment – the “World’s Playground”. And Enoch Lewis “Nucky” Johnson was ready to take Atlantic City to the next level.
Enoch Nucky Johnson Takes Over
Nucky, whose nickname was derived from his first name, Enoch (a name he was never fond of), began public service in 1905 as the undersheriff to his father, Smith Johnson. Smith, who had avoided legal restrictions which prohibited a sheriff from succeeding himself by rotating between Sheriff and Undersheriff for two decades, ensured his son’s election as sheriff went without a hitch. By 1909, Nucky, whose flamboyance and good nature ensured a successful political future, became the secretary of the Atlantic City Republican Executive committee, a very important position. Two years later his father was ousted from the sheriff position by a court order.
In 1911, a stroke of luck pushed Nucky even higher up the political ladder. Local political boss Louis Kuehnle was imprisoned for corruption related charges and was forced to vacate his leadership position in the Republican political organization that controlled the Atlantic City governments. Nucky immediately succeeded him as leader and with that appointment, gained virtual control of the city. The following year, his wife Mabel died. Johnson, who up until that time had been a teetotaler, slipped into the trenches of alcohol.
Give Tourist What They Want
Even as early as 1912, Atlantic City leaders operated under a business plan that presumed to give tourists and visitors what they wanted, regardless of the law. Gambling, alcohol, and prostitution, a “vice industry”, were allowed without reserve in order to fulfill tourist demands. One of Nucky Johnson’s first item on the agenda was to permit drinking on Sundays (which at the time was prohibited by New Jersey law). In return, he demanded payment of protection money from the vice industry operators. Vice industry operators, including many gangsters from nearby New York City, gladly paid and operated their illegal businesses under the watchful eye of Atlantic City government. In addition to lavish payments, Nucky began to gain popularity and notoriety from the local residents.
As Nucky’s power grew, he took various positions at local businesses. During his reign over the Atlantic City Republican Party, Nucky held positions as county treasurer (where he controlled the county’s purse strings), county collector, publisher of a newspaper, bank director, and president of a building and loan company. His popularity promoted cries from the public to run for state senate positions but he politely declined. As New Jersey’s most powerful Republican, he did however, play a role in the election of several Governors and United States Senators, whom presumably repaid the favor by turning a blind eye to Nucky’s questionable Atlantic City endeavors.
In 1916, Nucky served as the campaign manager for Republican candidate Walter Edge during his run for the Governor office. Nucky, who knew the Democrat boss sorely disliked their candidate for Governor, struck a deal with the Democrat party leader and engineered Edge’s election. In a unprecedented maneuver, all members of the state’s Democrat party, turned their votes to the Republican candidate. After his election, Edge returned the favor by promoting Nucky Johnson to the clerk of the State Supreme Court. By 1919, when Prohibition became law, Nucky’s control over Atlantic City could not be eclipsed.
Prohibition Provides Unique Opportunities
Prohibition provided a unique money making opportunity for Nucky Johnson and served to accelerate his meteoric rise to power. Prohibition in Atlantic City was unenforced. In addition, Nucky demanded a percentage of every alcohol sale in the city. In addition, he tied in cuts from gambling and prostitution industries as part of the deal.
Nucky proudly proclaimed, “We have whiskey, wine, women, song and slot machines. I won’t deny it and I won’t apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn’t want them they wouldn’t be profitable and they wouldn’t exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.”
During Prohibition’s 1919 through 1933 run, Nucky Johnson’s income from vice exceeded $500,000 a year (millions in today’s dollars). He rode in a chauffeur-driven, $14,000 powder blue limousine, and wore expensive clothes, including a $1,200 raccoon coat. His personal trademark was a red carnation, fresh daily, worn in his lapel. Nucky lived on the 9th floor of the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel, located on the Boardwalk. In this pleasure palace, Nucky threw lavish parties and came to be known as the Czar of the Ritz. A veritable Robin Hood, Nucky freely gave to those in need, and was widely beloved by local citizens, among whom his benevolence and generosity were legendary. Johnson once explained that “when I lived well, everybody lived well.”
The availability of alcohol during Prohibition, made Atlantic City the nation’s premier location for holding conventions. In an effort to promote a 12-month convention cycle (Atlantic City is very cold in the winter and tourists thin out during that time), Nucky Johnson directed the construction of the Atlantic City Convention Hall. Work began in 1926 and it opened in May 1929. The state-of-the-art convention building contained what was then the largest room with an unobstructed view in history.
The Seven Group (or Big Seven or Combine)
Under Nucky Johnson, Atlantic City was one of the leading ports for importing bootleg liquor and in 1927, he agreed to participate in a loose organization of other bootleggers and racketeers along the east cost known as the Big Seven or Seven Group or Combine. He was the host of the Atlantic City Conference in 1929, a meeting of national organized crime leaders, including Al Capone. The Seven Group, was a criminal organization lead by east coast organized crime leaders and served as the predecessor to the National Crime Syndicate which rose to power in the 1930’s.
The Seven Group came to power as a result of rampant gang wars that erupted during Prohibition as gangs fought for control of the alcohol industry. Recognizing that everyone was losing lives and money during these gang wars, the group formed to ensure cooperation amongst the various gangs and to collude on the pricing of illegal alcohol so that everyone paid the same price and nobody controlled an overly large percentage of the market. Members of the coalition included Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Abner “Longy” Zwillman of New Jersy, Moe Dalitz of Cleveland, Waxey Gordon and “Nig” Rosen of Philadelphia, Johnny Torrio, Charles “King” Solomon of Boston, and Danny Walsh of Providence, New Jersey. Even Al Capone colluded with the organization although his North Side wars prevented him from officially entering the group.
Enoch “Nucky” Johnson’s Luck Begins to Run Out
By the 1930’s, as Prohibition neared its end, Nucky’s luck began to run out. William Randolph Hearst, the famous publisher of the New York Evening Journal, took an unliking to Nucky after Nucky hit on Hearst’s date during an Atlantic City visit. As a result, Hearst ensured Nucky’s name was consistently mentioned in newspaper articles about the vice industry in Atlantic City. This resulted in increased scrutiny by the Federal government (and some claim that Hearst also lobbied the Roosevelt administration too). In 1933, a property lien was filed against Nucky Johnson for additional taxes he owed on income earned in 1927. During this same year, Prohibition was repealed and an important source of income for Nucky suddenly dried up.
On May 10, 1939 Nucky Johnson was indicted for evading taxes on about $125,000 in income he received from numbers operators during 1935, 1936 and 1937. A two week trial concluded in July 1941, and Johnson was convicted. He was sentenced to ten years in federal prison and fined $20,000. On August 1, 1941 Johnson, then fifty-eight years of age, married Florence “Floss” Osbeck, a beautiful former showgirl who was thirty-three years old, to whom he had been engaged for three years. Ten days later, on August 11, 1941, Johnson entered Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.
Johnson was paroled on August 15, 1945, and took a pauper’s oath to avoid paying the $20,000 fine. After his release from prison, Johnson lived with his wife and brother in a house owned by relatives of his wife on South Elberon Avenue, Atlantic City. There was speculation that he would seek elective office, but he never did. Instead, he worked in sales for the Richfield Oil Company. During these years, Johnson and his wife would sometimes attend local political dinners or rallies, where they would be seated at the head table. He continued to dress impeccably, including a red carnation in his lapel.
Johnson died on December 9, 1968 at the Atlantic County Convalescent Home in Northfield, New Jersey. According to the Atlantic City Press, 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. Nucky had the reputation of being a gargantuan trencherman, a hard drinker, a Herculean lover, an epicure, a sybaritic fancier of luxuries and all good things in life.”