Enoch L. Johnson - better known as "Nucky Johnson" and called "Nucky Thompson" in the "Boardwalk Empire" series - was born in 1883. When Nucky was a baby, Atlantic City had already been transformed from an offshore island, plagued by mosquitoes and greenhead flies, into a Boardwalk-dominated resort town.
During the early 20th Century, Atlantic City's Boardwalk was extremely popular - especially on Easter Sundays (when people, showing-off their spring finery, literally mobbed the place). A photograph, taken on an Easter Sunday in 1905, reveals what it was like to be part of the Boardwalk's crush of wall-to-wall people.
During Prohibition - when the U.S. Congress outlawed the making, selling, transporting and consuming of alcoholic beverages - people in Atlantic City routinely disregarded the law. To use the words of U.S. Treasury agents, Nucky Johnson became "the virtual dictator" of Atlantic City because he protected those engaged in the business of (among other things) illegal, intoxicating liquor. And what a good business it was.
Although agents of the federal government tried to enforce Prohibition, people who wanted a glass (or more) of liquor routinely found ways to disregard the law. Atlantic City was in a prime location to receive alcoholic beverages which were shipped from Canada and Scotland.
Speedboats, known as rumrunners, met the cargo-laden ships offshore, then ferried the outlawed, offloaded liquor to places like Atlantic City. Nucky - the man who always wore a fresh, red carnation in his lapel - was at the hub of a lucrative, illegal transportation network. As Jonathan Van Meter tells us, in his book The Last Good Time:
Atlantic City had become the headquarters for the nation's most notorious rumrunners. Rum Row, some thirty miles offshore, supplied the entire country with its hard liquor . . . In and around Atlantic City, a fleet of trucks would pick up the liquor from wherever it came ashore and haul it to the distribution warehouses. (The Last Good Time, page 49.)
"Rum Row" was reportedly started by William S. McCoy - "the real McCoy" - who made incredible sums of money transporting illegal liquor on his ships. (See "Rum War," an official U.S. Coast Guard Report, at pages 13-14.)
Nucky had a saying about why he, and others, were in the business they were in:
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. (Nucky Johnson, quoted by Jon Blackwell in Notorious New Jersey, at page 186.)
One of the people with whom Nucky did business was Arnold ("A.R.") Rothstein. Notorious for many reasons, including allegedly "fixing" the outcome of the 1919 World Series, Rothstein - also known as "The Brain" - was the inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim (a character created by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby).
Later, after Prohibition was over and liquor was no longer illegal in America, U.S. Treasury agents learned that Atlantic City's activities weren't just protected by Nucky Johnson:
The Treasury agents quickly realized that local law enforcement "not only were well aware of these conditions but actively regulated, protected and at times even assisted these rackets" and that this fact was "well known" to the public, who "understood" that the racketeers were paying for protection.
Based on hearsay, they determined that the horse rooms [for gambling] had to cough up $160 a week, while numbers banks [for more gambling] paid $100 a week..."It was also 'understood' by the public," reported the agents, "that none of this graft went to the police officials themselves. Everyone 'knew' it went to 'Nuck' Johnson." (Quoted by Jonathan Van Meter in The Last Good Time, at page 61.)
People will sometimes do, in other words, what people want to do - even when the law requires otherwise. Nucky Johnson, who was the boss of Atlantic City for thirty years, built an empire based on that fact. And ... as long as Prohibition was in force ... his wealth continued to grow.
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