Prohibition-era political boss Enoch L. “Nucky” Johnson ran Atlantic City for almost 30 years in the early 1900s.
From its small beginnings, Atlantic City grew into a popular seaside resort known as The World’s Playground under Johnson’s rule.
It was a true tourist destination with booze, prostitution and gambling as the main attractions, and since Johnson made most of his massive $500,000 annual income from kickbacks on it all, he would have to be considered one of New Jersey’s most notorious gamblers.
Rise to power
Johnson gained control of the Atlantic City and Atlantic County governments in 1911, after rising to power over the local Republican party. He knew the city’s tourist-based economy could only succeed by giving visitors everything they wanted, and at the time, that meant alcohol, prostitutes and the ability to make a bet.
Johnson first thumbed his nose at the state’s Sunday liquor laws, making sure Atlantic City proprietors served booze seven days a week. When the federal prohibition on alcohol came into effect in 1920, he thumbed his nose at that as well.
Prohibition? What prohibition?
For the next 13 years, until the prohibition was lifted, it was largely ignored in Atlantic City, with Johnson making sure nobody who served alcohol, ran a brothel, or was the proprietor of a gambling den was ever bothered. As long as he got his cut.
Johnson took a piece of it all, made sure everyone was happy, and wasn’t exactly quiet about it either, letting everyone who would listen know just what they would find on a trip to Atlantic City.
“We have whiskey, wine, women, song and slot machines,” Johnson was once quoted claiming. “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 would not exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.”
Under Johnson’s rule, illegal casino and bookmaking operations, slot machines, and numbers rackets were everywhere in Atlantic City, and again, he took his share of any profits.
Johnson’s wife died in 1912 and after that, he ruled over Atlantic City at night, drinking, gambling and carrying on with showgirls. He wore tailored suits with a red carnation in the lapel and was as popular as he was powerful. He was also a man of the people, taking care of issues for everyone he met.
Through the Roaring 20’s, he was Atlantic City’s favorite son and shared a drink and a card game with everyone from local politicians to mobsters. He ran the cops and kept violent crime at a bare minimum. He was untouchable.
In 1929, when New York gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano wanted to hold a sit down with other crime figures from around the country, he chose Atlantic City as the place to do it, and Johnson as host.
Even Al Capone showed up to take part in the conference and enjoyed being a guest of Johnson’s.
In 1933, President Franklin D Roosevelt repealed prohibition and alcohol became available across the rest of the country as well. Tourism in Atlantic City fell off and when the Great Depression began, it nosedived.
Johnson reportedly made the mistake of competing for a woman with newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst. Hearst newspapers ran a few stories on all the prostitution and gambling going on in Atlantic City and the FBI soon swooped in.
The party comes to an end
By 1941 it was all over. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to ten years in federal prison on tax evasion charges. He was released on parole after four years, but never gained any kind of political power again. Atlantic City didn’t recover for decades. Tourism continued to decline and crime rates went through the roof.
Johnson and the Atlantic City of his time were immortalized in the 2010 HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The show ran for five seasons and featured actor Steve Buscemi starring as a fictionalized character based on Johnson.
Johnson died in 1968, before casino gaming became legal and Atlantic City became even close to a shade what it once was, but he will always be remembered as one of New Jersey’s most notorious gamblers.
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