Who Was The Real Enoch L. Johnson?

It looks like HBO has added yet another hit original series to their already stellar line-up. We’re talking about Boardwalk Empire here, the highly anticipated drama, written by Sopranos alum Terry Winter, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who also directed the pilot, and based on the book by Nelson Johnson. The pilot had a remarkable 4.8 million viewers, the highest premiere for HBO since 2004’s Deadwood. Which means one thing. It’s already been renewed for a second season.

If you missed the pilot, than you better get around to watching it. So far, the show has fulfilled expectations. How could it not? Another gangster series with gratuitous sex and violence. Yeah. It’s awesome. It follows the exploits of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Mr. Pink Steve Buscemi, during Prohibition era Atlantic City, the original Sin City. Since the announcement of the series, to it’s success after airing, I’ve been wondering about this guy Nucky who transformed Atlantic City into “The World’s Play Ground”.

Yes, he was an actual person, however, his name was Enoch L. Johnson. He was born on January 20, 1883 in Smithville, NJ. He graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1900, and within eight years, became the sheriff of Atlantic City, a position his father held quite powerfully. By 1911 he succeeded Louis Kuehnle as the head of the Republican political organization, after Kuehnle was convicted of corruption and imprisoned. Throughout Johnson’s thirty year rule, he held the position of county treasurer, county collector, publisher of a newspaper, bank director, president of a building and loan company and director of a Philly brewing company at various times, which he could use to pull strings. Johnson, as well as all of the city leaders, knew what tourists wanted, vices, like gambling, sex and alcohol. They allowed it, which made Atlantic City the tourist destination in the States, and also helped them gain wealth by accepting kickbacks.

Nucky wasn’t always the partying ladies’ man, despite being emerged in the decadence of Atlantic City. He wasn’t much of drinker and was happily married to his high school sweetheart Mabel Jeffries. After his wife’s death in 1912, Nucky finally submerged himself in the debauchery that the city had to offer.

When Prohibition was enacted in 1919, it was probably the best thing to happen to New Jersey until the arrival of Bruce Springsteen. Johnson ensured that the survival of Atlantic City would continue to thrive on it’s vice industry, making plenty of people wealthier than they ever imagined. In 1923, he struck a deal with Lucky Luciano. Johnson would take in ten percent of Luciano’s syndicate in exchange for protection of the bootlegged alcohol that arrived in Atlantic City. By 1929, the city was such a hot spot that the earliest organized crime summit was held there, which became known as the Atlantic City Conference. Was it a coincidence that in the same year the Atlantic City Convention Hall was built? At the time, it was the world’s largest clear span space. Remarkably, it still stands and has been renamed Boardwalk Hall.

At one point, Nucky was raking in more than a half million dollars.The entire ninth floor of the Ritz Carlton was his, which he used for business, advice, and enjoying the company of women, we’re talking about a lot of women. In fact, he became known as “The Czar of the Ritz”. He rode around in a chauffeur-driven powder blue limo, that cost a cool $14,000. He had a hundred tailored suits, and, even a $1,200 raccoon coat. When he wasn’t enjoying the Atlantic City nightlife, he was up in Manhattan partying with celebrities and sitting front row for the era’s best sporting events.

While he enjoyed his wealth, Johnson was known for his charity. He once said, “when I lived well, everyone lived well.” If you saw the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, you’ll recall the battered wife Margaret Schroeder asking Nucky for some money. That really occurred, although he never had her husband killed, Johnson would never stoop that low. Because of his generosity, he was beloved in Atlantic City. To the public, he wasn’t a crook or a thug. He was their hero.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. In 1933 Prohibition came to a halt, which meant the decline of Nucky, and Atlantic City. Three years later the government began investigating Johnson. He was indicted in 1939, but only after some of his loyalists derailed agents during their investigation. The case against Nucky went to trial in 1941, and he was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison for tax evasion. However, he was paroled on August 15, 1945, serving only four years of his sentence.

Nucky Johnson never returned to politics after his release from prison, although he continued to campaign for candidates because of his strong popularity. He remarried, and earned a living in sales for the Richfield Oil Company and the Renault Winery. On December 9, 1968, at the age of eighty-five, Johnson died in the Atlantic County Convalescent Home in Northfield, New Jersey. The Atlantic City Press honored Johnson by saying that he “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 gargantuan trencherman, a hard drinker, a Herculean lover, an epicure, a sybaritic fancier of luxuries and all good things in life.”

With Johnson’s reign lasting the entire length of Prohibition, there’s more than enough material for Boardwalk Empire to have a very long run. Let’s hope that the quality of the show maintains, because I want to see more this Nucky fellow. A guy so awesome that a paper eulogized him as a “Herculean lover”.

Leave a Comment