Prohibition’s Legend: Enoch “Nucky” Johnson


To many people in the 1920’s, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was the man who ran Atlantic City with a velvet fist, the Jazz Age Titan and the undisputed “boss” of the political machine. Today, Boardwalk Empire fans identify Johnson with television persona, Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. The HBO series inspiration came from New Jersey Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson’s meticulously researched book, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. Nelson focused on the legendary, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson because of his flamboyant and vibrant nature. Nelson summed up his focus on Enoch, “He’s such a colorful character. He’s got different women whenever he wants them. He’s driven around in a Rolls-Royce. He takes a whole trainload of people to the World Series. He takes a trainload of people up to a Broadway play for the weekend. I mean, who the hell lives this way?”

Enoch Johnson and Steve BuscemiHe lived large, eating, drinking and socializing at Atlantic City’s abundant nightclubs and restaurants on a nightly basis. Obviously, the real Nucky knew how to live a lavish, unruly lifestyle and promote his beloved adult playground at the same time. His outgoing and forceful personality (The real “Nucky” stood at a commanding 6’1” and 230 pounds), unlike Buscemi’s quirky interpretation, led to unofficially running the Republican political machine from the 1910s to 1930s. And luckily for Atlantic City and its residents, Johnson reached his power pinnacle during Prohibition in America (1919-1933). Through Johnson’s increasing power, the national alcohol ban was successfully ignored in Atlantic City. As a result, the city’s popularity grew, attracting gangsters and tourists, alike.

Enoch Johnson and Lucky LucianoNucky’s power and popularity growth attracted the underworld gang leaders to his “Boardwalk Empire”, seeing usefulness in the combination. Leading the town with fear and charm, Nucky’s Atlantic City bootlegging ports were one of the most profitable in America. Gangsters took advantage of the bootlegging industry and Nucky’s focus, finding their organized crime services useful for the large demand of alcohol. Gang leaders, like Lucky Luicano, Arnold Rothstein and Danny Walsh, flooded to Nucky’s retreat in 1929, when he held the first national organized crime convention. From the power-driven gathering, the gang leaders formed an alliance, calling themselves “Big Seven Group” or “Combined Group”. The group served as a new era of alliances, severing ties with their predecessors,
who didn’t capitalize on the bootlegging business.

Enoch Johnson out on the townTourism boomed because it was the first time that Atlantic City was known as a year-round venue, rather than a summer resort. The change from the seasonal to the year-round economy lifted a huge burden from business owners and employees. In fact, the availability of alcohol and increased tourism made Atlantic City a top-notch scene for holding conventions, giving reason for the construction of Atlantic City’s first convention hall. At the time, Atlantic City Convention Hall was considered in demand with state-of-the-art features, including the world’s largest pipe organ, and a distinctive view of the ocean, championing over the competition. Since its inception, the center has been used for the Miss America pageant, political conventions, sporting events and music concerts, attracting various demographics to the area.

When Johnson was asked about Atlantic City by reporters, he proudly stated, “We have whisky, 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 would not exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.” Johnson capitalized on the underground economy, taking percentages from bootlegging transfers, gambling and prostitution. He pumped the money back into the Atlantic City economy, treating guests to free shows, drinks and food, enhancing their experience. Nucky Johnson knew how to capitalize on the Prohibition, attracting fellow gangsters and eager tourists. Without Prohibition, Nucky would have been a powerful political boss, but not the celebrated character of Atlantic City’s Prohibition, that lives through books, television and oral history. Prohibition made the man a legend and he made a whole new world of Prohibition.

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