Above, Nucky Johnson (second from right) walks with Al Capone (third from right) and other mobsters in Atlantic City in 1929. Public Domain photo.
If you’ve ever spent much time in or around Atlantic City, you know it as a place that can be difficult to define. Between its history, the modern city, and seemingly constant economic ups and downs, the city never seems to have fully figured itself out. Then, when you throw in fictional accounts and pop culture depictions, an element of something close to fantasy gets added to it all.
To expound on that last point, a lot of people today might hear “Atlantic City” and think first of the show Boardwalk Empire. This was very popular HBO drama that ran from 2010 to 2014, and revolved around a fictionalize version of the prohibition-era bootlegging mob in the city. The show established a whole new vision of Atlantic City, based on facts but also thoroughly embellished. And along the way, lead actor Steve Buscemi won a Golden Globe for his depiction of larger-than-life crime lord and city influencer Nucky Thompson.
The partial fantasy of the Nucky Thompson era can actually be somewhat refreshing. Even if there’s an antihero aspect to the character and the show is filled with bad deeds and shady characters, it takes the focus away from the most common modern impression of Atlantic City – that of a failed casino Mecca-turned-ghost town – and instead introduces what, in the context of history, is just an interesting snapshot of a weird, rollicking, exciting era. Nevertheless, it’s also worth considering who the real Nucky Thompson was.
He was in fact Nucky Johnson, or Enoch L. Johnson, a New Jersey native born in 1883 who would go on to become a racketeer, a multi-faceted businessman, and – for a short time – the Sheriff of Atlantic County.
The true history of Nucky Johnson almost reads like something preordained, which is to say this history is almost a perfect fantasy in and of itself. He essentially stepped into a powerful role in town – a role vacated by his own father – and became part of an unofficial, enterprise-based ruling class. Though he was only Sheriff of Atlantic County for some three years (from 1908 until 1911), and he was never explicitly in charge of Atlantic City, Johnson was largely in control of the area. From an official political standpoint, his influence came in the form of a leadership role with a major Republican organization in town – from which he’s said to have influenced the campaigns of even statewide and national politicians. More broadly though, Johnson’s power came from his willingness to exploit Atlantic City’s overt embrace of illicit entertainment.
There’s some complexity to it, and you can read innumerable accounts of Atlantic City’s history in entertainment across the web. To sum it up though, the city’s unofficial ruling class welcomed practices like gambling, alcohol consumption (during prohibition), and prostitution, all with the aim of appealing to tourists and generating a thriving local economy. In a sense, then, Johnson’s mob-like role in the city’s economy was encouraged by others with influence. Ultimately, however, he was guilty of racketeering, and gained a reputation as something of a crime lord when, in a different light or with a different turn of events, he might have simply been a businessman, albeit a sketchy one. Now, Johnson has his own page at the “Mob Museum,” which gives you some insight as to how he’s remembered.
The real reason this memory is interesting, particularly as opposed to the Boardwalk Empire version, is that Johnson’s era remains quite clearly foundational to the Atlantic City we know today. While the show can be discounted as fiction (even if it’s largely based in reality), the true story of Johnson’s reign in Atlantic City sheds light on the very fabric of the town, and leads to a better understanding of why it is how it is today (despite the fact that illegal alcohol sales and prostitution are no longer part of the game, so to speak).
Even today, Atlantic City is on the cusp of pushing entertainment and industries that aren’t necessarily legal everywhere else. When New Jersey fought and defeated a federal ban on sports betting way back in 1992, it became the first place in the U.S. outside of Nevada to allow such activity. This helped to bring about a sort of resurgent casino resort culture in Atlantic City, which is still active today.
Now, Atlantic City is once again at the forefront of related movements, in new ways. For one thing, the city (and really New Jersey as a whole) has been among the leaders in welcoming online casino gaming to the U.S. It’s something that’s rampant overseas, but which is only just being fully realized as a massive economic opportunity in parts of America. And at the same time, the sports betting scene in Atlantic City’s casinos is being held up as a model all over again, as newer legislation is bringing about more widespread legalization
This may not all be as exciting as Atlantic City’s bizarre prohibition era glory days, and it’s certainly not worthy of an HBO drama. In a way though, it all presents the idea that Nucky Johnson, in a sense, won. Atlantic City’s resort economy has risen and fallen over the years, and the specifics of it all have changed. But by helping to establish Atlantic City as a place that would openly push boundaries in the name of entertainment, Johnson paved the way – for better or worse – for the city we see today.