Enoch Malachi 'Nucky' Thompson is a fictional character and the protagonist of the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire, portrayed by Steve Buscemi.Nucky is loosely based on former Atlantic City, New Jersey political figure Enoch Lewis 'Nucky' Johnson. Nucky is employed as treasurer of Atlantic County, but in effect controls the region as a political boss.He is a corrupt and powerful politician who. A real house-haunting, broom-riding, cauldron-stirring witch.” —Samantha in Bewitched. These are the best-selling books behind your favorite TV shows. Rd.com, Getty Images, via amazon.com. Being a huge fan of the 'Boardwalk Empire' I had to read about the real Nucky Johnson. I enjoyed the real antics and foibles of Enoch Johnson. I knew instinctively that many of the TV show' s stories were fabrications or outlandish embellishments of possible true events. For one, the Commodore of the TV show, Louis Buehle in real life, died. Set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the Prohibition era, the series stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson (based on the historical Enoch L. Johnson), a political figure who rose to prominence and controlled Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the Prohibition period of the 1920s and 1930s.
Nucky Johnson ran Atlantic City in the early 20th century, bringing it from an average tourist town to the site of America's illicit indulgence.
Atlantic City rose to popularity by being “The World’s Playground” in the early 20th century. During the Prohibition era, prostitution, gambling, alcohol, and any and all other vices could be readily found in the New Jersey coastal town — provided guests had the money to pay for them.
It was famously understood that Prohibition never really made it to Atlantic City. Nucky Johnson was the man responsible for building the vice industry whose legacy is still very much alive in Atlantic City even today.
Born Enoch Lewis Johnson on January 20, 1883, Nucky Johnson was the son of Smith E. Johnson, an elected Sheriff, first of Atlantic County, New Jersey, and then of Mays Landing, where the family relocated after his three-year term ended. At the age of nineteen, Johnson decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, first becoming the undersheriff of Mays Landing, eventually succeeding him as the elected Sheriff of Atlantic County in 1908.
Shortly after, he was appointed to the position of Atlantic County Republican Executive committee secretary. After his boss, Louis Kuehnle, was imprisoned for corruption, Johnson took over as the head of the organization.
Nucky Johnson and Al Capone on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Although he never ran for an elected political office, Nucky Johnson’s money and city government influence meant he held a lot of sway in Atlantic City politics. His power was so great that he was even able to convince Democratic political boss Frank Hague to abandon Otto Wittpenn, the Democratic candidate, and throw his support behind Republican candidate Walter Edge in the 1916 election.
He later took a position as county treasurer, which granted him unparalleled access to the city’s funds. He began to grow the city’s vice tourism industry, promoting prostitution and permitting the service of alcohol on Sundays, all the while accepting kickbacks and corrupted government contracts that substantially grew his own coffers.
By 1919, Johnson was already relying heavily on prostitution and gambling to drive the Atlantic City economy – making himself very rich in the process – but when Prohibition hit, Johnson saw an opportunity for Atlantic City and himself.
Atlantic City rapidly became the main port for importing bootlegged alcohol. Prepaid card for online gambling. Johnson hosted and organized the historic Atlantic City Conference in the spring of 1929, where organized crime leaders, including notorious crime boss Al Capone and Bugs Moran, coordinated a way to consolidate the movement alcohol through Atlantic City and down the East Coast, marking an end to the violent Bootleg Wars.
In addition, the free-flowing alcohol attracted even more tourists, making Atlantic City a popular convention destination. That prompted Johnson to build a brand new, state of the art convention hall. Johnson took a cut of every illegal activity that took place in Atlantic City and when Prohibition finally ended in 1933, Johnson was estimated to be making over $500,000 a year ($7 million today) from illicit activities.
FlickrNucky Johnson and Steve Buscemi, who portrays him on Boardwalk Empire.
However, the end of Prohibition brought new troubles for Johnson: Bootlegged alcohol, Atlantic City’s biggest source of wealth, was no longer necessary, and Johnson was facing intense scrutiny from the federal government. Johnson was always expensively dressed with his signature fresh red carnation always on his lapel, and his lavish parties, limousines, and other flamboyant displays of wealth drew attention.
He was not particularly shy about hiding how he had made his wealth, openly saying that Atlantic City had “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 would not exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.”
In 1939, he was indicted for income tax evasion and was sentenced to ten years in federal prison along with a fine of $20,000. He served only four of those ten years before being paroled and avoided ever paying the fine by taking a pauper’s plea. He lived out the rest of his life in peace and died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 85.
Nucky Johnson remains an American icon, instrumental to the creation of Atlantic City. Like most icons, his story has been retold and exaggerated through various fictional portrayals, most famously as the character Nucky Thompson is based on in the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
However, the show takes several liberties, making Thompson a violent and competitive bootlegger who murdered others who interfered with his business.
In real life, despite his great wealth, illegal deals, and associations with shady characters, Nucky Johnson was never known to have killed anyone. Instead, he was well-liked by the public, generous with his wealth and so well-respected that he never needed to exert violence in order to build his empire in Atlantic City.
After learning about Nucky Johnson, check out the true story of the mobsters behind Goodfellas. Then, check out these female gangsters who clawed their way to the top.
The acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire began with the enactment of Prohibition in 1920 and followed the efforts of political boss Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) to keep the liquor flowing through the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition ended in 1933, but how did the Boardwalk Empire characters end? Spoilers ahead.
“‘He’s the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.’ It never occurred to me that one man could play with the faith of fifty million people—with the singlemindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” Rothstein was the professional gambler who was the basis for Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He had built his reputation through gambling, and he used his business acumen to tutor up-and-coming gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. In the late 1920s, he branched out from gambling and bootlegging into narcotics. At the end of a poker game that lasted for days in September 1928, Rothstein owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was slow to pay up. On November 4, the game’s organizer, George McManus, summoned Rothstein to his hotel room. Rothstein left the hotel with a bullet in his stomach; he died 2 days later. Supposedly Rothstein had bet $500,000 that Herbert Hoover would be elected president on that day, and had he lived, he could have paid his debt. McManus was acquitted of Rothstein’s murder.
Joe Masseria emigrated from Sicily to New York in 1903, and by the early 1920s he had risen to the head of the Morello gang. In 1930, he went to war against Salvatore Maranzano. The Castellammare War (named after Maranzano’s birthplace of Castellammare del Golfo) lasted into 1931 and claimed the lives of over 60 people on both sides. In early 1931, Maranzano was winning the war, and Masseria’s lieutenant, Lucky Luciano, made overtures to Maranzano. Luciano agreed to kill Masseria to end the war. On April 15, 1931, at a Brooklyn restaurant, Luciano excused himself from dinner with Masseria to go to the restroom. Bugsy Siegel, Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis, and Albert Anastasia then entered the restaurant and killed Masseria. Maranzano had won, but his victory was short-lived. On September 10, Luciano had him murdered.
Boardwalk Empire’s formidable and fearsome Dr. Valentine Narcisse (played by Jeffrey Wright) is loosely based on Casper Holstein, who was one of the chief runners of policy, an illegal lottery, in Harlem. Holstein was born in Christiansted, St. Croix, in what was then the Danish-held Virgin Islands in 1877. He immigrated to New York with his mother in 1885. After high school, he joined the Navy. He served as a mess attendant, which was the only Navy position then open to African Americans. After the Navy, he was a porter for a stock-broking firm on Wall Street, where it is believed that he learned the financial knowledge that made him successful. Around 1920, he became involved in policy and quickly became one of the most successful figures in that racket. During the 1920s, he was also renowned for his philanthropy. He sponsored the literary prizes awarded by Opportunity magazine; winners included young Harlem Renaissance writers Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. He was lavish in his charity to the poor and a staunch supporter of the Urban League and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (and even wrote articles about the US administration of the Virgin Islands for Garvey’s newspaper Negro World). In September 1928, Holstein was kidnapped by white gangsters and held for ransom. The case attracted wide media attention. Holstein was released after three days. He did not identify his kidnappers, but he began to withdraw from policy, and in the early 1930s, Dutch Schultz’s organization assumed control of policy. In 1936, Holstein was convicted of running a policy racket in 1936 and was imprisoned for a year. Broke, he died at a friend’s home in New York on April 5, 1944.
Capone had grown up in New York and joined Johnny Torrio’s gang at a young age. In 1919, Capone joined Torrio in Chicago, and after Torrio’s retirement in 1925, he became ruler of Chicago crime and was estimated to be worth $100 million at the peak of his power. He also became a media figure and famously said, “When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.” In October 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion. He was imprisoned in Atlanta and, after 1934, in Alcatraz. However, he had syphilis and the mental deterioration of the disease’s late stages began during his confinement. He was released in 1939 and spent the last years of his life at his home on Palm Island in Florida. He died on January 25, 1947.
Like Capone, Siegel also grew up in New York, and at the age of 12 began a lifelong partnership with the 16-year-old Meyer Lansky. Siegel’s penchant for action, while sometimes verging on impulsiveness, was a complement to Lansky’s more analytical temperament. Siegel was sent to Los Angeles in 1937, where he took control of the rackets. He became a man with a dream, and that dream was to build a casino and hotel in the growing town of Las Vegas, Nevada. Construction began on the Flamingo, Vegas’s first big casino/hotel, in 1945, and it opened in March 1947. However, Siegel and his girlfriend Virginia Hill had skimmed millions of mob money off the construction budget. On June 20, 1947, Siegel was gunned down by a hail of bullets shot through his living room window. It is not definitively known who ordered his death. However, as Siegel lay dying, three Lansky henchmen entered the Flamingo and declared that the east coast syndicate was taking over.
Torrio rose through the ranks of the New York rackets and was called to Chicago in 1909 to operate Big Jim Colosimo’s brothels. Torrio’s young lieutenant, Al Capone, moved west in 1919, and the next year, either he or Frankie Yale killed Colosimo. Torrio then became head of Colosimo’s operation just in time to benefit from the arrival of Prohibition. On January 24, 1925, he was shot several times outside his home by Bugs Moran and Hymie Weiss, associates of the deceased Dion O’Bannion whom Torrio and Capone had killed the previous year for his reckless troublemaking. Torrio survived and went on to serve several months in prison. (He had been set up by O’Bannion in May 1924 while buying an illegal brewery from him.) While in jail, he bequeathed Chicago to Capone and said he would retire to Italy. He did retire for three years but returned to New York to work with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and became something of an elder statesman in the mob. He was convicted of tax evasion in 1939 and served two years in prison. Eventually, he left organized crime for real estate. On April 16, 1957, he had a heart attack while sitting in a barber’s chair and died later that day. His funeral was attended by few. He had become so obscure that his death was not reported in the newspapers for three weeks, and that was only because his will was probated.
Luciano was involved in crime from an early age. He was already involved in mugging, shoplifting, and extortion at the age of 10. He came to be called “Lucky” for his success at both gambling and avoiding arrest. He joined Joe Masseria’s gang in 1920 and became his second-in-command in 1925. However, fed up with the senseless Castellammare War, he had both leaders, Masseria and Maranzano, killed in 1931 and thus became the top gangster in New York. Prosecutor Thomas Dewey singled out Luciano as a target, and Luciano went to prison in 1936 for 30-to-50 years, for running a prostitution ring. However, he still exerted tremendous influence over the mob, and in particular, activities on the New York waterfront. During World War II, U.S. Naval Intelligence enlisted Luciano and his organization to forestall possible sabotage to Allied shipping. For his cooperation, Dewey, who had become New York’s governor, commuted his sentence in 1946 and deported him to Italy. Luciano then spent a brief period in Cuba, but returned to Italy where he remained in charge of the mob’s drug trafficking into the U.S. He died of a heart attack in the Naples airport on January 26, 1962.
Fictionalized as Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, Johnson cut a far different figure from the slender actor, Steve Buscemi, who portrayed him. Almost a prototypical corrupt, jovial politician, Johnson was well over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, and regularly strolled the Boardwalk of Atlantic City, the city he ruled. Johnson had followed his father, sheriff Smith Johnson, in the family business of politics. He did not hold elected office; he was county treasurer, an appointed position, but after becoming boss of Atlantic City in 1913, he used the machinery of government to bring crime under his control as well. Prohibition was not enforced under his rule. “We have whiskey, wine, women, song, and slot machines,” he said. “I won’t deny it, and I won’t apologize for it.” In 1936, the IRS began investigating Johnson, but it was not until 1941 that they nabbed him for tax evasion. He served four years in prison. He did not return to politics and was a salesman for an oil company. He died on December 9, 1968, at a retirement home in Northfield, New Jersey.
Of all the miscreants in this list, Lansky was by far the most successful. He and his parents emigrated from Russia to the land of opportunity in 1911. Lansky and his associate Bugsy Siegel rose from craps and stealing cars to the top of the New York mob. In 1936, he branched into gambling in New Orleans, Florida, and Cuba; he later bankrolled Siegel’s construction of the Flamingo in Las Vegas. After Castro rose to power in 1959, Lansky moved his Cuban operations to the Bahamas. He controlled an empire of illegal and legal businesses worth $300 million. He fled to Israel in 1970 to avoid a grand jury and tax evasion charges but was expelled by that country. Back in the US, he was convicted of grand jury contempt, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Partly because of his ill health, other indictments against him were abandoned. He was fictionalized as Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in The Godfather Part II (1974). He died of lung cancer in Miami Beach on January 15, 1983.