Nelson Johnson, a New Jersey politician and judge, first became interested in the history of Atlantic City while serving as an attorney for the resort’s Planning Board in the early 1980s.  The result is this fascinating and meticulously researched book, which covers the history of Atlantic City from its inception as a resort for working-class vacationers in the mid-1800s, to a city where Prohibition was never observed, and finally to the legalized gambling resort city of today.   Atlantic City is unique in the United States due to the fact that, for the first 70 years of the 20th century, it was controlled by just three political bosses who were also gangsters:  Louis “the Commodore” Kuehnle, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (no relation to the author) and Frank “Hap” Farley.

Nowadays, we are no longer surprised to hear of gangsters (and lobbyists) corrupting elected officials with bribes and payoffs.  Atlantic City was different in that the gangsters and the Republican Party were one and the same organization. Atlantic City was a one-party city for decades. The vast majority of the city’s population did not seem to mind because the Republican ward system was effective not only in turning out votes, but also in meeting the needs of the people.   Eventually, the corrupt Republican leaders of the city would control the entire state of New Jersey.

Johnson takes us back to the earliest days of the resort, when it was filled with more flies and mosquitoes than people.  The brainchild of local doctor Jonathan Pitney , who realized he could make more money in real estate than in practicing medicine,  Atlantic City was first planned as a health resort on Abescon Island in the 1850s.  By 1870, a rail line linked Philadelphia to the island; Pitney’s dream came true, but not as he had foreseen it.

Atlantic City became the first resort that viewed working class people, mostly from Philadelphia, in need of diversion after a six-day work week in the factories, as vacationers.     Johnson quotes a local man who said it best:  “If the people who came to town had wanted Bible readings, we’d have given ’em that. But nobody ever asked for Bible readings.  They wanted booze, broads and gambling, so that’s what we gave ’em.”

With the passage of the 19th Amendment prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol,  Atlantic City benefitted handsomely, in  that alcohol was sold openly,  and the famous beach became a major route for East Coast contraband liquor.

The repeal of Prohibition and changes in how Americans traveled and where they vacationed after World War II sent Atlantic City into a long period of decline.  Nonetheless,  graft, corruption and one-party rule continued unabated until 1971, by which time the Atlantic City had nearly become a crumbling ruin.

Johnson takes his history through the battle to pass legalized gambling in Atlantic City during the late 1970s and the early decades of the casinos.  He believes that not only did gambling save the resort from certain death, but it has the potential to make Atlantic City great again. Many would disagree with this assessment, pointing out that the resort is still depending upon a vice to survive, and that many inhabitants still live in poverty.  

I’d recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the history of organized crime and gambling in the United States.  I found it fascinating and occasionally humorous reading.   It’s no wonder that HBO and director Martin Scorsese took this book as the inspiration for a television series. 

Boardwalk empire : the birth, high times, and corruption of Atlantic City / Nelson Johnson ; foreword by Terence Winter                                                                                     974.985 JOHNSON

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