Book Review – Boardwalk Empire

          After watching the HBO program “Boardwalk Empire Season One” on Netflix (4 disks – 12 episodes), I decided to purchase the book “Boardwalk Empire,” written by Nelson Johnson, on which the HBO program was based. Whereas, the TV program concentrates on Enoch “Nucky” Johnson’s control of Atlantic City in the Roaring Twenties, the book gives a much more comprehensive look at Atlantic City; from its creation in the  1850’s, up until the publication date of the book, which was published in 2002. Donald Trump’s attempted takeover of Atlantic City’s gambling interests are highlighted here too.

In the early 1800s, Atlantic City, originally called Absecon Island, was nothing but swamps and weeds on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean. However, Dr. Jonathan Pitney saw potential in the tiny island; as a vacation spot for the not-so-rich – people who couldn’t afford the tony beach resorts that dotted the Jersey shore from Philadelphia to central New Jersey.

Pitney started his quest to build his dream resort – his “city by the sea” – in the 1830’s. However, since Absecon Island was reachable only by boat, and horse and wagon, it wasn’t until 1851, that Pitney convinced the Jersey state legislature to construct a railroad from the mainland to his new city, which he christened “Atlantic City.” As soon as the railroad was completed, Atlantic City started teeming with tourists, but only in the warm summer months – from mid- May to mid-October. Still, that was enough time for the entrepreneurs who set up shop in Atlantic City to make enough cash to support them through the frigid fall and winter months.

By 1890, Atlantic City was known as “Philadelphia’s Playground,” and raking in tons of cash for its businesses. But it was ripe for a corrupt takeover, and that takeover arrived in the name of Louis Kuehnle, known as “The Commodore.” Kuehnle owned Kuehnle Hotel, where he presided over the Republican Party’s interests with an iron fist covered by a velvet glove.

Kuehnle got kickbacks from everyone and everything in Atlantic City. Gamblers, bars, restaurants and even brothel’s kicked into Kuehnle’s coffers. Soon Kuehnle had interests in the Atlantic City Gas company, and the Central Passenger Railroad Company, which transported passengers into Atlantic City.

However, the reformists in the state of New Jersey, led by moderate Governor Woodrow Wilson (who later became President of the United States), finally got the goods on Kuehnle. Kuehnle was tried and convicted of corruption, and sentenced to one year of hard labor.

However, the Republican Party barely missed a beat. Kuehnle’s place was taken by former Atlantic City Sheriff Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, and Johnson transformed Kuehnle’s crude corruption machine into a fine art form.

Johnson ran Atlantic City like a well-oiled machine – raking in cash with both hands – until he was taken down by the reformers in the New Jersey Congress. Johnson’s reign lasted until 1941, when he was tried and convicted of corruption, and sentenced to four years in the slammer.

The rest of “Boardwalk Empire” illuminates how the corruption in Atlantic City continued under New Jersey States Senator “Frank “Hap” Farley for more than 30 years, until Farley was booted out of office by his disgruntled constituents in 1974.

For those people who are looking to read a book that resembles the HBO program “Broadwalk Empire,” you might be a tad bit disappointed. Less than 25 % of the book deals with Nucky Johnson and most of that takes place in the 1930’s; whereas the TV program concentrates on Johnson’s exploits in the Roaring Twenties.

Nevertheless, “Boardwalk Empire” is a must-read for those who like a peek into the inner workings of the corrupt government that thrived in Atlantic City for the major part of the 20th Century.

The book “Boardwalk Empire” is a great read and highly recommended, as is the television program of the same name; but for entirely different reasons.




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