Nucky – The Real Nucky Johnson and his Lucky Irish Brick
By William Kelly
Nucky and Nucky
HBO Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson
The Real Enoch Nucky Johnson
There’s Nucky Johnson and Nucky Thompson. Enoch “Nucky” Johnson is the once and legendary political boss of Atlantic City.
Then there’s his alter-ego - Nucky Thompson, also known as Steve Buscemi, the star of HBO’s popular cable TV series “Boardwalk Empire,” who effectively portrays a Hollywood impersonation of Nucky Johnson.
They are both always dapperly dressed, both wear red carnations in their lapels, and both wine and dine their way through the Roaring ‘20s and prohibition era without missing a beat, or a drink, but as is brought out in Frank Ferry’s biography “Nucky – The Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss” (ComteQ, 2012), their characters are vastly different.
Whereas TV’s Nucky Thompson is a greedy conniver and ruthless killer, the real Nucky Johnson was a kind and benevolent dictator who reined supreme not by muscle and violence, but by being convincingly persuasive and generous. He ruled by consensus, took care of his constituents’ basic needs and constructed the basic social service infrastructure that is still used in Atlantic City today.
HBO’s Nucky Thompson is a creature of screenwriter Terrence Winter and co-producer and director Martin Scorsese, a character based loosely on the real Nucky Johnson, as portrayed in Judge Nelson Johnson’s book “Boardwalk Empire,” (Plexus 2002), a non-fiction historical account of the three political bosses who ran Atlantic City for the last century – Admiral Kuehnle, Nucky Johnson and Hap Farley. But Terrence Winter took the Nucky character and ran with it, while Scorsese sauced it up a bit. With Scorsese having done “Goodfellas” and Winter writing “The Sopranos,” you knew the HBO production would be a good mix of them both, and it is. But it bears little resemblance to the real Nucky Johnson and how he came to build the Boardwalk Empire.
Frank Ferry, a local attorney who knew Johnson as a neighbor and client, sets the record straight, and gives us not only a more accurate portrait of Nucky the man, but also sets the local scene – Old Atlantic City as it was, rather than how Hollywood reflects it on the tube.
The real Nucky was a lover not a fighter. He was a Piney, a Jersey Pine Barons hillbilly who was an expert shot with a Kentucky long rifle, drank moonshine whiskey and enjoyed bluegrass fiddle music. When his father was elected Sheriff of Atlantic County in 1887 the Johnsons moved to Mays Landing, the county seat, courthouse and jail. As Mays Landing also had a shipbuilding, maritime and fishing industry, Nucky got to know a number of sea captains who sailed the last of the old schooners, especially Captain Shepherd Hudson.
As Ferry tells the story, “When the school day ended, Nucky often perched himself on the wrap-around porch of a Victorian home, waiting with his schoolmates for the captain/father to come home. When a captain strolled in the door, Nucky asked him about his world travels, the people he met, and the countries he explored.”
Nucky’s favorite Captain Shepherd Hudson, when not sailing around the world, was a Republican state Assemblyman (1889) who may have sparked Nucky’s interest in politics.
Nucky’s Lucky Irish Brick
Frank Ferry tells the story of Nucky’s Irish brick: “One afternoon when he was sitting on his friend’s porch, Nucky saw Hudson walking toward the house from the water’s edge carrying a handmade wire clam basket filled with bricks caked with Great Egg Harbor riverbed mud. When the captain reached the steps, Nucky asked him jokingly, ‘How long do you have to cook those bricks before you can eat them, Captain?’”
“The captain stopped and countered Nucky’s joke with a tale that would hold dear for the rest of his life. These were ‘Irish bricks,’ for good luck, according to the captain. He explained that as ships left Ireland without a full cargo to keep the ship stable, some of them needed ballast in the hull to keep the ship steady while the vessel crossed the rough Atlantic. So the industrious Irish merchants in the foundries sold their defective bricks to the ship owners. The defective bricks had split when they were baked in high heat because they contained too much clay, but they were put to good use.”
“When ships from the Old Sod arrived in America and sailed up the Great Egg Harbor River to pick up cargo in Mays Landing, they didn’t need the Irish bricks as ballast anymore, so they dumped them along the river’s edge into the salt marshes. Legend has it that every Irish brick that is recovered brings seven years of good luck. With six bricks weighing down the wire clam basket, the captain said he was now carrying 42 years of good luck, which was more than he needed at his age. He reached into the basket and gave Nucky one of the Irish bricks and a blessing: ‘May you have all the luck you need and not all the luck this Irish brick will bring you.’”
“Nucky cherished that brick for the rest of his days. In fact, he once told his bodyguard that when life was rough, he would pull out that treasured brick, put it on the nightstand next to his bed, and then take a nap. When he awoke, he usually discovered that he had found a solution to the problem and the energy to tackle it. Since he didn’t want to use up all his good luck at one time, he put his treasured brick away for safekeeping so he would always have some good luck in reserve, much like a savings account in a bank.”
“Later in life when Nucky would reminisce about Hudson’s stories, he came to realize that their meaning ran far deeper than as the simple tales about life in faraway lands. Hudson’s adventures were parables about human nature and molding character. For the next 70 years, Nucky loved to drop anchor when making decisions and muse, ‘What would the captain do?’ How would he solve a problem or avoid creating an enemy?’”
While still a young boy, Johnson delivered some salt marsh reeds to the hotel operated by Admiral Kuehnle, the first real political boss of Atlantic City, then was himself elected Sheriff and later treasurer of Atlantic County, where the real power lies in the distribution of the money.
It’s was Nucky Johnson’s vision that Atlantic City become a convention town as well as a tourist resort, and he built what is now Boardwalk Hall, which opened in 1929, when the first big convention was held – a meeting of mob bosses from around the country, including Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone.
Nucky Johnson’s Atlantic City, like the Admiral’s, was an open city where vice was permitted but restricted, used to attract tourists and conventioneers, and while prohibition was the law of the land, Atlantic City was the major port of entry for smugglers. So the booze was plentiful and inexpensive, prostitution was kept under control and gambling prospered at a dozen different casino clubs, all of which gave Nucky Johnson a piece of the action.
As host of one of the first major meetings of mob bosses Nucky ensured that they could meet and conduct their business without being bothered by the law, and like Nucky, they placed their biggest bet on developing casino gambling after prohibition ended, as they anticipated it would a few years later.
Nucky had met Al Capone at the first Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey heavyweight championship fight in New Jersey, and when the two fought again in a rematch in Chicago, Capone invited Nucky to sit with him at ringside.
Al Capone is flanked by Meyer Lansky and Nucky Johnson in this composite photo produced for William Randolph Hurst, ostensibly of the mobsters strolling down the Atlantic City boardwalk in April 1929 on the occasion of Meyer Lansky's wedding reception.
When Capone came to Atlantic City in April 1929, he was the hottest mobster in the country, being blamed for the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, and while he wasn’t arrested in Atlantic City, Capone turned himself in when he got off the train in Philadelphia, and spent time at Eastern Pen, where his cell is now a tourist attraction.
As with Capone, the feds eventually indicted Nucky Johnson for tax evasion, and held a trial in Camden in 1941. Nucky knew his luck had run out, as just when he needed it the most, he couldn’t find his Lucky Irish brick.
He was found guilty for tax evasion and was sentenced to ten years, more than Capone. Nucky couldn’t understand it, unlike Capone, he never killed anybody.
Before being sent away Nucky did two things, - he went out to the Pines to drink some moonshine and hear some bluegrass music with the Albert brothers in Waretown, where Albert’s Hall now continues that tradition, and then he married Floss his longtime girlfriend.
Just as the HBO’s Nucky Thompson lost his wife early in their marriage, Nucky’s first wife, childhood sweetheart Mabel Jeffries died young too and he remained single until he was sentenced to jail. The day before he went to jail Nucky married his former showgirl girlfriend Florence “Flossie” Osbeck, which gave them an excuse to have a party. Since they were married Floss could visit him in jail, and while he was away, Nucky approved of his protégé Hap Farley taking his place as political boss.
A few years later, released early on good behavior, Nucky Johnson returned to Atlantic City an ordinary citizen, lived in a little cottage that is now a casino parking lot, and he let Hap Farley continue his leadership, building the Atlantic City Race Track – the first legal gambling in the area, constructing the Expressway and bringing the 1964 Democratic National Convention to the Boardwalk.
For years that stretched into decades, Nucky lived the quiet life of an ordinary citizen, often being stopped on the street or boardwalk by someone who recognized him, and wanted to thank him for some good deed he had done years ago. Same place, different time – that was a time when he owned the city and was one of the most powerful king makers in the country.
Flo - a friend? (can anyone identify this guy? - and Nucky in the later years, probably at the Five
Nucky and Floss continued to dine at their favorite restaurants, but instead of hundred dollar tips, his gratuities were more frugal, but up and coming politicians and movers and shakers always sought out his advice and he was given a place of honor at the head of the table at regular Republican Party meetings and dinners.
And after he died at a local nursing home in December 1968, Nucky Johnson’s funeral was held at the Gormley Funeral Home, run by the family of former State Senator Bill Gormley, who would be considered, at least for awhile, the successor to the Admiral, Nucky and Hap as the political boss of Atlantic City.
At Gormley’s during Nucky’s funeral, a man in the reception line stepped up and introduced himself to Floss as William Kramer, a Camden court clerk, who handed Floss a brick. As Ferry recounts it, “Floss said that Kramer saw Nucky’s obituary in the newspaper and decided to pay his respects. And he brought along Nucky’s briefcase to give to Floss,” along with its mysterious contents.
According to Floss, “Mr. Kramer told me that several weeks ago he was taking an inventory of the exhibits in the evidence vault in the clerk’s office and came across a black briefcase that had Nucky’s name on it. He said he opened it and the only thing inside was some newspapers from 1941 that highlighted his trail and an old red brick. He remembered Nucky had been looking for his briefcase at the end of his trial and nobody could find it. It was accidently placed in the evidence vault in the clerk’s office.” Now he was returning it.
Floss took the brick from the briefcase and placed it in Nucky’s arm before closing the casket. “I put the Irish brick next to his right hand so he could feel it. I now know he is resting in peace and in a good place for all eternity.”
When she passed away three years later Floss was interred at the Zion Cemetery in Bargaintown, Egg Harbor Township, next to Nucky and his Lucky Irish brick, which may provide luck for Nucky’s spiritual soul in its journey after life, a lucky life if there ever was one.
[BK Notes: I have located official references to a William C. Kramer, Camden Court Clerk, and for Captain Shephard Hudson, who heroically rescued the survivors of a collision of cargo ships off New Jersey.]