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The Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss

by Frank J. Ferry, Esq. ©2012, Hard Cover, ISBN: 978-1-935232-62-9, 306 pp

In the author's own words...


Enoch L. “Nucky” Johnson, the Republican powerhouse from Atlantic City, dominated New Jersey’s political landscape in the early part of the 20th century. This book is dedicated to permanently preserving and celebrating his colorful life and legacy before the recollections of his accomplishments disappear and are washed out to sea by the sands of time.

I have taken the liberty of recreating some of the dialogue between Nucky and others. I based these conversations on details I discussed with Nucky during the two-year period I represented him during his criminal fine case. I also used excerpts from Nucky’s testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1928 and in his 1941 criminal trial, along with his depositions in his claim against The Saturday Evening Post and David Niven, and his interviews with the FBI in his application for pardon. These transcripts give us insights into Nucky’s true character through his own words.

Many people also told me about the specific personal incidents they shared with Nucky, and are contained in this book. Marie Boyd, who worked in the Atlantic County Treasurer’s Office, was very close to Nucky and his wife Floss for many years. Boyd attended Nucky’s criminal trial, and she and her husband Jimmy, who was Nucky’s right-hand man, were my longtime clients. Senator Frank S. “Hap” Farley, Nucky’s successor and my law partner for 15 years, also shared a great deal of what he knew and remembered about Nucky. Even John Mooney, head of the Atlantic City Vice Squad, who was my client and friend for most of his life, spoke of Nucky in glowing terms.

I also used the background of the actual events in Nucky’s life, from FBI reports, IRS records, trial transcripts, and others listed in the bibliography. All of these sources served to  recreate the real life and times of Enoch L. “Nucky” Johnson.


Frank J. Ferry, Esquire

Acknowledgments  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3



Chapter 1 The Man in All His Plumage  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11

Chapter 2 Hanging a Murderer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23

Chapter 3 Establishing a Political Base  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .31



Chapter 4 The Aristocracy of the Shore . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .45

Chapter 5 Fun City: They Shall Come . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57



Chapter 6 Teaching a Princeton Professor a Lesson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .69

Chapter 7 The Sheriff in the Spotlight  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .98

Chapter 8 Boardwalk Court in Session. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .124

Chapter 9 Edge for Governor  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .135



Chapter 10 The Battle of the Century . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .149

Chapter 11 Going to Washington Under Subpoena  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .159

Chapter 12 A Monument to Political Power  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .173



Chapter 13 Caught in the Crosshairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .183

Chapter 14 Circling the Wagons. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .199

Chapter 15 Ready for the United States of America .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .215



Chapter 16 Prison Days . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .235

Chapter 17 Pen Pals. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .247


Chapter 18 Time to Smell the Roses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .257

Chapter 19 The Last Campaign . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .267

Chapter 20 Epilogue: Life After Nucky . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .286

Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .295

Chapter 1

The Man in All His Plumage


Long before Atlantic City became synonymous with casinos, high rollers, shopping outlets, and saltwater taffy, this stretch of prime beachfront along New Jersey’s Absecon Island long remained a hidden treasure. It stayed a secret to all but the locals until the early 1900s, when Philadelphians who began making the long journey eastward by stagecoach, train, or automobile discovered the comforts of this “Atlantic playground.” Miles of sand and surf kept visitors coming back for summer fun year after year, and local entrepreneurs sweetened the deal by extolling the benefits of the resort’s restorative powers for mind, body, and spirit.


One local man saw this diamond-in-the-rough for exactly the natural treasure it was. As the resort grew, so did his vision for the untapped potential of this seaside resort. By the Roaring Twenties, this man earned his day in the sun as the true boss of Atlantic City, and all the locals knew him well. The Boardwalk was his home turf, a place where his shrewd business know-how and political prowess grew to legendary heights.


During the heyday of the Prohibition, the decisions he made and the deals he wrangled kept Atlantic City riding high on a seemingly endless wave of prosperity from legal and not-so-legal pursuits.


The man was Enoch Lewis Johnson, better known as “Nucky” to friend and foe, and he was a man who had many of both. His charm attracted people to him like moths to a flame. He staked his claim in this burgeoning resort by backing key political bigwigs and investing in enterprising ventures of every dearth, from bootlegging to gambling to prostitution. Part mobster, part philanthropist, Nucky rejoiced in politics and big business, was quick to lend a hand to those in need, and counted the nation’s notorious partners in crime among his many friends, including Al Capone. Whenever Nucky strolled along the Boardwalk, people whispered in awe, “Here comes the man! Here comes the man!” But it wasn’t only his reputation that turned heads along the Boardwalk. Tall and stately at 6’2”, Nucky stood out in a crowd in physical appearance, too. Like the old adage that says, “By the plumage, you can tell the bird,” Nucky was a rare and endangered species, truly one of a kind. Using his commanding physique and powerful reputation to full advantage, he always made sure he was dapper and dressed for the part of the “boss.” His attire consisted of a full-length black coat with a velvet collar, kid gloves, and pearl-gray spats. He topped it off with a cravat and diamond stickpin, along with his trademark boutonniere: a single red carnation.


For the finishing touch, he tucked a white, four-point hankie neatly into his lapel pocket and set a wide-brimmed Borsalino hat on his head, tilted at just the right angle for an air of sophistication and hauteur.


When he wasn’t twirling his signature Irish Blackthorn walking stick during his strolls along the Boardwalk, he loved to don his full-length raccoon coat and ride around Atlantic City in his powder-blue limousine.


His chauffeur and bodyguard, Louis “The Russian Bear” Kessel, was Nucky’s constant companion and confidant. Dressed in a chauffeur’s gray flat cap with a shiny black-leather visor, Kessel kept Nucky’s cache of vehicles road-ready, and there were plenty of options to ferry him to his next appointment. Nucky often chose his vehicle depending on his mood and the day’s agenda. His collection included two 16-cylinder Cadillacs, a black Chrysler convertible coupe (complete with rumble seat and red leather upholstery), a Lincoln, a Rolls Royce, a Hudson Super-Six, as well as a large Pierce Arrow, and a small Ford.


Yep, Nucky liked the good things in life, and friends and acquaintances spoiled him with material comforts every chance they had. In 1929, as Wall Street crashed, Nucky was raking in big bucks through his assortment of enterprises, some legal, some not. Over the years, he earned the respect of the Atlantic City locals, many of whom he personally helped through rough times during the Depression.


In return, his assembly of well-wishers showered him with hundreds of gifts and thousands of Christmas cards and telegrams during the holidays and plenty of tokens of appreciation in-between. His squad of Western Union messengers routinely sprinted through the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, whisking news to Nucky’s ninth floor headquarters overlooking his Boardwalk empire and the Atlantic Ocean. This is where Nucky sat with his entourage, skillfully negotiating with players and pawns to expand his political empire in Atlantic City.


Nucky’s political reach extended far and wide. As the recognized Republican political kingpin of New Jersey for more than 30 years, Nucky helped orchestrate the elections of governors and U.S. senators during their rise to public office. During Prohibition, Nucky controlled the reins of big business in town, which translated to all of the gambling clubs and liquor trafficking operations in Atlantic City.


Nucky’s foothold in politics and big business in South Jersey carried a hefty price. While he was busy watching over his enterprises, U.S. government agencies were watching him. But his business savvy kept his dealings operating well under the federal radar. It took years of tracking and surveillance for the Internal Revenue Service to seal the government’s case against Nucky, which happened at the pinnacle of his political power: Nucky was convicted of income tax evasion and was sentenced to a term of four years in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary starting in 1941.


Looking back, however, it was Nucky who actually laid the groundwork for legalized gambling in Atlantic City. The state of New Jersey tried to block gambling in all forms for many years. After all, the government billed gambling as destructive to family life and opened the seaside resort to criminal activity.


But it took years before New Jersey realized that gambling could actually infuse money into the state’s troubled economy and breathe life into this fading shore community. Suddenly, gambling wasn’t so bad after all. By 1976, the New Jersey State Constitution was amended, and neonladen casinos began to pop up along the Atlantic City Boardwalk and beyond.


Today, there are 13 casinos pumping millions of dollars into the state treasury, and gambling has diversified its activities on all fronts: New Jersey television stations simulcast horse-racing results from all over the country, lottery machines are fixtures in just about every store, and New Jersey has joined 12 other states in offering Mega Millions with colossal jackpots. Churches even sponsor charter buses to casinos and give parishioners a complimentary roll of quarters and a meal coupon to spend the day with one-armed bandits or at the roulette tables—even on Sunday.


The Atlantic City that Nucky once knew has changed dramatically in form and function from its halcyon days before the turn of the century.


The famous Boardwalk, originally built in 1870 to keep railcars and hotels sand-free, once stretched for seven miles from Atlantic City to Longport in its heyday. After the hurricane of 1944 stormed into town and devoured a chunk of the Boardwalk on its way out, the walkway was fortified with reinforced steel and concrete for added stability. Today, the herringbonepattern wooden pathway measures 60’ wide and more than 6 miles long, affording plenty of room for strolling tourists both in and off season. The landmark oceanfront amusement sites on the piers that jutted out into the ocean like fingers on a hand are long gone. These havens of fun and festivities once dazzled working families for almost 100 years: the Steel Pier, Young’s Million Dollar Pier, Heinz Pier, Steeplechase Pier, Garden Pier, and Central Pier. Casinos with their bright neon lights have sprouted up along the Boardwalk as the modern-day playground for adults who dare to match skills with one-armed bandits, blackjack, craps, and roulette.


Nucky dreamed that Atlantic City would someday grow into a worldrenowned metropolis, a haven for the rich and the famous where fortunes could be made. And his mission was to make this dream come true.


His vision was limitless, and he refused to let obstacles block his path to success. He knew how to pull the right political strings to make the Atlantic City Convention Hall a reality in 1929, even in an era when the nation was entering the Great Depression.


Building Convention Hall was a monumental feat that changed the skyline and pulse of Atlantic City and it became the longtime home to the Miss America Pageant. The parade of beauties originally started in 1921 as a way of keeping summer tourists in town until after Labor Day. The pageant not only succeeded in keeping tourists around longer, it managed to turn the eyes of the world to Atlantic City each September. When Nucky was interviewed on his 84th birthday on January 20, 1967, Atlantic City Press columnist Sonny Schwartz reported that Nucky’s eyes sparkled when he talked about the convention hall. Nucky called it the lifeblood of Atlantic City’s winter economy. “That Convention Hall,” he said, “that was my pride and joy, ya baby.” Despite Nucky’s passion and pride, nowhere is the name of Enoch L.


Johnson ever mentioned in brochures or in the pronouncements from public officials about the convention hall contributing to Atlantic City’s prosperity for the past 80 years. His name was never inscribed on a plaque in a place of honor in the hall; in fact, the city fathers didn’t even formally recognize Nucky as ever existing and never quite gave the Boardwalk Boss credit for all he had done to put Atlantic City on the map and to keep it there. But those who Nucky helped and those he made rich and powerful remember the moxie of the real Boardwalk Boss and how he accomplished whatever he set out to do at whatever the cost.


After all, Nucky had a hometown advantage and a deep-seated love of the land. His roots were entrenched in the Pinelands, an area he worked to preserve and protect. He was a local boy, a South Jersey native born in the heart of the Pinelands on January 20, 1883. His father, Smith E. Johnson, and his mother, Virginia (nee Higbee), welcomed Enoch Lewis, the Johnson’s third child who joined his older brother Alfred; Nucky’s firstborn brother had died of hepatitis at age 3, and a little more than a year after Nucky was born, his mother gave birth to a daughter who was stillborn. The family was living at Leeds Point in Jersey’s rural Galloway Township when Nucky arrived, but within three years, the Johnsons relocated to Mays Landing near Atlantic City when Nucky’s father was first elected sheriff of Atlantic County in 1887.


Nucky’s father tried a few different careers before discovering his true calling in life as a law enforcement officer. The elder Johnson was raised in Johnsontown, near the historic Smithville stage stop, about 15 miles from Atlantic City. While it would have been natural for Johnson to become a career seaman amid this region’s maritime heritage, he didn’t.


He tried a stint at sea in his youth but quickly decided that it wasn’t for him. He set his sights on looking for work ashore.


Johnson tried working as a salt hay farmer for a while, but that didn’t work out either. Living off the land as a local woodsman, or “stump jumper,” a trapper, or a salt hay farmer was a constant struggle for survival.


Like most families in the Pinelands, the Johnsons lived off the land and bartered with neighbors to make ends meet. The meadowlands flanking the Mullica and Egg Harbor rivers produced plenty of salt hay, a versatile grass used for everything from bedding livestock in commercial livery stables to insulation to protect freshly poured concrete from frost to packing material for glassware shipments from the South Jersey glass factories. Though Jersey earned the nicknamed “The Garden State,” the Pinelands were anything but Eden-like. This area was called the “barrens” for good reason: Vegetation struggled to sprout in the dry, sandy soil. Back in the late 1800s, laborers earned $.22 per hour. And Johnson soon grew tired of salt hay farming and scratching the land for a meager seasonal living.


But when Johnson delivered salt hay to Atlantic City, he was captivated with its sights and sounds. It didn’t take him long before he struck up a friendship with Louis Kuehnle, better known as “the Commodore.” The local Republican political leader who operated Kuehnle’s Hotel and The Corner, a favorite local watering hole at the corner of North Carolina and Atlantic Avenues, was a good person to know. Through Kuehnle, Johnson expanded his circle of friends quickly, from farm workers and baymen to merchants and local politicians. The Commodore also ushered in a new level of sophistication and modernization around town. He started the first electric company in Atlantic City and made sure his hotel had the first gaslights decorating the ceilings in 1882. Kuehnle and Johnson became close friends and even closer political leaders.


Though Johnson wanted more than the struggling life of a farmer or bayman could offer, his family roots still ran deep in Atlantic County. He didn’t want to stray too far from where his father, Enoch J., had settled after serving two years in the Civil War with the Union Army, according to his obituary. The elder Enoch was Nucky’s namesake, and the Johnson’s good name and personal integrity was a given for local folks.


Johnson decided to take a gamble and run for public office in hopes of building a better life for his family in the big city. His goal was to run for sheriff, and the first step was moving his family, with the help of friends and relatives, to a cottage at 9 South New Hampshire Avenue in Atlantic City. He wanted to be near the hub of activity and devote his full attention to the election campaign.


Johnson’s longtime neighbors in the South Jersey Pinelands and the new contacts he met via the Commodore helped him bridge the gap between country and big city communities. This proved to be just what he needed to win a landslide election in 1887, which launched his first three-year term as sheriff. Little did he know that this would be the start of a longtime family tradition: Johnson and his two sons eventually took turns serving as sheriff and undersheriff for the next forty years.


Johnson found his true calling in law enforcement. He liked the respect and prestige that came with being sheriff and decided he wanted to stay in the post forever, or at least as long as he legally could. But he also knew that the N.J. Constitution of 1844 only allowed a sheriff to a serve a three-year term, so he could not reapply for his post until he was out of office for three years. With a little ingenuity, Johnson found a way around the problem. After three years as sheriff, he decided to work as undersheriff for another three-year term. Then, he would campaign for his successor under one condition: After those three years, Johnson would return to his post as sheriff for another three-year term. The rotating terms in office served to be a way to buck the system, and the election cycle continued year after year and term after term. When Nucky and Alfred were of age, they joined in the rotation, alternating the roles of sheriff and undersheriff with their father and adding a few outsiders as needed to keep the key position of power all in the family.


After winning the first election, Johnson moved his family into the sheriff ’s official residence in Mays Landing, which was attached to the Mays Landing county jail. Though Nucky and Alfred were smart enough never to question their father’s authority, they still knew the fine points of the law and learned plenty of ways around it. Nucky was fond of telling his mother that there wasn’t much his father could do to him, “After all, we already live in a jail.” Since Nucky grew up on a daily diet of politics with his father as sheriff, he also was baptized into the local political process at an early age.


Nucky saw the prestige that came with the job firsthand. As sheriff, Johnson commanded an all-powerful position in the county; he was the law. With Nucky growing up in such an environment in the 1880s, it wasn’t hard for him to pick up the political intrigue around him through his father, his connections, and the locals he had come to know.


Nucky often said that he learned as much talking to his father and their neighbors in the community as he did in school, especially the sea captains and messmates who sailed the seven seas before they settled down in Mays Landing.


Mays Landing was steeped in rich maritime traditions in a region where seaman and shipbuilders arrived as early as 1695 and built log cabins in clusters that eventually grew into villages and cities along the waterfront. The Pinelands of South Jersey provided plenty of raw materials for shipbuilding. The tall straight oak and cedar forests held treasures for boatbuilders. Stands of hard solid oak were used for ship ribs, frameworks, and keels because the wood’s strength, density, and resistance to decay could weather the constant pounding at sea. Woodjins, or the local woodcutters, felled the prime pillars with broad axes and hauled the logs via horses and oxen to the shipyard where the boatbuilding began.


The Johnsons were friends with many of the seamen and boatbuilders and their families who settled in the area. But by the close of the 19th century, that was all changing. The steam engine provided a faster and more economical means of transporting people and products by rail.


The Atlantic City Railroad, operated by the Reading Company, chugged along from the station at Chestnut Street in Philadelphia to Egg Harbor City in the Pinelands of New Jersey, a route that included a spur to Mays Landing and then to Atlantic City. With the focus on shipping by sea coming to an end for the region, many seafarers were eager to find other work in their homeport of Mays Landing.


Though the Johnsons moved to Mays Landing in 1887, the elder Johnson taught the boys firsthand how most people in the Pinelands survived off the land.Nucky and Alfred learned to fish, hunt, and shoot guns.


The boys became excellent marksmen and even more proficient at handling their father’s Kentucky long-barrel single-shot rifle. Nucky took his father’s prized long rifle to every local shooting competition. The handrubbed oil finish on the curly dark maple rifle stock was a sight to behold and the envy of every young localmarksman. Some said that the Kentucky rifle was called a hog rifle because it could hit a wild hog more than 100 yards away. At least that’s whatNucky often said.He reveled in sharing the bragging rights that came alongwith the rifle: “That’swhy buckskin-wearing Daniel Boone carried one of these babies in the frontiers of Kentucky.” Young Nucky became a legend around the Pinelands not only for the Kentucky long rifle but for his expert aim as well, especially at the local turkey shoots. He credited his success with a trick his father once taught him. Nucky had learned how to imitate the high-pitched call of a turkey, so when he was ready to fire, he wet his middle finger, touched the front sight to deaden the sun’s glare, and then he cajoled loudly. His call was as dead-on as his shot; the curious turkey didn’t have a hope of running into the woods after it raised its head from behind the stump to see what the commotion was. With sure-shot Nucky at a shooting event, the Johnson family always had a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.


As for formal education, the local schools were simple but structured.


Nucky attended a four-room schoolhouse, where students often sat at a two-seater desk to save space. Every room had at least one sailor’s son or daughter who Nucky befriended while he learned more about seafaring customs and routines. Every student from a seafarer’s house usually arrived a half-hour before the school doors officially opened, following a time-honored maritime tradition of arriving early to be ready to relieve a sailor at the end of a shift. When Nucky visited his school friends at their homes, he discovered just how different life was from his own at the Mays Landing jail. In a sailor’s family, life was very organized and strictly regimental: Chores were assigned, and work was completed on time. The children answered with “Aye-aye, Sir!” and no one questioned the captain’s orders. In comparison, Nucky and Alfred knew they had it easy.


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 about him about his world travels, the people he met, and the countries he explored. The captain enjoyed recounting his glory days at sea, and Nucky proved to be the perfect audience.


While every captain shared his experiences sailing the seven seas, Nucky had a tough time figuring out whose stories he liked the best. One of his favorites was Captain Shepherd Hudson who commanded a Union ship during the Civil War that carried troops and ordinances. Nucky felt a special kinship with Hudson since Nucky’s grandfather also served in the Civil War. Before he entered the captain’s house, Nucky routinely stood at the front door at attention and said, “Permission to come aboard, Sir.” Though Hudson‘s first love was the sea, his second was politics. As a member of the Whig or Republican Party in his younger years, he was elected to the N.J. Assembly in 1889 and served for two years before he built a new ship and set sail again. Nucky’s father eventually took Hudson’s post on the N.J. Assembly for one term before resuming as sheriff.


In those early years, Nucky often daydreamed of becoming part of Hudson’s crew and sailing around the world. 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 Nucky 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 Olde 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 his 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 need 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 Kessel 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 his 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?” Nucky naturally credited part of his wisdom and understanding of human character to these former sea captains who had seen the world, worked their way up the ranks, and survived not only rough seas and plenty of treachery along the way. Nucky considered all men to be captains in command of their own ships in life, and “each charting his own course only to counter the unexpected storm that suddenly changes his direction and life.” The tales he heard early in life served as Nucky’s compass, which he believed served to mold his success in leadership and public life. These stories were also the ballasts that kept him on course during the difficult times he endured, and there were plenty of rough seas.


Nucky decided to pursue higher education after graduating from high school in Atlantic City. He enrolled in State Normal School College in Trenton with his childhood schoolmate and sweetheart, Mabel Jeffries.


Born in Steelmanville near Mays Landing, Mabel came from a long line of sea captains; her father, Lewis E. Jeffries, was the son of sea Captain James Jeffries, another captain who made Mays Landing his home.


But college didn’t hold Nucky’s attention for long, even with Mabel attending with him. After a year, Nucky left college to begin a law clerkship in Atlantic City with George A. Bourgeois. As a graduate of University of Pennsylvania with a thriving trial practice, Bourgeois welcomed Nucky to his office and urged his new protégé to be patient as he learned the legal ropes. Bourgeois thought Nucky’s natural gift of public speaking would make him an excellent trial attorney.


In those days, law clerks were required to “sit for the bar,” which meant spending every day in the preceptor’s law office without compensation.


The day-to-day experience and work was a good proving ground for clerks to learn the ins and outs of the law before taking the bar examination.


But feeling trapped and penniless, Nucky’s restlessness won out again, and he left to work in the sheriff ’s office with his father as a paid clerk. By the time he was 21, Nucky had settled in as undersheriff and took his part in the family tradition.


Nucky patiently waited for Mabel to graduate from college and start her teaching career at a grammar school in Mays Landing. Their longterm courtship won the blessing of both families, and on September 12, 1906, 23-year-old Nucky married Mabel, who was just 21. By that time, Nucky had been promoted from undersheriff to deputy sheriff and was earning a good living. The newlyweds even bought a house with a veranda in Mays Landing. Mabel’s stepmother, who had raised her from age 7, gave the couple a “bridal elm” as a wedding gift, which the couple planted in their front yard. The small tree served two purposes: First, it was designed to protect the home, and second, it was a living sign to the neighborhood that they were newlyweds. According to legend, as the elm grew, so would their love. In fact, this elm was reported to have “sprouted vigorously and sped to maturity faster than a busy farmer could swing an ax in protest,” according to Nucky. He considered the tree to be a good omen. It was a living testament to the long life he expected to share with Mabel in the years to come.

"Recently the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” has produced much fantasy regarding Atlantic City and Nucky Johnson, and this book is a must read for those who want a well-researched and engaging account of this remarkable man and his impact on the city and the region."

Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., President
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey



"Frank J. Ferry was a friend, confidant and legal advisor to two of Atlantic County’s most powerful political figures. His intimate knowledge of Nucky comes to life in this book.”

June G. Sheridan, Atlantic County Historian


“This is not only the real story of Nucky Johnson, but the compelling story of a bygone era in American politics.”

Dennis Levinson, Atlantic County Executive

“This story would never have been told, if not for the strong desire by Frank J. Ferry to research the real facts and background of Nucky Johnson.”

Dick Squires, Atlantic County Executive (1984-2000)
President, Atlantic County Historical Society

“As the great-grandson of Anthony Ruffu, Mayor of Atlantic City during Nucky’s reign, I’m glad Frank J. Ferry is bringing to light the true story of Nucky Johnson."

James J. “Sonny” McCullough, Mayor of Egg Harbor Township


"Being born in Atlantic City, the history of this town always intrigues me. To have the factual account from an author who has stepped over three different political eras, is a wonderful treasure."

Don Marrandino, Eastern Division President, Harrah's Entertainment, Inc

“A political insider and law partner of New Jersey State Senator Frank S.‘Hap’ Farley for many years, Frank J. Ferry reveals the true story of Nucky Johnson and Atlantic City’s glory days.  This book is a must read.”

Chris A. Brown, Esquire

Frank J. Ferry is a partner in the Atlantic City, New Jersey law firm of Farley, Fredericks & Ferry, established in 1940. He was born and raised in Atlantic City and became a champion swimmer with the Atlantic City Beach Patrol before becoming interested in the City’s colorful political past.

Ferry attended Ursinus College and after graduation, served in the U.S. Navy. In 1956 he graduated from Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C. and subsequently joined the law firm of Farley & Farley in Atlantic City. In 1958 Ferry was appointed by U.S. Attorney General William P. Rogers as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New Jersey. He was assigned to the Camden office and served 31/2 years in the U.S. Department of Justice. Ferry then returned to the law firm of Farley & Farley as partner, and the firm was renamed Farley, Fredericks & Ferry. For the next 15 years Ferry continued to work side by side with his law partner, Frank S. “Hap” Farley, who had been a New Jersey State Senator since his election in 1940.  

In 1964, Ferry first met and represented Nucky Johnson in a U.S. Department of Justice case against Johnson. Ferry successfully halted the government’s action to collect on a $20,000 fine stemming from Nucky’s previous conviction for tax evasion in 1941. They remained friends until Nucky’s death in 1968.  

This is Ferry’s first book. His second biography will detail the remarkable career of Senator Frank S. “Hap” Farley, who succeeded Nucky Johnson as the political leader and chairman of the Atlantic County Republican Party.


  • Nucky
  • Nucky
  • Nucky
  • Nucky

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Frank J. Ferry, Esq.

real story of the character featured on the HBO award-winning series "Boardwalk Empire."


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