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Nucky's Empire: The Prohibition Years

Prohibition in a Wide Open Town

Prohibition went into effect nationwide at midnight January 16, 1920. This law made it illegal to make or sell liquor (including beer and wine), but Americans drank anyway, going to secret clubs or “speakeasies” or making "bathtub gin" at home. Alcohol could be obtained legally only with a doctor’s prescription. Organized crime, or mobs, cropped up to supply the alcohol to the many customers demanding it all across the country.

In Atlantic City, Prohibition was essentially unenforced by the local authorities. Atlantic City was a well-known haven for those seeking alcohol. The tourist-based economy of the resort encouraged business owners to provide whatever was needed to make the visitors happy. The city's beachfront location and docks allowed rum-runners to bring their goods onto shore. Add in a powerful city boss who allegedly controlled everything from the smuggling operation to the law enforcement to the restaurants where alcohol was served, and Atlantic City was essentially a wide open town, flagrantly violating the federal law.

Experience life in Atlantic City during Prohibition by exploring the exhibits below. Check back often, as more information will be added!

The People

Meet some of the people in Atlantic City in the 1920s.

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Boss Nucky Johnson Louis "Commodore"
Kuehnle
The Suffragists Sarah Spencer
Washington
Miss America 1921 Jack Dempsey

 

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The Northside in the 1920s

One of the most important factors in the success of Atlantic City's growth as a resort and the cultural development of the city was its African American community. Beginning in the late 1800s, and escalating during the Great Migration, African Americans began leaving the South to work in the industrial cities of the North. Atlantic City offered job opportunities in its numerous boarding rooms, hotels and restaurants. The city was highly dependent upon African American labor in order to sustain itself.

By the 1920s, the Census shows a significant African American population in Atlantic City of 10,946 residents – approximately 22% of the total population. While African Americans in the North were "free" they were still subject to much racial prejudice, violence and segregation, and Atlantic City was no exception. Within the city, the African American community established themselves in a section of the city commonly referred to as the Northside.

H063.Walls001a-webwatermark The Northside ultimately functioned as a self-contained city within a city – a direct response to racist barriers African Americans faced elsewhere in Atlantic City. The main street and center for much of the Northside's culture was Kentucky Avenue – a vibrant street of bars, restaurants, commercial and residential buildings. The Northside All Wars Memorial Building, dedicated in 1925, served as a community center. The Northside provided everything that one might need from retail shopping to funeral homes, all owned by African American business owners. To promote all of the businesses, community leaders in the African American community formed the Atlantic City Board of Trade.

African American students attended schools in segregated neighborhood elementary schools in the 1920s, with African American teachers educating students of the same race. The Girls' Vocational Schools were also segregated to focus on developing culture-specific trades, such as hairdressing. Atlantic City High School remained integrated for secondary education, as did the Boys' Vocational School.


For entertainment, Fitzgerald's Auditorium targeted the upper class citizens of the African American community with Saturday night dances, fine dining and entertainment. Though the Volstead Act forced business into a decline, Fitzgerald's was able to stay afloat via an illegal backroom gambling parlor and the dedicated patronage of the community to its restaurant. Fitzgerald's closed in 1933 and was reborn in 1935 as the Club Harlem – a famous Atlantic City nightclub that hosted acts including Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr, James Brown and Gladys Knight.
Parade float participants for the Walls Bath House pose with members of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol in 1922. (H063.Walls001a Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library).

Along the oceanfront, African Americans could enjoy the beach on their own designated stretch of sand, located from Missouri to Ohio Avenues. This area became known as Chicken Bone Beach, so-called for the picnic lunches visitors would bring to the shore in the summer. The beach was protected by an all-black unit of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol.

Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:

Atlantic City Board of Education. Annual Reports. Atlantic City NJ, 1902-1959. 
Atlantic City Board of Trade. Annual Directory. Atlantic City NJ, 1939-1947.
Charles Funnel. By the Beautiful Sea. New York: Knopf, 1975.
Richlyn Goddard. Three Months to Hurry and Nine Months to Worry: Resort life for African Americans in Atlantic City, NJ (1850-1940). Howard University, 2001.
Nelson Johnson. Boardwalk Empire: The birth, high times and corruption of Atlantic City. Medford NJ: Plexus Publishing, 2002.
Nelson Johnson. The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlanitc City. Medford NJ: Plexus Publishing, 2010.
John Milner Associates, Inc. Atlantic City Schools: A historic overview, context and survey. West Chester, Pa., 2006. Turiya S.A. Raheem. Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City. Xlibris Corporation, 2009.

Audrey Hart Photograph Collection of the Black Community in Atlantic City (H006)
Harold P. Abrams Collection (H007)
Alma Fay Horn Photograph Collection (H008)
Local History Subject File - Nightclubs
Local History Subject File - Public Schools
Local History Subject File - Chicken Bone Beach

For a more complete list of resources on this topic, please see this subject guide from the Library website: African American History in Atlantic City

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Boss Nucky Johnson

Enoch Lewis "Nucky" Johnson was an Atlantic City political boss and racketeer who unofficially ran the Republican political machine that controlled Atlantic City and Atlantic County from the 1910s - 1930s. Born in 1883 in Smithville, New Jersey, "Nucky" (a nickname derived from his first name) was allegedly involved in promoting bootlegging during Prohibition, illegal gambling activities and prostitution.

Johnson graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1900. In 1905, he was appointed undersheriff (his father was sheriff), and in 1908, he was elected sheriff when his father's term expired. He became secretary of the powerful Atlantic County Republican Executive Committee in 1909. In 1911, local political boss Louis Kuehnle was convicted on corruption charges and imprisoned; Johnson allegedly succeeded him as boss.

Officially, Johnson held various jobs, including Atlantic County Treasurer (1914), County Tax Collector, publisher of a weekly newspaper, bank director, president of a building and loan company, director of a Philadelphia brewery, and salesman for an oil company (after 1945).

Johnson's trademark was a fresh red carnation in his lapel, and he frequently wore a full-length raccoon coat in the winter. He reportedly did business from a ninth-floor suite in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, handing out political jobs, favors, and goods to local residents in exchange for money and political support. Johnson was a fixture at local Atlantic City restaurants and nightclubs during the 1920s and 1930s.

He maintained a lavish lifestyle, documented during a federal tax investigation in 1936-1939. The investigation recorded Johnson's annual expenditures of $5,000 for rent on the Ritz Carlton suite and a nearby cottage; $2,200 for a New York City apartment on Central Park; $3,000 for clothing; and $3,000 for food, with lobster, caviar, and 3-inch steaks being featured on his daily menu. By 1935, Nucky owned four new-model Cadillac cars. At the same time, he also had in his employ a valet/bodyguard, two chauffeurs and three maids.

In May 1939, after an extensive federal investigation, Nucky Johnson was indicted for income tax evasion in the sum of $125,000. He was convicted in July 1941 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. He entered Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary on August 11, 1941, was paroled on August 15, 1945, and took a pauper's oath to avoid paying the fine.

Johnson was married twice, first in 1906 to Mabel Jeffries. Mabel died in 1913 of consumption. Johnson later married Florence "Flossie" Osbeck the day before his sentencing for tax evasion.
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Nucky Johnson - the "Boss" of Atlantic City in 1925. (H009.VF.enochjohnson001. Alfred M Heston Collection, Atlantic City Free Public Library).

Johnson died on December 9, 1968 at the Atlantic County Convalescent Home in Northfield, New Jersey, and he is buried in a cemetery in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey.

Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:

Grace Anselmo D'Amato. Chance of a Lifetime: Nucky Johnson, Skinny D'Amato and How Atlantic City Became the Naughty Queen of Resorts. Harvey Cedars, NJ: Down the Shore Publishing, 2001.

Frank Ferrry. Nucky: The Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss. Margate, NJ: ComteQ Communications, 2013.

Nelson Johnson. Boardwalk Empire: the birth, high times, and corruption of Atlantic City. Medford, NJ: Plexus, 2002.

William McMahon. So Young, So Gay! Atlantic City, NJ: Press Publishing, 1970.

Martin Paulsson. The Social Anxieties of Progressive Reform: Atlantic City, 1854-1920. New York University Press: New York, 1994.

John Stoneburg. The Boardwalk Empire: the Nucky Johnson story. [S.l.: n.p.], [1968].

US Department of Justice and US Department of Treasury. The Case of Enoch L. Johnson: a complete report of the Atlantic City investigation conducted jointly by the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice. [United States: n.p.], [1942].

Chick Yeager. The Republican Boss Era of Atlantic City, 1900-1971. [S.l.: n.p.], 1981.

Local History Biography File - Enoch "Nucky" Johnson.

Local History Subject File - Organized Crime.

ACFPL Collection of Atlantic City Photographs (H009).

ACFPL Living History Project (interviews that mention Nucky Johnson include #2 Leon Binder, #23 Frank Hires, # 27 Leslie Kammerman, #33 James Latz, #52 Eddie Solitaire, and Anonymous Interview #5 "Chester").

Atlantic City Board of Trade advertising pamphlets, various years.

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Living in the Ritz

When it opened on June 21, 1921, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlantic City was the epitome of posh living. Every detail of the structure exuded wealth and status, from the faucets for fresh or salt water in every guest room to the private elevators for beachgoers to the grand staircase and elegant ballroom.

The Ritz-Carlton was designed by New York City architect Sir Charles Wetmore and constructed by the Thompson-Starrett Company. It was erected at a cost of $6,250,000 in the early 1920s (almost $70 million in 2010 dollars). Located at Iowa Avenue and the Boardwalk, the seventeen-story structure has 131 feet of Boardwalk frontage.

Many of the amenities the Ritz-Carlton boasted were state of the art or unique among hotels at the time. In the early 1920s, the amenities included:

  • fresh- and salt-water faucets for hot and cold water delivery to each guest room
  • on-site artesian well to supply spring water
  • pantries on each floor for quicker room service
  • bathers' elevators to allow guests to access the beach without having to pass through the hotel lobby: elevator walls were made of hard rubber and the floor was cork to prevent slipping on water
  • hairdressing salon run by a well-known dresser from New York City
  • ballroom
  • Maude Earl Room, a writing room adjoining the parlor, decorated with rare and antique art
  • three restaurants on the premises: Ritz Restaurant, Trellis Room, and Ritz Grill
  • outdoor dining terrace overlooking the ocean
  • merry-go-round shaped bar
  • Ritz-Carlton Terrace: performers in the 1920s included Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Red Nichols and Milton Berle
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A 1926 ad for one of the Ritz Restaurant at the Ritz Carlton. (H009.RitzRestMay311926Amusements. Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library).
When the building was dedicated in 1921, hotel president Richard Harris announced, "We are out to do business with theaverage American citizen without regard to race, religion or politics." Although this was the intention, the Ritz-Carlton quickly became the haven for the well-to-to visiting the Nation's Playground.

City boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson leased the entire ninth floor from which he conducted the business of the day. Other well-known guests included author Bruce Barton, actor Eddie Cantor, Al Capone, Calvin Coolidge, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Sophie Tucker, and Mayor Jimmy Walker (Beau James).

During the Depression, the Ritz Carlton fell on hard times and the owners defaulted on the mortgage. In 1937, the hotel was reorganized under bankruptcy. During World War II, the Ritz Carlton was one of several Atlantic City hotels to serve as military barracks for soldiers in training and recuperation. After changing hands several times after the war, the hotel was converted to apartments in June 1969. Presently, it is operated as The Ritz Condominium.

Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:

Nelson Johnson. Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. (Plexus Publishing, Medford, NJ, 2002).

ACFPL Collection of Atlantic City Postcards (H049).

Local History Subject Binder – "Hotels".

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Babette's/Golden Inn

Famous for its charcoal grilled stakes, seafood dinners, live entertainment and illegal backroom gambling, Babette's was a staple of Atlantic City nightlife throughout the 1920s. Located at 2211 Pacific Avenue – property now occupied by the Trump Plaza Casino – Babette's was owned by Dan Stebbins and was originally called the Golden Inn.

In 1920, a young singer and entertainer named Blanche Babette came to Atlantic City, where she met and married Dan Stebbins who owned a small club on Pacific Avenue known as the Golden Inn. The pair expanded the facility and renamed it Babette's in the 1930s. While Dan Stebbins managed the business side of the nightclub, Blanche handled the revues: designing costumes, arranging the music, rehearsing the chorus line, and introducing the acts.

Stars like Eleanor Powell, Jack White, Joe Penner, the Carlisle Sisters, comic Little Jerry Bergen, and Velma and Buddy Ebsen performed there. Visitors included Jimmy Walker, Mayor of New York; Rudy Vallee; the Three Stooges and Milton Berle.

 The décor of Babette's was famously unique. It was fashioned in a nautical theme which included a bar in the shape of a ship. It is rumored that a trapdoor that led from the horse room – an illegal backroom gambling center where individuals placed bets on horse races – to the roof of the building, from which one could then access the Stebbins' home.

During a federal investigation in the 1930s, Babette's was targeted for its gambling and horse-race betting operations. In 1943, Sheriff James Carmack led a raid on Babette's. Racing sheets, craps tables, roulette wheels and telephones were seized. Stebbins ultimately paid $5,000.00 in fines.


In 1950, the Stebbins retired from the business and sold the nightclub. Dan Stebbins passed away in 1960 and Blanche in 1963.
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An ad for Babette's in the 1946 Atlantic City City Directory. (H009.BabettesAd1946CityDirectory. Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library.

Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:

Vicki Gold Levi. Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness. New York: C.N. Potter, distributed by Crown Publishers, 1979.

Jonathan Van Meter. The Last Good Time: Skinny D'Amato , The Glorious 500 Club & the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City. New York: Crown, 2003.

Jim Waltzer and Tom Wilk. Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

US Department of Justice and US Department of Treasury. The Case of Enoch L. Johnson: a complete report of the Atlantic City investigation conducted jointly by the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice. [United States: n.p.], [1942].

Local History Biography File – "Stebbins, Blanche Babette"

Local History Subject File – "Nightclubs"

Atlantic City City Directories

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