Friday, December 13, 2013

Jersey Rascals

The word “boss” used to carry a strong political aroma; it was a term used to define specific kinds of characters who, though often unelected, wielded absolute power in big cities and large towns, power with little or no accountability.

A boss was a species of dictator. His sword was the “political machine” an often-secret government unofficially working the wheels of the officially elected government to create a spoils system. These machines were made up of fiercely loyal armies who rigged elections for the boss’s favored candidates, usually their closest friends and relations. They got dead people, among others, to the polls on election day, sometimes twice. (After all, who says that dead people don’t have rights?) These troops were rewarded in return with direct cash payments, cushy city jobs and other perks. It was nepotism as a finely honed craft. “Transparency” was for saps.

Political machine bosses benefitted a noisy minority at the expense of the larger population. Some of them were colorful characters, sometimes regarded with deep affection and unquestioned loyalty by their constituents. But they were more often hated and rarely mourned when they passed away, either to the Great Beyond or into a gray prison cell.

Bosses accrued both great power and great wealth. Their influence reached upward and outward. They would rig state elections for their cats-paw candidates, pushing their influence into both state senate and executive offices, and even into the federal government. For many, they remain the clearest symbol of big-city corruption during the last two centuries of American history.

 Among the most legendary of this motley crew of crooks were “Boss Tweed,” who ran New York City’s Tammany Hall in the 1850s; James Farley who bossed New York State during FDR’s administration; and Mayor Richard Daley who ran Chicago until late in the last century.

While researching my upcoming novel, Butchertown, I excavated a little nugget of a book called American Dictators, by Steven Hart, a dual biography that casts a small, revealing spotlight on two lesser-known, but nevertheless sterling masters of twentieth-century bossism.

Subtitled Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, this is a slim book, especially considering it describes two larger-than-life characters. What facts Hart was able to excavate about Hague (elected mayor of Jersey City, 1917–1937) and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (unelected sachem of Atlantic City around the same time) comes almost solely from the bare dry bones of public records and the ambiguous trails left in magazine and newspaper articles.

Because they played on smaller stages than, say, Huey Long, Hague and Johnson were better able to hide themselves, their hearts and minds, behind a heavy curtain. Neither man left letters or diaries; nor did they conduct many interviews, even the loquacious, hard-partying Nucky Johnson. And no around them was ever willing—or allowed—to talk at any length. Many secrets lie silent in many graves.

Even so, American Dictators is readable and interesting, even if you’re not from the wilds of urban New Jersey. Students of American political history and the intersection of crime and politics will find it particularly interesting—as will viewers of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which all but fictionalizes Nucky Johnson right out of history (and is also a show that I have given up on—ask and we’ll discuss, here or on Facebook.)


Of the two, author Hart seems most fascinated with Frank Hague. Hague ruled over Jersey City, New Jersey, which, in those days, was a gritty factory town across the Hudson River from Manhattan (and is now a major financial center known as “Wall Street West”).

Hague was born in 1876 in the city’s poor and rowdy Irish-American “Horseshoe” neighborhood, a Republican-gerrymandered district. He ran with street gangs before becoming a fairly successful fight manager. In 1896, he was persuaded to run for constable of Jersey City as a Democrat.

Two years later, he was elected deputy sheriff. A contempt-of-court charge later stripped him of his badge, but his very public loyalty in committing perjury for a friend in another court matter made him an extremely popular figure with the Horseshoe’s poor and working-class Irish voters. Ethnic and neighborhood loyalty worked as a higher form of ethics in these circumstances, right or wrong.

As he rose, Hague became an able opportunist, making and breaking alliances, hopping political fences, a leopard that changed his spots with ease. He first developed a genuine reputation as a serious reformer, winning the favor of both progressive and religious groups in successful battles against prostitution and the drug trade. He was finally appointed mayor of Jersey City in 1917. (The city was run under the commission form of government at the time.)

Once Hague became mayor, though, reform was kicked to the gutter, especially once Prohibition rolled out in 1920. Whatever his reputation for reform, he quickly forgot it. The one-time champion of labor unions became their enemy, for example. He amassed an illegal fortune, wielded absolute power, and stretched his influence throughout state government and onto the national scene, even creating headaches for fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Mayor Hague ruled Jersey City for thirty straight years, winning rigged election after rigged election until 1947. He was a paradox: a crude, hard-nosed teetotaler. Dominated by his mother, shy around women, his lips never touched liquor though he fully tolerated bootlegging and gambling, so long as he received his cut of the action, a private “tax,” often collected through a secret drawer built into his city hall desk.

“I am the law!” he famously bellowed when challenged. Indeed, this otherwise bashful figure laid the law down like a trowel for most of his reign. He used Jersey City police as his own S.S. He branded all opponents as communist inspired and subjected them to brutal public assault. He passed laws limiting dissent, which were enforced even after they were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was truly an American dictator.

But as Frank Hague grew older, so did his Irish constituency. As they passed away, their children moved out to the suburbs and the new emigrants filling the vacuum left behind had no interest in him or his bully culture. Finally, his corrupt kingdom passed into new hands and he faded away. 


Nucky Johnson, the boss of Atlantic City, king of the Boardwalk Empire, was of brighter tinsel than dour abstemious Frank Hague. A Republican, Johnson’s only elected offices were sheriff and county treasurer. Once he was appointed treasurer he refused to run again, declaring that elections were beneath the dignity of a machine boss—a king should never have to trowel for votes, like a clam digger. And anyway, serving as chairman of the County Republican Party proved much more lucrative.

Hague had a long climb up his ladder. Nucky was luckier. The son of county sheriff whose jurisdiction included Atlantic City, he was born near the top rungs. Atlantic City was a resort city, a refuge of pleasure, from the first brick laid. Once Nucky got ahold of the purse strings, he tore a piece off every dollar that passed through the city coffers. He also became the resort’s number-one vacationer, never rising before six p.m., never going to bed before six a.m.

Nucky Johnson looked like a mild-mannered banker, but he mixed business with pleasure as adeptly as a bartender mixing a powerhouse martini, squiring showgirls on one arm, collecting bribes and payoffs with the other as he painted the town fifty shades of red. He became the affable but utterly corrupt ambassador of Atlantic City, a gangland Babbitt, passing out favors for everyone, including the city’s large black population. As long as the money rolled in for everyone, few minded Nucky’s corruption.

Somewhat to his credit, Johnson kept a relative peace during his reign, a peace that was especially appreciated during the blood-soaked Prohibition years, as New York and Chicago blazed with mind-boggling gang violence.

In fact, Atlantic City became a DMZ for gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to get away from gunplay. It was so peaceful, that Johnson himself played host, in 1929, to what some crime historians call the first national convention of organized crime figures (which led to the establishment of the modern American Mafia in the early 1930s).

The details of the meetings will remain forever speculative—though damn it, wouldn’t we all love to be a fly on that wall—but Nucky was in his element then—drinks on the house for everyone.

Astute as Nucky Johnson was, though, he didn’t have Hague’s attention to detail, ruthless backing, and tough guy’s ability to hang on to power, no matter what. He fell in part due to the weight of his own gluttonous appetites.

As has happened with many crooks, Johnson’s reported modest taxable income failed to tally with his opulent lifestyle. This, of course, drew the eye of the Feds. By 1941, he was off to the pen, convicted of tax evasion. He returned to Atlantic City in 1945 to find his city in the hands of a new boss. He lived out his life as a ghost in a fading city, a place that he made shine more than any other individual. (Atlantic City’s decline is best captured in Louis Malle’s and John Guare’s superb film, Atlantic City, with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon; Nucky even rates a mention there. Boardwalk Empire, for all its violent flamboyance, does him little justice, exchanging his reality as an adept showboating juggler of power for Tony Soprano light.)

Hart’s book ends with some interesting conclusions, among them, that though undemocratic and ruthless, urban bosses also often set a place at the table for ethnic minorities who had otherwise been kept from influence and power by the majority. (There were also other “bosses” who were less ruthless and corrupt than Johnson and Hague.)

 “Machines” as Hart describes them, are still with us. All city governments work like machines and can work no other way.

It takes a lot of organization to coordinate and run a small land area containing thousands of millions of people, a task the old bosses were good at (though often for the wrong reasons). Only governments have the chops to run towns and cities, not capitalist corporations whose interests are narrow and short-term (and who depend on the government for their business much more than any Randian libertarian wants you to know).

It’s not too much though, to ask that these machines are run with more transparency, by individuals who achieve their power in a democratic manner and who act accordance with the broad interests of the citizens. Mayors and their ilk needn’t—and shouldn’t—be saints. But they have to be better than the likes of Hague and Johnson.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield recently finished his novel Butchertown, a 1920s shoot-'em-up. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Four Grim Days and Ever Afterwards


Though unreliable, patchy, faded and embossed, some of my memories of that November Friday and the following weekend remain keen as sunlight glinting off an icy pond, even if they’re not particularly unique among my age group, race, or class.

I was nine years old, a fourth grader at George Washington Elementary School, situated about halfway between the village of Mohegan Lake and our house on Red Mill Road, Westchester County, New York.

I was returning from lunch at the school cafeteria through the crowded hallway and sensed some sort of excitement. Some other kid cried out, maybe a sentence with the word “shot” in it.

I arrived back in my fourth grade class. My peers were in an uproar. I asked what was going on. A classmate named Stephen Grabiner, turned to me, his mouth gaping, his eyes wide:

“President Kennedy was shot fifteen minutes ago!”

I don’t recall how I reacted to this news.

The seats in our class of around twenty students were arranged in a square, with two desks in the middle, occupied, I think, by a rotating cast of miscreants, the equivalent of sitting in the corner.

The day’s lessons were stopped as we sat at our desks (mine was in front of the window, facing into the room.) A radio broadcast was piped in over the PA system.

I remember two moments: When the announcer stated that weapon appeared to have been a high-powered rifle, the girls seated directly across from me shrieked and jumped in their seats.

Then finally, there came a brief silence and the announcer, his voice collapsing, said simply, “He’s dead.”

After that, there’s a blank until the three-thirty bell clanged to send us home and we all jumped from our desks chattering excitedly. Our teacher, Mrs. Kaplan, admonished us to quiet down, that “a famous man has just been killed today.”

As I sat on the bus home, a kid in front of me yelled to another: “You know what the newspaper headlines are gonna say? ‘President Kennedy Shot in the Head!’”

The bus driver yelled at him to shut up. Maybe I would have been better off walking home. It wasn’t that far.

My father was long gone, my mother was working late at the Peekskill Public Library, and so I was home alone with the TV for the rest of the afternoon. Around dusk, my oldest brother Chris stormed through the kitchen door.

I stood in the doorway to the den and innocently asked “What do you think?”

“It’s disgusting!” he shouted in the way only Burchfield men could yell.

The Peekskill Evening Star headline that evening read “President Kennedy Shot in Dallas,” with no mention of his being dead. When I read it, I may have felt some childlike hope that he hadn’t died after all, that the president would be alright and we and the world would go on pretty much as before. Kids are right to prize stability in the world around them.

I believe I spent most of the weekend in front of the TV. I was a thoroughly TV kid then. I don’t recall that I felt particularly unhappy that all the stations—even the three independent stations from the City—were providing complete coverage of the event.

If I needed to escape, I could have gone outside, because we lived in a wonderful place. I likely did. The Fall was always beautiful, the light both sharp and poignant, the air crisp and cold, the leaves skittering about.

I know I was watching the moment Ruby leapt in to shoot Oswald. As Monday came my mother, seeing me sitting there watching the funeral, remarked, “I’m sorry there’s nothing else on for you to watch.” I don’t think it a callous statement, just perhaps an expression of concern I was seeing too much of the outside world’s evil too soon and at once, relentlessly. And though I may have sighed, I think I sensed there were much more compelling concerns here than some Abbott and Costello movie.

The weeks following actually seem a little heady as I remember. Everyone at school decided Kennedy was their favorite president, including me—the greatest. But my mother fairly pointed out that he hadn’t really been in office long enough to make that kind judgment.


For some years after, I was fascinated as many were by the assassination and its aftermath. The last book I read cover to cover on Kennedy’s murder was Death of a President by William Manchester.

Looking over the thicket of conspiracy theories that have covered the landscape like kudzu since then, it seems many of them involve so many conspirators, that it’s equally unbelievable that no one blabbed as people naturally do. John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts weren’t a zillionth of a percent as lucky as the various elaborate cabals that supposedly murdered JFK.

“Norman Mailer wrote a whole big long book about Oswald and he doesn’t think the CIA killed Kennedy,” I once pointed out to one seething conspiracist. “Norman Mailer,” I calmly repeated.

“Norman Mailer” she declared sneering at my pathetic ignorance. “Bought and paid for by the CIA!” Mailer's was the last name on her long list of people bought and paid for by the CIA.

I guess I’m on her list too. (Hey! Where’s my payoff!? See how incompetent the CIA is!? I keep my mouth shut for fifty years and they can’t even cut me a check!).

I’ve always resented the insinuation that because I accept that Kennedy was murdered by a lone gunman, I am, therefore, complicit in his murder, putting me in the same moral world as Holocaust deniers. My antipathy for crackpots and true believers grows and deepens every year.

For a while, though, I did pay the Mafia-centric scenario some attention—they definitely had strong motives, especially Carlos Marcello, the name most often mentioned. But in the end, as high-ranking Mafioso Jimmy Frattiano pointed out in his autobiography, they would have been “too chickenshit” to pull off such a crime.

And if the U.S. Government did have enough suspicion that Marcello or any Mafioso did kill the President, the killers would have been wiped off the face of the earth by hook or by crook—we call it “extraordinary rendition” now--and no one would have shed a tear for them.

Whatever holes remain—and there are holes as this lumpy article by Ron Rosenbaum clumsily explains, if you’re patient—I am satisfied that Oswald acted alone and Jack Ruby was of the same stripe as he—two fools looking for glory in murder. Sometimes the devil is a loser carrying a mail-order rifle. He doesn’t have to be an evil genius.

So, I’d like to get on with history. There’s still good in the world and lots to do, big things and small.


Fifty years later, politicians are no longer heroes to me. They’re men and women of varying degrees of outlook, intelligence, skill—not to mention corruptibility--to whom we give power and responsibility to make certain things happen—often vital and crucial things—and keep other things from happening.

Not that I hate and despise them as a class out of Mencken-like nihilism (though I laugh at them a lot). They need to be both kept in perspective and held to their responsibilities. I sometimes think, like Vladimir Nabokov, that the best monument for a politician would be the size of a postage stamp.

As I grew up and read more widely and deeply, John F. Kennedy started looking smaller to me, especially next to other longer-serving, more effective politicians (such as FDR and even Lyndon Johnson). It appears, as a committed anti-communist Cold Warrior, that Kennedy hadn’t yet made up his mind what do about Vietnam—pulling out may have been a politically unpalatable action and we were already very deeply committed there, no thanks in small part to him.

Kennedy may well have lost the 1964 election for a variety of reasons, including his very frail health. At that point would we have had Nelson Rockefeller or Barry Goldwater in the White House? Would Kennedy have been as effective in getting his civil rights legislation through as Lyndon Johnson was (a more-respected figure in civil rights circles, from my understanding)?

Kennedy’s presidency may not have had quite the direct impact people like to think, but his image, his aura did. He was undeniably charismatic, handsome, and intelligent, if not always capable. He had the charisma of a movie star on the level of Cary Grant and it’s hard to think of a U.S. President before that time like him (In that sense, Ronald Reagan is definitely a successor, as is Barack Obama.)

But charisma can be dangerous (see, Hitler, Adolf et al) and, even at its best, a leader can ride only so far on its magic carpet. And John F. Kennedy was quite far from the great liberal hope who would bring lasting peace and justice to the world.


Many younger visitors to this space may feel baffled and impatient at the attention given this weekend to a fifty-year old event, but believe me, for many of us who were alive then, some of how the world is now grew from that moment in Dallas, for much better, say in the way Kennedy’s image (apart from his reality) galvanized some to strive to make the world a better place. However, it also made the world much worse.

For me, personally, I may have been getting another taste of how human beings could be very dangerous, with agendas that often made no sense to me or the world, no matter what sense it made to them. John Kennedy’s murder was another of those increasing moments when the illusory bubble surrounding me broke, and the chaos of the human world rushed at me. I was learning to be wary as I slowly grew up and into the world.

As one poet warned, there are a lot of bastards out there. Put another way, by an even greater teacher, we are sent to wander among wolves and so need to be wise like serpents. But also, somehow, we’re also called to be as gentle as lambs.

This is a balancing act. The actions of one, even the smallest among us, can turn the world upside down, and bloody. As 9/11 also proved, we always have to keep an eye over our shoulders and up around the next bend, for our individual selves and for each other, as we pray the devils from wherever they hide, high and low, find none of us.

(re-edited 11/23/13 and 12/5/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Now Playing in Your Living Room: Dracula, the Series

It’s no surprise that we at Castle Burchfield would watch the opening episode of the new Dracula miniseries, broadcast on NBC on Friday nights. Since then  though, I have failed to take a second look. Not much surprise there either.

Dracula the series is definitely a lavish, eye-filling concoction. The producers chose to set this one during the time of Stoker’s novel, the opulent peak of the Victorian era. The first hour resembles the perfect coffee table book—with accompanying slides and viewfinder--you might buy for a history buff relative. Lovers of Victorian bric-a-brac will sigh. To the eyes, this Dracula is gorgeous.

Dracula fans, though, may find the rest to be pretty thin-blooded. Oodles of changes have been made to Stoker’s narrative; nothing wrong with that, but the changes, while interesting to ponder, turn out rather uninteresting in practice. Some of them play to woo-woo Twilight fans. Others are willful and arbitrary rather than thought through.

Among the most significant is that Van Helsing the Vampire Hunter is now Van Helsing the Vampire’s Ally (played by Thomas Kretschmann). It seems both he and Dracula have one epic bloody axe to grind with a secret society called The Order of the Dragon and have teamed up to destroy it. The Order is a centuries-old Hellfire Club that has evolved from wielding power with the sword of the supernatural to wielding it with the sword of Gilded Age capitalism and new technologies borne of the Industrial Revolution, such as gas and oil.

Not one to stay behind history (which he always has before), Dracula has refashioned himself—peculiarly, I have to say—as a wealthy Gilded-Age, Andrew Carnegie type American—really, what is up with that?—named Alexander Grayson.

Grayson is developing wireless electricity as a means to not only achieve the power and wealth he needs to destroy his enemies—why an American fer chrissakes?—but also to enhance his nocturnal existence, so he will no longer need rely on moonlight and candles to find his way around. His future will be a world sorely lacking in shadows, that’s for sure. Not one any serious supernatural being would care to haunt.

Jonathan Harker, meanwhile, has become a crusading investigative journalist while Mina Harker his fiancé, is an ambitious medical student, her sights set on breaking the glass ceiling into the then exclusively man-castle of professional medicine. No sign of flailing Quincy Morris, yet; or Dr. Seward.

Where Mina and Dracula are concerned, the show hearkens back to the 1990s Coppola version by making Mina the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife from 1490s Transylvania—wait a minute’s he’s an American? I guess it’s a disguise, but . . . .

Most interestingly, the series solves the Renfield Problem simply by making Renfield into the most dutiful—and clinically sane and competent--African-American butler any wealthy white American of that time could wish for. At last, Dracula has found his Jeeves.

Given its backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern science—and the powers it brings—what is Dracula, who should always have the Greater Powers of Darkness at hand—doing here in the first place? He’s never needed no stinkin’ electricity, that's for sure. Why does he need it now and what does that do his supposedly supernatural powers? To me, it diminishes them to near irrelevance. This a Dracula who embraces modernity, absurdly I think and becomes even smaller. He should be turning on the lights by simple force of will.

Stylistically Dracula is as sleek and cinematic as we could wish, but the first episode made gestures that seem merely distracting. The grand opening ball sequence features the guests dancing like stick figures to an avant-garde tarantella-like waltz as might be conjured by Ennio Morricone instead of Strauss or Tchaikovsky. Cute, but how proper Victorians could even dance to this without breaking their spines requires explanation.

We’re also treated to a slow-motion, acrobatic wired sword fight, derived from Chinese action cinema, which has devolved to an annoying tic used in movies with no real excitement in them. It’s a trick to keep that young demographic from switching over to Highlander reruns. No real thrill or urgency here at all.

Finally, there’s the star of the show, the great compelling void whose cruel whirling gravity drains the light from the whole world around, namely Dracula. The show falls short here, too. Real short. Jonathan Rhys-Meyer as Dracula is more than dourly handsome enough for Twilight fans, but he’s also a cool cipher with little power and presence. Dracula needs more than sexual allure. He needs a compelling fearsomeness that Mr. Rhys-Meyers, who tends to fade whenever he shares the screen with anyone else, lacks. Not even the wolves would heed his call.

(re-edited 11/7/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.