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.