Prohibition took it on the chin, especially in Atlantic City
ATLANTIC CITY — We had beaten back the Hun and restored order to the chaos that was Europe. Now it was time to set our domestic path on the straight and narrow.
In the wake of World War I, the strident voices of morality came center stage. They sought to KO the sport of boxing, with its unseemly violence and shady cast of characters. They wanted gambling and mankind’s other simple vices sealed and out of sight. And Demon Rum, they insisted, had to be exorcized.
They got their biggest wish. In 1919, the states ratified the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating alcoholic beverages. Congress passed the Volstead Act (named for its sponsor, Minnesota Congressman Andrew J. Volstead), which defined “intoxicating” and established penalties, and on January 17, 1920, Prohibition went into effect. Bogeyman Booze was illegal.
Now let them try to enforce it.
They never could, not really. In Atlantic City, the ban was a boon. The Amendment went out with the next tide.
“While other cities had speakeasies and private clubs, the sale of alcohol in the resort continued as usual in taverns, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs,” writes author Nelson Johnson in his definitive Atlantic City political history Boardwalk Empire.“You could buy liquor in drugstores, the corner grocery, and the local farmer’s market.”
“They [civic leaders] ignored it and didn’t document that they were ignoring it,” wrote another observer.
The principal local beneficiary of Prohibition was town boss Nucky Johnson, whose day job was Atlantic County Treasurer, and who knew just how to spread the wealth. “During the Prohibition era, Johnson’s illegal income from bootleggers . . . was enormous,” investigators concluded in “The Case of Enoch L. Johnson, 1943,” prepared jointly by the Treasury Department and the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.
The twists and turns of the Absecon Island coastline provided a receptive harbor for the delivery of liquor, as speedboats raced to cases of whiskey waiting on anchored ships, then spirited them away from the occasionally pursuing Coast Guard to an assortment of unloading sites. Nucky made it worthwhile for law enforcement, city officials in general, and many an otherwise public-minded citizen to assist the process or look the other way. Boat slips were rented unwittingly or intentionally to smugglers, while boat builders souped up the vessels of good guys and bad guys alike. (And just who was who?)
On occasions when the Coast Guard did snare the rumrunners, the case often fell apart in court, where Nucky’s tentacles also extended. One time, the county prosecutor even turned the tables, arresting a Coast Guard crew for firing on the fleeing smugglers, who he characterized as committing a mere misdemeanor.
Federal Revenue Agents did make an effort, intermittently raiding booze-dispensing establishments and arresting county detectives in on the action. In one colorful incident, the seashore Eliot Nesses hauled in a local parson and two vice detectives for trying to relieve a café of its spirits.
But the gulf between arrest and incarceration was as wide as the Grand Canyon. The Feds were no match for Nucky’s Atlantic City.
Meanwhile, progressives and evangelicals joined hands to slay alcohol, battling for citizens’ souls and bodies, too — they sponsored studies that linked disease with tippling. But in Atlantic City, which had long dodged Sunday Blue Laws, their pleas fell on deaf ears and parched throats.
The resort’s ultra-wet profile made it the country’s top destination for personal and professional rendezvous. Convention Hall — the original behemoth — rose along the Boardwalk in 1929, and florists, fiddlers, and faucet salesmen flocked to Atlantic City to convene and imbibe. Nucky’s coffers overflowed.
Few among us have ever experienced the kind of prolonged capacity for high adventure that might make the backdrop for a good book, and probably fewer of those who did could be creatively adept enough to write such a book. Bill Schweigart, a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate who served five years in the USCG, achieving the rank of lieutenant, is one who can say he has done both.
By the summer of 1912, Atlantic City had established itself as a premier vacation resort. Its sun, surf and Boardwalk, along with adult offerings of alcohol, gambling and prostitution, could satisfy a variety of appetites.
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“This became the major way station for liquor during Prohibition,” says Lisa Kennard, one of the Inn’s owners since April. “They’d bring it up the intracoastal, have dinner, play cards, have a few drinks, do their thing with the women, and at night they’d load the liquor into small canoes and ship it up the back bays into Atlantic City.”
Esteemed filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick explore America’s greatest social experiment in their latest documentary, Prohibition, set to debut Oct. 2-4 at 8pm on PBS. The three-part miniseries follows the rise and fall of the 18th amendment and the era that encompassed its rule.
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