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American Dictators

Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine

Steven Hart

Publication Year: 2013

One man was tongue-tied and awkward around women, in many ways a mama's boy at heart, although his reputation for thuggery was well earned. The other was a playboy, full of easy charm and ready jokes, his appetite for high living a matter of public record. One man tolerated gangsters and bootleggers as long as they paid their dues to his organization. The other was effectively a gangster himself, so crooked that he hosted a national gathering of America's most ruthless killers. One man never drank alcohol. The other, from all evidence, seldom drank anything else.

American Dictators is the dual biography of two of America’s greatest political bosses: Frank Hague and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. Packed with compelling information and written in an informal, sometimes humorous style, the book shows Hague and Johnson at the peak of their power and the strength of their political machines during the years of Prohibition and the Great Depression. Steven Hart compares how both men used their influence to benefit and punish the local citizenry, amass huge personal fortunes, and sometimes collaborate to trounce their enemies.

Similar in their ruthlessness, both men were very different in appearance and temperament. Hague, the mayor of Jersey City, intimidated presidents and wielded unchallenged power for three decades. He never drank and was happily married to his wife for decades. He also allowed gangsters to run bootlegging and illegal gambling operations as long as they paid protection money. Johnson, the political boss of Atlantic City, and the inspiration for the hit HBO series Boardwalk Empire, presided over corruption as well, but for a shorter period of time. He was notorious for his decadent lifestyle. Essentially a gangster himself, Johnson hosted the infamous Atlantic City conference that fostered the growth of organized crime.

Both Hague and Johnson shrewdly integrated otherwise disenfranchised groups into their machines and gave them a stake in political power. Yet each failed to adapt to changing demographics and circumstances. In American Dictators, Hart paints a balanced portrait of their accomplishments and their failures.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Rivergate Regionals Collection

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-4


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

In the beginning there was McKean. The Boss: The Hague Machine in Action, published in 1940 while Frank Hague was firmly in control of Hudson County, established a timeline and pulled together all the stray facts about the rise of the Boss. Dayton David McKean has been rightly knocked for the prosecutorial tone of...

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Introduction: The One Who Got Away, and T he One Who Didn't

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pp. 1-10

...organization in the completeness of its control over the society girls, and new Cadillacs?three items extremely difficult to keepEnoch, therefore, didn?t bother trying to hide his gaudy pastimes,showgirls; full of easy charm and ready jokes, he made his appetiteOne man tolerated gangsters and bootleggers as long as they paid...

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1: In the Court of the Emerald King

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pp. 11-29

For Frank Hague, politics was the last and most lucrative of a seriesof career choices, one he pursued with notable skill and resourceful-ness, embracing and discarding mentors, allies, and causes as needFor Nucky Johnson, political power was the family birthright, thelegacy of a father who saw politics as the means to escape the endless...

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2: Lines of Power

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pp. 30-52

...machines. The latter, rooted in ?the institutional life of ethnicneighborhoods?saloons, clubhouses, volunteer fire departments, ?governmental levels. Republican machines, Erie argues, functionedas adjuncts to state organizations and relied heavily on state and federal patronage rather than the local variety. ?Designed to prevent...

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3: Boom Times

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pp. 53-77

I cannot recall a national issue [Prohibition] where unadulterateddeny it and I won?t apologize for it. If the majority of the peoplebecome the law of the land, New Jersey would continue to be ?as wetas the Atlantic Ocean.? Defiance of the Volstead Act of 1919 was sucha consistent theme for Edwards that one newspaper christened his...

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4: Hard Times

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pp. 78-87

Delano Roosevelt that it?s startling to see how much resistance andeven ridicule he had to endure on the way to the Democratic presi-dential nomination in 1932. It?s even more astonishing to realize thatfor many pundits, the unlikely hero of the national convention inaround the corner, it was clear that the Democrats would easily take...

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5: Public Works

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pp. 88-104

...to work on the biggest project in its history: the conversion of thesprawling Jersey City Medical Center into a cluster of luxury con-been unused for eighteen years and would require extensive reno-vation, but the structure of each tower was more than sound. AfterProgress Administration and certain of the gratitude of Franklin...

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6: A Choice of Enemies

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pp. 105-126

...press. Every time I hear these words, I say to myself, ?That manmade in November 1937, during a speech on juvenile offenders andthe law, given at Jersey City?s Emory Methodist Episcopal Church.trouble on the streets, talked about being at a police station whentwo boys were brought in for truancy. The boys told the mayor they...

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7: Decline and Fall

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pp. 127-156

...celebration on the night of his election was the only spontaneousAs Frank Hague?s battle with the CIO started to heat up in 1936,some as ever, the Atlantic County boss had much to be thankful for.case the New York Evening Journal, owned by the immensely wealthyWilliam Randolph Hearst. Early in 1930, the Journal made Atlantic...

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Epilogue: The Machines That Didn't Stop

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pp. 157-162

It remains an article of faith in many political science departmentsDelano Roosevelt and the New Deal. This analysis was best articu-lated by two characters in Edwin O?Connor?s novel The Last Hurrah,understand what brought Skeffington down. His friend Jack boils who really put the skids under your uncle, and he did it years ago....


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pp. 163-170


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pp. 171-176


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pp. 177-182

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About the Author

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pp. 183-184

Journalist and freelance writer Steven Hart has written for the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the online magazineSalon. He has been a featured guest on National Public Radio and isa popular speaker on the topics of political bosses and corruption.His first nonfiction book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813562148
E-ISBN-10: 0813562147
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813562131

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Rivergate Regionals Collection