A real-life Boardwalk Empire

by | Nov 10, 2019 | Lisa Black, On writing | 9 comments

Nucky Johnson, in hat, next to Al Capone (3rd from right)

            In the fall of 2010 my husband and I began watching the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. My husband never passes up a show about gangsters, and I love a good period piece based on real history. The plot dealt with the action surrounding the Atlantic City treasurer, one Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), who has his velvet-gloved iron hand inside every pot in town.
Frank Russo
            Only a week earlier, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a twelve-page-long special report of federal charges brought against Frank Russo, the county auditor. Bribery, tax fraud, and every other form of corruption had been part of his makeup for decades. He provided political support to two Common Pleas judges in return for favorable rulings. He guaranteed a construction contract to a company which gifted him a $6,000 gambling junket to Las Vegas. He took bribes to engineer hiring at the sheriff’s office, to provide contracts to build a juvenile justice center and a halfway house for ex-cons, to tweak appraisals of commercial property, and to get free home improvements.
            Russo’s partner of sorts, since the early 80s, was county commissioner Jimmy Dimora. Dimora had spearheaded the city’s purchase of an EPA ‘brownfield’ lot to rehabilitate as a juvenile justice center—except that the land had only been worth $400K when Russo’s office auctioned it to a subsidiary company, who then sold it back to the city for $2.75 million. He made an equally bad deal to rehab a downtown complex for city offices; the taxpayers coughed up $40 million, but the rehab never occurred.
Jimmy Dimora
            The huge dollar amounts are too abstract for my focus; it’s the small details that catch the eye—like how a members of a suburb’s school district staff and their school board used Dimora and Russo’s contractors in return for credit cards and home improvements. Several received a TV set. One was gifted a tractor. Another drove off with the school’s mobile classroom to use as a hunting cabin, which I doubt the deer found very educational. Perhaps cash is more easily justified in one’s own mind…it’s not personal. It’s the cost of doing business. It’s the way things are done. I did a good job, I deserve a little perk. But how does one reconcile a tractor?  
             The fact is cash is often not the most common currency used in these deals. That would be jobs. To get two teaching positions for his daughters a construction manager built a retaining wall around Dimora’s pool, a decidedly less glamorous (or fungible) trade. An official of the plumber’s union winterized Dimora’s icemaker and ran a gas line to heat his pool in order to secure a promotion for his wife and summer jobs for his kids. A financial management company wanted to get on the county’s list to provide financial services to public employees. His cost? A thousand dollars in fake palm trees for each of their back yards. Their dinner parties must have been the stuff of legends.
            The list goes on and on. And on.
            The real-life Nucky Johnson (changed to Thompson in the show) handed out jobs from janitor to mayor and took them away if annoyed, as when a police officer gave his chauffer a ticket. His empire finally fell when the FBI found a copy of an illegal contract he’d failed to destroy; it paid Nucky three-fifths of the profits from a city railroad contract.
Halfway through the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, I turned to my husband and said, “Nothing has changed.”
Do you see history repeating itself in your town?

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  1. Karna Bodman

    Great piece of history, Lisa – and you are right — various forms of corruption have been going on for eons – they just seem to get more "creative" as time goes on. I know that as forensic specialist, you have testified in many trials – those experiences along with your love of historical research all seems to come together in your terrific novels.

  2. Lisa Black

    Thank you!! Although I have never yet testified in a corruption trial…that's usually left to the forensic accountants.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    John and I were staunch fans of Boardwalk Empire, too – love your descriptions of it, Lisa. Such great storytelling. Recently I've been researching a historical thriller to set in the Iowa town in which I grew up – Meyer Lansky and a host of other mafiosos large and small were in and out for 20+ years, and Lansky lived for a year in my family doctor's very nice brick home, as a rental. Even I wouldn't dare to make this stuff up! Hmmm. Now the question is what to do with it. 😊

  4. Chris Goff

    Small town corruption is rampant, but usually it doesn't amount to much in the way of dollars. For years the Carlino brothers ran bootlegging south of Denver, until both brothers were murdered in separate incidents in 1931. It was then that the Smalldone Brothers, who owned and operated Gaetano's Italian restaurant rose to power. In 1973, as a summer job after graduating from high school, I worked Central Supply at Lutheran Hospital running equipment to patient floors as needed. Pauline Smalldone, wife of Chauncey, the youngest brother, was brought into ICU with gunshot wounds from an apparent assassination attempt. The Smalldone brothers took up residence in the ICU waiting room, along with their henchmen. The first time I had to run equipment up to ICU, I was stopped and questioned, then later told by the hospital admin to simply comply. By the time Pauline was released from ICU, the Smalldone's knew me well. When I broke my arm, they all insisted on signing my cast. My mother was an executive at Channel 9, the ABC affiliate in Denver, and I'll never forget the expression on her face when I came home with the top crime families signatures on prominent display. Eventually in 1980, their power began to fade as the brothers went in and out of prison on charges of loan sharking and gambling. Odd none of them were ever charged with murder.

  5. Lisa Black

    Wow, that is a surprise–what was the mob doing in Iowa?

    I once had dinner with an older lady who, it turned out, had lived in the same apartment building as Lansky in his later years and had met him a couple of times.

  6. Lisa Black

    Wow!! The hazards of Other Duties As Assigned!! I've been in small rooms with a lot of killers but at least I always had armed police officers with me!

  7. Robin Burcell

    Wow! Too bad you don't still have that cast!

  8. Robin Burcell

    Fascinating post, Lisa! Now I'm going to have to go and watch Boardwalk Empire!

  9. Jamie Freveletti

    Such a picture of small town graft. Never saw Boardwalk Empire, but this made me want to watch!