1929 Organized Crime Convention – Boardwalk Journal 10/2010
Atlantic City has been known as a convention town for a long time, but the most significant convention in the city didn’t meet at Convention Hall.
The May 1929 meeting of organized crime bosses in Atlantic City may have been the most important ever held. Atlantic City was considered a “wide open” town at the time, a place where gangsters could meet to make private–if sometimes illegal–investments and for sit-down mob meetings. This was during Prohibition, and the most lucrative business of that era was the importation of smuggled liquor.
Abner “Longie” Zwillman of North Jersey controlled most of the bootleg market. Cases of booze from the Caribbean and Canada were transferred at sea from mother ships to small speedboats. The speedboats put into the Atlantic City inlet at Rum Point, at Sugar Hill on the Egg Harbor River, or in Strathmere, just south of Ocean City. Once brought ashore, the booze was put on waiting trucks and transported through the rest of the country.
The Kefauver Committee later estimated that Zwillman’s outfit had a 65 percent market share of all illegal booze in North America.
There were also illegal casinos in Atlantic City in 1929, all operating openly. Confidence men like Charlie Gondorff (of The Sting fame) were allowed to run con games, as long as long as they only hit on marks from out of town. Between the booze, gambling, the Boardwalk and beach, it didn’t even seem like there was a Depression going on.
Either Jews or Quakers owned all the first class hotels of the time, and each served their own clientele. This came into play when Alphonese “Scarface” Capone stepped off a train in May 1929 and took a cab to one of Atlantic City’s classier hotels. Capone got a smile from Frank Nitti, Murry Humphries, Jake Guzik and Frank Rio when he signed a fictitious name to the register, but the joke turned sour when a naive desk clerk looked at the name and politely informed Capone, “I’m sorry, sir, but this hotel doesn’t serve those of your persuasion. May I suggest you try the hotel just down the street?”
Atlantic City was probably the only place in America where “Scarface” Al Capone could mingle with the masses and go unrecognized. He had a friend in Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the man who ran Atlantic City at the time. Capone was in Atlantic City to meet with Meyer Lansky and other mob bosses. They had come to Atlantic City because Nucky Johnson had assured them that they wouldn’t be subjected to the kind of police hassles that the Sicilian mafia guys had been subjected to in Cleveland a few weeks earlier.
Although Nucky Johnson couldn’t protect Capone from ethnic embarrassment at a hotel desk, he had tight control over all facets of the city’s operations. Known gangsters from out of town didn’t have to worry about being picked up for questioning unless they robbed a bank or made a scene. But Capone made a scene. When the hotel clerk told him that he couldn’t check in because the name he’d signed was of the wrong ethnic persuasion, Capone’s famous temper flared. After his burst of obscenities and the trashing of some lobby furniture, Nucky Johnson learned that Al Capone was in town.
Capone and his entourage were heading south on Pacific Avenue when Johnson’s convoy of black limos intercepted them. They met in the middle of the street and blocked traffic. Capone emerged from his cab, cigar in hand, and gave Nucky an obscenity- laced public verbal lashing.
Always the gracious host, Johnson appeased him. The men hugged and adjourned to the back of Nucky’s limo. Johnson and Capone were later seen strolling down the world-famous Boardwalk. They had dinner in the Italian “Ducktown” neighborhood….