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2014 Summer Reading

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Summer Reading: New Jersey's Books and Authors -- American Dictators

Steven Hart details the lives of two New Jerseyans familiar to fans of "Boardwalk Empire"


While we're on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That's why we'll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We'll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

Steven Hart’s “American Dictators” tells the stories of two legendary figures in Jersey politics and corruption: Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague and Atlantic City boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. The latter, of course, has been immortalized in a fictionalized portrayal in the HBO show “Boardwalk Empire,” a show where Hague makes a few cameos as well. Hart’s book traces the beginnings of both men and the forces that led to their rises and falls. In this excerpt, we get a little background on Hague, and the notorious arena that came to be known simply as Hudson County politics.

A leader with fair organization can get away with bad government for a while, but sooner or later the people boot him out . . . Twenty-five years ago I had the gumption to see the difference between what was temporary and what was perm’nent, and I went for perm’nency. And you’ll notice I’m still here.

-- Frank Hague, 1936 interview

For Frank Hague, politics was the last and most lucrative of a series of career choices, one he pursued with notable skill and resourcefulness, embracing and discarding mentors, allies, and causes as need dictated.

For Nucky Johnson, political power was the family birthright, the legacy of a father who saw politics as the means to escape the endless work and worry of farming. If any boss can be said to have been born rather than made, it would be Nucky Johnson.

It is one of the great ironies of history that these most ruthless and venal bosses were brought to power with the unintended help of a reform-minded governor, Woodrow Wilson, and kept that power partly through some of the first great governmental reforms of the twentieth century. Each man was succeeded by a boss who would quickly equal and even exceed his predecessor’s vices, if not his virtues.

Each man’s career reflected the circumstances in which he was born and his efforts to transform and improve his city. One man’s efforts would be a guarded success. The other man’s efforts would be an almost complete failure. A separate book could be written about the ways New Jersey has been shaped and warped by railroad interests. Entire towns began their existence as real estate ventures by railroad executives or as means to capitalize on revenues from train stations; communities dwindled or thrived depending on the location of rail lines. And wherever the actual railway lines led, the lines of political power all flowed into Trenton and the state legislature.

At the start of the twentieth century, the cabinet of Republican governor Foster MacGowan Voorhees was a veritable Who’s Who of railway men. His attorney general, Robert H. McCarter, was counsel for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad and the Lehigh Valley Railroad. His state comptroller, J. Willard Morgan, was also president of the Camden, Gloucester, and Woodbury Railway Company. Even the chief justice of the state supreme court, William S. Gunmere, was counsel to the Pennsylvania Railroad prior to his appointment in 1895. This studied indifference to any real distinction between government and big business led muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens to decry New Jersey as “a traitor state,” at least in the eyes of anyone hoping to clean up politics.

The grip of railroad interests on state government was such that municipalities received a bare pittance in property tax payments from the companies that reaped immense profits from the use of their land. Jersey City, which served as the terminus for nine separate railway lines, was a textbook example of railroad exploitation. Most of its waterfront was owned by railroads, which increased the size of their holdings by landfilling with garbage to create ferry slips; most of its streets were blocked at one point or another by lines of rail cars waiting to offload cargo or passengers. The Pennsylvania Railroad even blasted a canyon through the traprock of Bergen Hill, right through the center of the city, to upgrade its passenger service. Railroad influence in Trenton ensured that Jersey City realized little if any monetary benefit. Jersey City’s utilities also enjoyed an exceptionally low tax rate, thanks to the state legislature.

Nor did the interference end there. If Jersey City’s location rendered it vulnerable to railroad exploitation, its population density and history of delivering large pluralities to Democratic candidates made it the target of partisan “ripper” legislation whenever Republicans gained control of the statehouse in the late nineteenth century. One of the most thorough attacks took place in 1871, when the GOP summarily ousted the entire Democratic city government and replaced it with a swarm of local boards, each with members handpicked by GOP partisans. For good measure they gerrymandered the city’s political map as well, concentrating the mostly immigrant, mostly Catholic voters into the Second Ward, the residents of which referred to it as “the Horseshoe” or simply “the ’Shoe.” Frank Hague was born five years later in what was intended as an isolation ward but became an incubator for the state GOP’s most resourceful and long-lived antagonist -- another example of how prejudice often creates the very thing it fears.

Class expressed itself in Jersey City’s geography. The better-off residents -- mostly Protestant, mostly Republican, mostly scornful of the immigrant classes -- lived in the “hill wards” on the long spine of rock that ran the length of the city. Anti-Irish prejudice was rampant. Political cartoonists like the sainted Thomas Nast often depicted Irish citizens with simian features, and the list of complaints made about them -- chiefly that they were too dissolute, too ungovernable, and too culturally alien to assimilate into American society -- will have a familiar ring to anyone tracking the immigration controversies of the early twenty-first century.

The Horseshoe was a slum district with some forty saloons and a roughneck approach to politics that condoned fistfights, physical intimidation of rivals, and stolen ballot boxes on election days. One particularly blighted stretch was nicknamed the Lava Bed because dried effluent from the nearby Colgate soap factory, combined with the lights from cooking fires, gave it the appearance of an old lava flow. Horseshoe teenagers in search of amusement would head to nearby Hamilton Square to scrap with the “lace curtain” Irish.

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