‘Boardwalk Empire’ Author Discusses New Book

The new book Battleground NJ: Vanderbilt, Hague, and Their Fight for Justice discusses how New Jersey’s court system was transformed from a chaotic system into what we recognize today. It chronicles what happened between Arthur T. Vanderbilt, the first chief justice of the state’s modern-era Supreme Court, and Frank Hauge, a mayor of Jersey City. Author Nelson Johnson, who also wrote Boardwalk Empire, discussed the book details with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Johnson said that Arthur T. Vanderbilt was not a scion of a wealthy family, he was like a distant cousin who had very humble beginnings. He said that Vanderbilt rose to the top of his profession very quickly and became very wealthy and had an international law practice. He said that Frank Hauge was born and raised in the horseshoes section of Jersey City, which was an infamous place because it was a gerrymandered district where people tried to keep the Irish in one place. He said that backfired on those trying to suppress the Irish because they became a force and Hauge become the leader of that force. He said that Hauge’s whole career was about revenge and payback on what people had done to the Irish Catholics. He said that Vanderbilt saw a very corrupt court system and was determined to change it. By that time, Hauge controlled that court system and didn’t want to see anything changed, said Johnson.

Johnson said that the more egregious offense inside the court system was the corruption because people could buy a judge’s verdict. He said on a more mundane level, the biggest problem was that there were 17 different courts so it was an un-unified court system. He said the 17 courts had 17 different sets of rules, overlapping jurisdiction and there were situations where someone could sue someone in one court and that person could sue them in another court, causing chaos. He said that was solved in the 1947 Constitution. From 1776 when the first Constitution was adopted with no separation of powers until 1844 when minor changes were made, on up to 1947 there was a pretty primitive system in terms of the court system, said Johnson.

When asked about the types of corruption in the courts, Johnson said, “Judges were permitted to run for political office. In fact, some of the judges had to run for office in order to hold their office. They had to be elected. They ran campaigns and they had staff. They stopped judging and let the staff do the judging for them.”

The 1937 New Jersey gubernatorial election was the most notorious in United States history, said Johnson. He said that is because Hauge sold the election in plain site and no one could do anything about it. He said that 20 of 21 counties reported Republican candidate Lester Clee having a lead of 80,000 votes. But then Hudson County reported that Harry Moore, Hauge’s puppet, had won Hudson County by more than 130,000 votes and the result was that the Democrat had won and not the Republican. He said that Republicans did everything that they could in the courts, but the judges were people that Hauge had appointed and grew up in the Hudson County, Jersey City system, so it was fixed from the beginning. Johnson said that is what infuriated Vanderbilt and determined him to change the system.

Johnson said that Vanderbilt changed the system in a lot of ways. He said, “In doing my research, I learned that he [Vanderbilt] had engaged in a surreptitious undertaking that still kind of boggles my mind. In 1937, he became enraged with what had happened and working towards how to undo Hauge. He collaborated beginning in 1939 and 1940 with a professor from Dartmouth, Dayton David McKean. A book was published in 1940 called The Boss: the Hauge Machine in Action. The book was distributed all across the nation, reviewed by hundreds of newspapers and really began whittling down Hauge’s image because it really showed how corrupt his organization was.”

Johnson said, “What no one knew until I went through Vanderbilt’s personal files was that Vanderbilt co-authored the book. Vanderbilt rewrote portions of the book. Vanderbilt did all the research for the book. So Vanderbilt got his revenge. It was grossly exaggerated in portions, various facts were cherry-picked, various important facts were overlooked and it was really a hatchet job. It was a political assassination. Vanderbilt did it, I think, because of his hatred for Hauge.”

When asked what that period of New Jersey history told him about the nature of reform in New Jersey and the country, Johnson said that reform is very difficult to achieve because the status quo exists because people benefit from it. He said that if one is going to bring about reform, that person is going to have to work at it, runs the risk of changing in the process and most importantly when at the finish line, needs to be prepared to compromise. Vanderbilt was not prepared to compromise and he was gently pushed to the side by Alfred Driscoll, who was elected governor in 1946. He said that Driscoll sat down with the Hauge organization and Driscoll made the deal that needed to be made.

“Nothing great can be achieved unless you are prepared to compromise. Nothing great can be achieved, especially when you are talking about trying to reform an institution. You must be prepared to compromise. You’re never going to get everything you want out of the box. If you are not willing to talk to the other side, nothing good can come of it. You have to talk to the other side,” said Johnson.

Johnson said that Driscoll is a serious role model for any political leader who wants to bring about change. He said that political leaders need to be able to sit down and talk to the devil. He said that Hauge was the devil in New Jersey politics.

Hauge and Vanderbilt never actually met. Hauge looked at Vanderbilt as a blue-blood, crank of a lawyer who was just a nuisance to him and Vanderbilt looked at Hauge as an uneducated, corrupt person who was extorting many millions of dollars, said Johnson. He said that as Vanderbilt grew more and more frustrated and unable to achieve his goal, his hatred increased. He said that he read some of the letters that Vanderbilt wrote concerning Hauge and he hated the man strongly.

“The most important thing for me in terms of the rule of law is that people need to know that when they take their problem to the courthouse, that it is going to be treated fairly and that someone is going to preside over the preceding independently and fair-minded. When you have doubt about that, then you have a big problem. Politicians come and go but people need to know that the court is sort of a sanctuary where they can take their problems and be treated fairly. If the rule of law evaporates, it’s fatal for society,” said Johnson.

Johnson also wrote Boardwalk Empire and he said there was no rule of law in Atlantic City and that was harmful to the city. He said that there is rule of law in New Jersey and the court system today is a unified court system. He said that it manages very fairly and is a role model to the rest of the nation.